Call it what it is: why words like “microaggression” are powerful – Part I

Part 1 – Dear Friend, we are with you

Here is something I wish I could say to every engineer struggling with an actively discouraging workplace. I write to other women, because it’s what I am most familiar with. More thoughts on who I wish I could speak to more in a later post.

Dear lady engineer,

Did anyone ever try to comfort you while you were struggling with a homework problem by saying “it’s okay, you know, it’s fine. Girls just aren’t as good as boys at science and math!”? If yes, did they also not understand why they were A. wrong (will write future post on the nuances of this statement, but I’m not just saying that he’s wrong because there’s proof) and B. rude to say that?

Have you ever had a mentor at an internship who you eventually realized did not really see you as a ‘real engineer’? Perhaps he told you one day your future husband could buy you soldering supplies so you could play with them.

Instead of teaching you something about what they’re doing, have you ever had a colleague instead tell you how they feel you should best grow your hair out?

As a professor, teacher, or teaching assistant, have you ever received great marks on your student feedback but also received comment sections (provided for students to give constructive advice) largely consisting of opinions on which outfits your students liked most on you, and how much they want to marry you? Cute, as long as they’re second graders.

Has a professor ever been lecherous to you? Staring, doing an up-down look, smiling creepily (and don’t give the benefit of the doubt here, the majority of men know when they’re being creepy), and making you so uncomfortable you have spent time and effort to not be in the same room as him?

When interviewing for a job, has anyone ever asked you when you would want to have a kid? Innocent enough question but it’s also not something they would ask of a man, nor is it any of their business.

from Sarah’s Scribbles, one of my favorite comic strips ever because she gets it

There is a word for all this, and it is extremely important that we all learn it. All of these things are microaggressions. They are comments, behaviors and actions made by other people that intentionally or unintentionally remind the recipient of their Otherness. They are the suggestion that the receiving person is somehow different and/or does not belong. I am saying we should learn this word not so that we can give a name to our frustration and go pointing fingers at people with the weight of a fancy word to throw at them (I’ve been guilty of doing this before in a fit of rage and passion, I won’t lie, but I don’t think it’s the best way to go about things), but rather so that we can know that there are others who stand with us.

I have a lady friend in my department who went through her first year of graduate school in a new place, which is hard academically, mentally, and socially (for those of you who may just be starting out, the first year is the hardest. It is so, so, so, so hard. Don’t let it discourage you, which sometimes it may anyways, but know that yes it is this hard for many many people and other than that one person who’s ridiculously, obscenely smart, everyone is just lying about it). She experienced and is still experiencing many of the things I listed above, and only recently learned there was a word for her many, many torments. I have a friend who is now in her fifth year. A while ago we went to a discussion circle with a Women in Engineering group. The guest that day was an awesome lady powerhouse engineer named Jill Tietjen who’s been around since the 70s and is still killing it – she gave us a great pep talk about all the self-sabotaging things women say to themselves and why we should believe, truly, that we can do anything. Afterwards, my friend told me in mild surprise, “I didn’t know other people felt the way I have felt,” and my brain exploded because OF COURSE WE ALL DO! Then she told me about how difficult it was to be the only international student in a lab of Americans, how hard it was that it wasn’t normal in her lab to struggle with formal paper writing, to be unable to go home to family for the holidays she had grown up celebrating, to have people make jokes around her about people with accents or foreign ‘terrorists.’ My friends and so many women I know even outside of engineering have poured themselves into work and research while fending off this growing small mountain of Otherness, all without the knowledge that they are not alone.

Engineers pride themselves on being able to be put into a box. Modular, as many good engineering things are. Plug it in or swap it out, no difference, like a black box. Impenetrable, God-playing producer of awesomeness and creation. This is crap. We are social creatures. Microaggressions are like being randomly jabbed with a needle every few days. Ouch! After a few days, you’ve let your guard down. Ouch! What the hell?! A few days later… Ouch! You begin to expect it, this maddening poke you can’t prevent. It makes you nervous, paranoid as you attempt to pre-empt any conversation  with anyone that could lead to another poke. It makes you tired, and it makes you angry you are tired because, like I said, engineers want to be able to get the job done as well or better than the next engineer. This wears you down, and anyone who says that letting it do that to you is a sign of weakness has clearly never experienced it.

It matters that we know that we are each facing microaggressions, because it is easy to think otherwise that it is our fault that people are taking jabs at us. There is a line, wiggly and warped as it may be, between knowing what we want to improve for ourselves and blaming ourselves for others’ behavior. I know I have a temper, so I know that to work towards being a more considerate and strategic person, I have to watch out that I don’t let others get a rise out of me just because it’s funny to them. But colleagues make cruel jokes about our bodies rather than our quirks, and professors and bosses casually toss blanket statements upon the nationalities, identities, and practices of groups in which we may have many friends and that is something we must change. If those comments and discriminations make us angry and lonely and we feel like no one else around us feels the same, then we wonder, “Am I taking this too seriously? Am I the crazy one for thinking this is wrong?” It’s the same voice that tells us we’re not smart enough (chances are, since you’re here and you aren’t failing despite working your hardest, you are). It’s peer pressure and the confusion of not being in Kansas anymore (or in my case, not being in a racially and socioeconomically diverse environment anymore). I’m writing to tell you that it is not your fault, that it is good to want to protect others, and there is something real that we have to protect against and one of its many faces is the microaggression. Call it what it is.

I became a known quantity in my research group because my first month I came out guns blazing and told a whole lot of people off when they made jokes about Asians, female bodies – not even women, mind you, just bodies. For example, someone cracked a joke about me giving blowjobs in the bathroom. (Notice it doesn’t even matter who I was giving said blowjob to, or why it would be me. All that mattered is that I was the girl in the room and a girl fit what was needed to crack a predictable funny.) I tell you this because I also think that going after people guns blazing is not the best or only way to help protect each other. Every time I have a quiet heart-to-heart with a fellow female engineer who says to me “I feel that way too,” every time I have a male colleague who uses his special position as a man-man-buddy-buddy-let’s-roughhouse to tease another guy for the sexist crap he just said, I feel so much stronger. So much!

So now it’s got a name. Great. How do we fix it? Fighting in the public arena means there’s pride involved – it means some people won’t back down even if they know they’re wrong. So there’s a number of things I’ve tried just on a day-to-day basis

  • You can try to pull the person aside if they’re causing you or someone else grief – write down what you want to say to them beforehand and memorize it so you don’t panic and go off-script.
  • If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, which is totally fine, find someone, the diversity program administrator at your school, a mentor, someone at a party, a friend from high school you haven’t called up in the longest time, the internet, and just tell them how you feel. You aren’t troubling them, and it’s important you know someone hears you.
  • Dude friends are great allies to have; encourage them and tell them that, if they see you or someone being attacked and don’t want to confront the aggressor, it’s still helpful for them to go up to you afterwards and say, “I’m sorry that happened, we’re not all like that.”

Fending off unwanted attention while simultaneously trying to prove that you should be taken seriously is not the norm for big white men. Problems like this aren’t easy to fix; the important problems never are. It is very hard, and everyone has their own way of dealing with it. But call it what it is. Name it so you can fight it. I want you to know that you are not alone, and we are with you.




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