The Unseen Violence of Microaggressions

This post is taken from a submission I made to the WIIS Canada 16 Days Campaign:

16 Days 2018

When thinking about “Gender-Based Violence (GBV)” our minds conjure up many mental images of heinous and despicable acts predominantly targeted towards women across all of humanity.  Many of these actions are conducted away from the prying eyes of society and authority by the perpetrators, and are also kept hidden by the victims who feel powerless and ashamed. Yet the effects are visible, the impacts on individual people from GBV tear at their bodies, minds and souls with damage lasting lifetimes.  

But what about hurtful acts which are unnoticed because they are considered so small that they do not warrant attention.  We already acknowledge that words can be harmful, overt verbal acts can inflict psychological abuse.  Biased application of legislation and regulation can result in the denial of resources, opportunities and services.  But what if these words are not overt?  What if these words were never intended to have negative consequences because they are embedded in the common vernacular of the society?  There is actually a name for this, they are called Microaggressions.

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.

There is a responsibility on the speaker to use the right words to communicate the right message with the correct intent.  It is impossible for the recipient to extract or interpolate the missing aspects without incurring some error.  Therefore, one cannot hold the recipient responsible for misreading intent.  Each and every word that is used is important, and has power.  Its definition has to be understood in order to grasp the effect of its meaning.  One needs to watch and listen to the responses to learn how clarity affects change.

You’re likely asking what does this all mean.  Your intentions are good and you think before you speak, so what could be wrong?  Consider one of the words used multiple times throughout this Campaign…”Women”.  When we read or hear the word “woman” or “women”, are we in fact thinking the same thing?  Is it gender which comes to mind or biological sex?  Does the word woman make you think of only natal women or does it include transgender women as well?

At a recent conference I attended where some discussion was centered on diversity and integrating gender perspectives, I listened to four experienced and educated speakers whose work clearly delineated that sex and gender were separate characteristics.  Yet throughout their verbal presentations, they all interchanged “women” (gender) and “female” (sex).  While most listeners will not find issue with each occurrence as they make their own linkage, there are those such as transgender persons like myself, who have the distinct definitions make constant minor cuts into their lives where each use compounds trauma.  While logically I am aware of the speakers’ unconscious slips, internally these “mistakes” make me question whether any of their research is valid or unbiased when such a basic concept escapes them when speaking in public.  What is even more dangerous is the subconscious assessment made in the minds of those individuals who are listening to these learned speakers.  They are learning that “women” and “female” are interchangeable, and in the future they will use that knowledge and reinforce the improper linkage.

So why is this so dangerous?  Why is the distinction between “sex vs. gender” and “female vs. woman” so important?  It is because discrimination can and does occur based upon the difference between sex and gender.  While countries like Canada base rights upon one’s gender/gender identity, other nations like the United States are moving towards genetics-based (read biological sex) characteristics.  Merriam-Webster provides a commonly accepted definition of “sex” – either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions.  With this in mind, when academics, politicians and journalists use the word “female”, are they purposefully referring to reproductive capabilities or should they actually be using “woman” to refer to an individual’s gender (social) role?

Such a basic mixing of the concepts of sex and gender might be missed by the majority of the population, but for those like the transgender community where societal confusion over the two cause constant friction, every mix-up is a potential for discrimination.  These end up being the negative messages at the core of microaggressions.  Words, yes…simple words, can feel like hundreds or thousands of violent little micro-attacks when they are wielded by those in power without regard for the impact they cause.  When words such as these are used, we listen to understand if we are included or not…whether we belong.

It should be noted that this is no way challenging the definitions of sex and gender, or what constitutes being “female” or a “woman”.  As a transgender person I can accept that biologically I am not “female” as I do not have the requisite genetics or reproductive functions, however I am a “woman” as I match the socially constructed characteristics of women – such as norms, roles and relationships.

However what is being challenged is the lack of attention that has been given to using the appropriate words to convey the right message with the correct intent.  If the intent of a message is to refer to people based upon their genetic or reproductive capabilities, then the use of “female” is appropriate.  However if their ability to bear children is not relevant, then “woman” would be more fitting.  Consider whether it is more impressive that a test pilot has ovaries or that she is a test pilot while living with all that being a woman entails.

So, you too can be a catalyst to make major changes in removing the unseen violence of microaggressions, and it will not take a lot to have a major impact.  It simply requires you to consider and use the right words to communicate your intended message.

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