Have you come across the twenty dollar bill motivational story? It’s the one where the speaker shows the audience a twenty dollar bill and asks “If I offered you this money, would you take it?” After hearing the ‘yesses,’ they promptly crumple up the bill, throwing it on the ground and stomping on it. Pointing to the floor, they ask again, “How about now?”
The moral of the story is meant to signify that the value of the bill is not determined by how the bill is treated. It’s meant to illustrate that even if life crumples you up, throws you on the ground and stomps on you, you are not worthless; you have not lost any of your value. You are just as valuable as you were before the negative event took place.
This is a pretty surface-level explanation for the loss of power we feel at times. Our lives are at constant intersections of race, class, gender, sexuality etc. These intersections are complicated further for some by daily events that they must overcome before getting anything else done. These microaggressions gradually steal a sense of power and worth from people until they are forced to retreat and heal before returning to the task at hand. So, while microaggressions may not necessarily reduce the value of any person, they catch us off-guard and steal other parts of us – our confidence, our self-worth, our happiness.
Microaggressions are not the crumpling of a twenty dollar bill. It is the subtle statement that inquires where a person is really from. They are the constant interruptions, over and over again, that aim to steal your voice and opinions even if that wasn’t the intention. It is the constant tirade of questions about identity, ethnicity, cultural practices, genitalia, or geographical locations that very rarely arise out of curiosity and mostly derive from the systematic internalization of oppressive power structures. These microaggressions exist to assume stereotypes based on outward appearance in order to categorize people into neat, labelled boxes that succinctly describe them.
“Microaggressions may not necessarily reduce the value of any person, but they catch us off-guard and steal other parts of us – our confidence, our self-worth, our happiness.”
However, people very rarely fit into the hypothetical, categorical boxes thrust upon them. Since the year began, I have been lucky to be privy to a multitude of conversations discussing how we can reclaim the power that is stolen from us with every unnecessary, probing question or assumption. And although there does not exist a single solution to this multifaceted, political issue, there are a few things that we can all do to reduce the hurt.
1) Shut down conversations where microaggressions are discussed to be “no big deal.”
Microaggressions are small and subtle forms of discrimination; it’s like stubbing your toe on the corner of a table – the pain you feel in that moment is meaningful even if you haven’t broken your toe.
2) Call in instances of microaggressions wherever you see or hear them.
This is a lot to ask of any person. But change must begin with someone taking a stand when everyone else is glued to their seats. Start at a comfortable level and call in your friends, family members, relatives to a conversation regarding their choice of words or actions.
3) Identify instances of microaggressions in your own actions or inactions
Recognize that you may have committed microaggressions in the past and that you may still say something even if you didn’t intend to. Microaggressions are active substantiations that reflect present worldviews about what’s normal and what’s not and who gets included or excluded. Accepting our internalizations is the first to unlearning and undoing their harm.
In suggesting these things, I know I am adding and repeating the words of many writers and social activists before me. In an ideal world, we would not require constant reminders in order to bring about the smallest, sustainable social change. I am determined that even if we have to start small, we can build it up to something bigger and more substantial.