Well-meaning allies, well-intended microaggressions

Sometimes allies—those who actively support, uplift, and show up for the members of an oppressed group—make mistakes. And sometimes we say things that we intend to be complimentary or affirming, but which are actually microaggressions: instances of subtle, indirect, or unintentional discrimination. The road to hell is paved with good intentions.

“Wow—you seem so stable. I’d have never known you have depression!”

“Who cares if you destroyed your rapist’s career. He destroyed your life and future.”

“Your hair is so cool—can I touch it?”

“That trans guy is gorgeous. I’m gay, but I’d totally date him.” 

“You grow a beard better than my boyfriend can, and he’s cis!”

“Great job with your transition!  I can’t even tell you’re transgender.” 

We’ve all been there. You think you’re being nice, paying someone a compliment. But as soon as the words leave your mouth, you’re met with a wince. Then comes the uncomfortable silence and awkward body language. You can feel the tension building in the room. Your thoughts begin to race: Are they mad at me? What did I do wrong? Don’t they know I meant it as a compliment? Why are they so overly-sensitive? 

Mistakes are an inevitable part of being an ally, and allies would do well to accept this. Mistakes are inevitable because to be an ally is to be in a position of privilege, and when you’re in this position you can’t see the other person’s situation clearly. Privilege obstructs our view of the oppressed, blinding us to the violence they are experiencing. 

What happens when an ally cannot acknowledge their mistakes, or the biases underlying their microaggressions, is they end up taking out their shame or frustration on the party that they were originally trying to support. They end up getting irritated, frustrated, even angry at the other party for being “too sensitive” or “not appreciating my efforts”—instead of doing the important internal work that is checking their privilege, and seeking out and working to undo their biases.

Allyship is not about you. It’s about doing your part to interrupt the violence that you contribute to by simply existing and having privilege. It’s not about feeling good about yourself, or looking good to others, or getting into heaven. It’s about doing what you can to interrupt violence in the here and now, because it’s inhumane to sit back and watch while your fellow humans suffer.

Acknowledging your privilege is not about you, either. To be privileged is to be at an advantage simply by existing—as a white person, a cis person, a straight person, an able-bodied person, a man, etc. Your privilege is not a mark of poor character or weak intellect; it’s a value-neutral fact about the way you happen to be positioned in the world and its power dynamics. Thus acknowledging your privilege is not about receiving atonement for your wrongdoings, it’s about doing your part to dismantle the unjust systems that pre-existed you, that you didn’t choose, but which you benefit from nonetheless.

Just as you didn’t choose your privilege, you also can’t choose to forfeit it. It is forever with you, quietly consoling and benefiting you, giving you an invisible edge, while dulling your perception of the violence others experience. Which is why mistakes are inevitable: no matter how hard you work not to make them, or how good your intentions are. And even the well-intended microaggression still hurts.

The best thing you can do if—or rather when—you commit a well-intended microaggression, is seek out the bias underlying it. Analyze the bias, and trace it to its origins. See the violence at its roots, and ask yourself: Is this something I want to perpetuate?—this blind, irrational, violent striving for power over others? Name the bias. Call it what it is. Call it out. Anything less is negligence, anything more is narcissism. Then you can acknowledge your error, and genuinely commit to doing better.

Photo courtesy of GLADD.