To Be or Not to Be...
By Ciana Alessi
Although being an advocate of feminism/overall equality/a socially conscious person has its benefits (like, for example, not being an asshole), it is a ride not without turbulence. The main struggle of our fight, of course, is at the macro-level; it’s the fighting-the-man, f*** systematic oppression vibe any self-proclaimed activist loves. Being a socially conscious person in this sense involves things like attending rallies, signing petitions, potentially engaging in policy-making, etc. The other fight one has to engage with, being a social justice warrior, however, is a little bit more difficult to manage. This struggle involves casual, micro-level reinforcements of oppression, like microaggressions.
It was only within the past three years that I realized my life has been filled with (mostly racial) microaggressions. Seriously, if I had a dime for every time I’ve been told I sound white or have been asked “what are you?” it would be close to the amount the US owes black people for reparations. Microaggressions reinforce the casual racism, sexism, and ableism that has been part of mainstream media and Generation X, so while they’re definitely worth refuting, they’re often difficult to fight without seeming as though one is overreacting. After all, everyone says that! But microaggressions, albeit a super annoying problem and a clear result of stereotyping (which often stems from marginalized groups’ lack of accurate representation in media, by the way) are just one part of micro-level oppression. Just like how layered identities are integral in intersectionality, there exists a variety of popular, problematic sentiments that stem from different identities. The debris of patriarchy and racism especially liters our conversations every single day. And as advocates of equality, when dealing with micro-level oppression do we have to choose between feminist-killjoy and close-lipped activist?
I feel like I can’t be alone when I say that each time I go into work or spend an extended amount of time around groups of people, I end up having to choose between being a buzzkill and feeling like a phony. Someone will ask me (and this did happen recently), “why don’t you guys have any boy headphones?” or another person will tell me how they, “don’t understand how women are surprised they get unwanted male attention if they’re showing a lot of skin,” and I have a little cartoon, angel-devil, time-stopping moment where I must choose my words carefully. More often than not, I decide to lightly correct the person or ask a question that makes them consider that what they said was kind of problematic, but a lot of the time, people aren’t very receptive or understanding. For one, most people don’t realize, for example, that colors aren’t gendered (also, one of those pairs of “girl” headphones was clear, so I don’t know what that person was thinking) or that the idea of baby reveal parties reinforces a rigid, normative gender binary based in sexual anatomy. And secondly, especially where I live, a lot of people think intelligence = superiority complex and they get wildly offended that someone isn’t blindly agreeing with their opinion. So do I engage in a tense interaction at my minimum wage job to be Mrs. Superhero Activist Lady? Or do I just bite my tongue and smile?
The fact of the matter is, we all need to do what we can to fight oppression in the healthiest way for each of us. I believe this includes picking our battles and deciding when it’s worth using our precious breath to explain the complexities of oppression to those who are open to relearning their behavior, and when we should maybe just pretend we didn’t hear that person correctly and walk away. There’s no right way to advocate for equality in all forms, and although we’d all like to be superhero activists, we also need to maintain our sanity along the way. Sometimes that means smiling and telling someone “I don’t really think they headphones are gendered,” then having them whisper to their friend and walk away. But sometimes it won’t.