My Ass is Not a Microaggression

Due to unforeseen car trouble, I have been riding the bus all week to and from my various jobs. On the way home yesterday, I found myself a seat on the bench on the back of the bus next to a man dressed as a cowboy. I sat down in my seat, and he moved away. And then moved even further. He squashed himself next to the window so completely that I became concerned that I smelled unpleasant, or perhaps was covered in bees. My internal dialogue began thusly:

Do I smell bad? No, I always smell good and shower daily, plus I used antiperspirant/deodorant and also applied a little perfume this morning, so by now I should be a nice, mellow, average-person smell. Am I sticky? Do I have a booger hanging out of my nose? Am I breathing heavily from running for the bus? Do I look disheveled? Deranged? Dangerous? Did someone tattoo my face without my knowledge?

I eventually looked down and saw that my butt was extending past the boundaries (?) of my seat. Not a lot… but just enough that I was probably touching him when I sat down. Maybe he didn’t like to be that close to another person. Understandable. I don’t like people touching me without my permission. But isn’t there a social contract on a crowded bus? People touch people. It’s a BUS, not Business Class on a luxury airliner. Suddenly, I was flooded with feelings of inadequacy. I made him uncomfortable. I did this. I did it with my butt. It wasn’t until I got home that I remembered a response from a recent questionnaire that I did about Fat Acceptance, where I asked questions of people opposed to the movement. One of the questions I asked was, “Do you feel that others’ weight affects you directly, and if so, why?”

In certain understated ways, I actually consider the large bodies in public spaces to be “micro aggression” against people with smaller bodies. In my experience, large bodied individuals will not hesitate to let their body infringe on others’ personal space in public transit, while in a queue, or other spaces of modern urban environments. I consider these things “micro aggression” due to the unwillingness of large bodied peoples to not force their bodies on others. I am expected to move, or to get out of way in a lane even when I do not know anyone is there, I am expected to be accommodating at all times.

I hadn’t heard the term “micro-aggression” until I did the survey in question. What IS micro-aggression?

Basically, a micro-aggression is a socially acceptable put down that happens so frequently that it seems commonplace. The unifying trait of micro-aggressions is that the target is a member of a marginalized group. Ethnic minorities. Homosexuals. Religious minorities. Oh yeah, and fat people. 

The worst part of fat-centric micro-aggression is that those targeted aren’t seen as victims. Society is structured so that fat is seen as “less than” and that those targeted by such micro-aggressions are “asking for it” because they are perceived as having control of how their bodies appear.

“You look good. Have you lost weight?”

“You’re not fat! You’re curvy!”

“I feel so FAT today!”

“Ha! That mean girl from high school got fat!”

All of the above are examples of micro-aggressions, subtle put downs that seem harmless at first, but upon closer inspection show a very clear reflection of the status of fat people in modern society.

Let’s snap back to the bus ride. Maybe I AM in the Cowboy’s personal space. Why is it that I immediately feel guilty? I am trying to put him down? I am TRYING to invade his personal space because, hey, cowboys are used to cozying up to people? Does society view cowboys as flawed in some way? Is there a systemic, historical pattern of discrimination against bus cowboys? No?

Well, then don’t blame my ass.

The Slippery Slope of Quantifying Privilege

Normally, I don’t pay much attention to a pop-entertainment, pseudo-news site like Buzzfeed. This gem, however, has been popping up on my Facebook feed left and right over the last few days, with a title too irritating to resist:

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I’m already slightly annoyed by the fact that Buzzfeed quizzes exist almost solely for data mining purposes. However, at first glance this quiz seemed like it might actually be a good thing; showing people that they have privilege goes a long way to promote overall social justice. The quiz itself is essentially a checklist that sounds like the most depressing game of “I’ve Never” that’s ever been played:

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So what happened when I checked my privilege?

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“Points of privilege”? Sorry, Buzzfeed, but that is not how privilege works. Privilege isn’t a score card where you tally up all of the social injustices that have been done onto you so you can compare with others. Privilege is context-based, and having privilege in one domain does not nullify discrimination you’ve experienced elsewhere. For example, I have white privilege, cisgender privilege, first-world privilege, but I do not have male privilege, thin privilege, or Christian privilege. My privilege (or lack thereof) in one domain exists separately from any privilege I have in another domain. All of the benefits I’ve experienced from being a white person haven’t been neutralized by the shitty things that I’ve gone through for being a woman, or being fat.

What’s more troubling is how this quiz promotes the comparison of different people’s “advantages”. Quantifying privilege cheapens it, makes it seem like a much less serious issue than it is. It does not promote thoughtful discussion, and in fact it actually serves to put people at odds. Rather than looking at each kind of privilege on its own, at a level that can actually impact social change, it puts people into two categories: privileged or not privileged. The latter get to play “Ain’t it Awful” with their equally unprivileged comrades, while the former can either shrug the information off, or worse, become indignant and perhaps even resentful. How much harder, then, will it be to reach those people, and show them what privilege actually means?