I complimented a black woman on her hair the other day, and my motivations were weird. I keep thinking about it, and keep being like “it’s a compliment, she was probably happy, I should just forget about it” but I can’t hide from myself. I know it was weird, and that’s why it keeps bugging me. See, I know I have the tendency to compliment natural black hairstyles – in America. (It’s worth noting that how I perceive black people in England is different from how I perceive black people in America, and I act differently accordingly.)

Oh god, I just figured out the root of my compliment, and it’s super embarrassing. So, I’m going to ease into it with an analogy.

Back in high school, I shaved off my hair, and some self-identified feminist high-school guy said to me “oh, I liked your haircut before” or something.

And, I said “I don’t care what you think,”

And he responded with “Good for you.”

Like, he was well meaning, but he still couldn’t drop the mindset that somehow his opinion *mattered*. Even after I told him I didn’t care what he thought, he felt the need to communicate his approval of me. The idea that he might be irrelevant to my decision making process was sort of incomprehensible to him.

Anyway, my compliment had a similar vibe to that. I feel the need to congratulate black people on their natural hairstyle choices because deep down, it is incomprehensible to me that they wouldn’t want my approval. This type of behavior is called a microaggression because, in a small way, I invalidated the autonomy of another human by implicitly assuming the increased validity of my own opinion. I’d actually use the word “micro-manipulation” to more accurately describe what I felt. I didn’t feel very aggressive, per se, but I did feel a bit manipulative. I mean, I guess manipulation is a form of aggression – but, if you think you ever may be on the aggro-side of this (and, most of us fall into at least one dominant “culture” of sorts – white, straight, cis, or male) I’d suggest feeling for where you’re acting a little manipulative. It probably won’t feel like anger or dislike (and, if it does, it may not be a “micro” aggression.)

I’ve been on the other side of this too, and it feels – confusing. When I started dating my now ex girlfriend, I found people would just ignore the fact that I was in a relationship. One instance was when a straight couple made up of two friends of mine suggested that one of their friends might be a good boyfriend for me, and I was like “hello, I already have a girlfriend!” Like, if I had to guess at what they were thinking, they were probably thinking “oh, wouldn’t it be fun if the four of us went out on a double date together!” But, the fact that I already had a gf was nowhere in their brains, because “woman-woman” relationships just didn’t register as a “real” relationship the same way a “man-woman” relationship would.

I don’t mean to judge them, since clearly I do this stuff too. But, in that moment I felt – lost, confused. Ignored, as if what I wanted wasn’t important. It was also really hard for me to call them out, since they are a very queer friendly couple in a lot of ways, and would have been mortified to see themselves doing this. (I did actually explain this to my friend eventually, and I think he got it.) But, it suckkkks to be the bearer of bad news. “I hate to inform you, but you act a little homophobic in sometimes.” Yeah, try telling that to your liberal friends and see how well it goes over.

Perhaps a useful guideline to start thinking about this stuff is “am I doing this to support what this person wants for themselves?” For instance, if I had a friend who recently changed her hairstyle and I was like “hey, you look great!” that’s seems fine, since I’m supporting her decision for how she wants to look. On the other hand, if I have a friend who every time her hair gets a bit longer I’m like “you look great!” right before she gets a haircut, then I’m sort of trying to manipulate her into a different hairstyle choice than the one she wants – one that makes *me* comfortable, not *her*. Not that this would all be considered a “microaggression” necessarily, but it’s a place to start looking. Also, on a larger scale, trying to support people to live the lives they want to live rather than the lives we want for them is a good step to work toward a generally less fucked up society.

2 thoughts on “Microaggressions

  1. Years ago, I was working with a teenaged girl. She said to me, “You know what? I don’t like you.” I looked at her, and said, “Tina, I don’t give a shit.” Her mouth literally fell open because she couldn’t believe that I wasn’t devastated by her not liking me. That look was so priceless. Lol. She had such a high opinion of herself, and me not caring about her, knocked her off her high horse.

  2. Like other narcissistic tendencies, this one is difficult for me to notice in the moment that it’s happening. And living in a conservative majority-white culture doesn’t help things. As such I’ve been refraining from giving compliments to anyone except people I know personally, so that I’m not able to trick myself into thinking “it’s just a compliment”. This has been working well so far — sometimes I give the acceptably distant smile-and-nod to strangers I’ve accidentally made eye-contact with, but that’s where I draw the line.

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