Imagine if someone suddenly jabbed you with a pin. Not very hard, it didn’t even break the skin, but enough to still inflict a quick stab of pain.
You would probably jump. You would probably react negatively, perhaps even yell something like “dude, wtf.” Still, the whole encounter is relatively benign and other than annoyance, you will most likely not leave the situation permanently scarred in any way.
Now imagine that instead of it happening just once, it happens again and again. You will be walking down the street and someone suddenly jabs you, you have no idea who. At work around the water cooler, it might come at you from different places: your coworkers, your boss. When it is someone in authority over you, it’s dangerous to complain.
One pin jab might not do damage, but multiple over a long period of time eventually start to wear away at your skin. It might scab, it will scar. It creates a permanent sore spot that gets worse with every new jab. With every new prick it gets a little bit worse. The wound now never closes. Every new jab of the pin is more painful than the one that came before.
Whenever someone comes at your with what looks like a pin, you jump. You start to avoid crowds, to avoid to people who might have pins. You are constantly on the look-out for people who look like they’re about to prick you with a pin. You start not to trust people who have pins around them.
One day you meet someone. This person knows nothing about your history. They’ve never had to deal with being randomly stabbed with a pin. You become friends perhaps. Then one day when out and about, they find a pin. Feeling silly they poke you with it.
Imagine what happens next.
Likely your reaction is a little bit different than in the first scenario. Likely you would react with a lot more than annoyance. Your fight or flight instinct would kick in. Because that pin, small though it is, is being driven into an open wound that is constantly being irritated anew. It’s not just one pin prick, it’s a thousand.
You might explode with anger. You might break down crying. You might find yourself immediately unable to trust this person. Perhaps you find yourself unable to be around them anymore.
To other people, including the person who had unintentionally injured you more than they had intended, this seems like an extreme reaction. It was just a joke. Maybe a little annoying, but certainly not something to break a friendship over. Are you are really willing to give up a friend over something so small.
To someone who hasn’t seen you get pricked a thousand times before, it looks like you blowing up over a single incident. To someone who hasn’t felt what it is like to be pricked time and time and time again, it seems like no big deal. It’s not even that painful, they say, having no idea what it is like to have an wound made up of thousands of little pin pricks subjected to another sharp point. They have no frame of reference to understand what it feels like, and so when you try to explain why it’s worse than they think, they just can’t understand. There is the feeling that you should be able to differentiate being pricked by a friend versus a stranger. That surely the fact that it was a friend made it hurt less?
This is what microagressions feel like.
On the surface, a microagression seems like no big deal. It’s just a word. It’s just a thing people say. Just a mascot. Just a joke. Just a character. Just. Just. Just. But it’s not just one. It’s not a million justs that happen over and over again until you are left with a sensitive wound that only hurts worse with each new exposure.
It’s exhausting. It drains your energy. It makes you anxious. You feel like you always have to be on your guard. You come to resent everyone who makes you have to deal with it. When the person in question is a friend, they can actually hurt worse, because it means they didn’t care enough about your pain to make an effort to avoid it. You can maybe forgive it the first time or so, but eventually it becomes clear that this person just doesn’t care that they’re causing you pain.
Someone who causes you pain because they’re unwilling to even try to avoid it, can they really be called a friend?