Content Advisory: This post contains examples of misogyny, homophobia and the minimizing of sexual assault
There’s never enough time to explain relevant historical and sociopolitical context to people who don't get it. You shouldn't be expected to perform the emotional labour required to explain someone's impropriety when they make a stupid comment or joke, or ask a question that makes you scratch your head and say, “Really?” Or to tell them what makes their hairstyle offensive and appropriative. Yet sometimes staying silent can signal approval. When you’re not in a position to directly criticize but you also can’t let it slide, there are ways to disrupt the conversation, or micro-disruptions. Here are 3 types of micro-disruptions I’ve used.
As a generally earnest person I rarely show my sarcastic side, but I’ve found it incredibly useful recently as a form of micro-disruption.
A couple weeks ago I was sitting at the back of the the bus and overheard two teenage boys talking about a girl. “Was she a good fuck?”
“Yeah man, she was so tight!”
So I chimed in. “Charming.” Then I added, “She said sarcastically.”
So maybe not that subtle or biting for that matter, but I managed to express my disapproval with minimal risk to my safety.
I found myself wishing I had said more. I could have pointedly asked what this girl's favourite subject was, or what her goals were.
I wanted to point out in no uncertain terms that they were discussing a human being with thoughts and feelings. A personality and a backstory. A destiny that expands beyond one jerk's reduction of who she is to his sexual experience.
2) The verbal shrug
Verbal shrugs can be useful when someone makes a big deal out of something for the wrong reasons. Like when an older relative comments on an interracial couple. It’s the “So what?” that deflates offensive language or stereotypes.
You can use a verbal shrug along with a physical shrug. It’s the trojan horse of micro-disruptions. Verbal shrugs allow you to express your disagreement in a relaxed manner and give the other person space to reflect, while giving you a moment to breathe.
It minimizes the chances that the person you’re dealing with will be defensive. People's defensive instincts can hinder their ability to keep an open mind, making the task of getting through to them difficult.
I was at a family event when some preteen male cousins sitting next to me said enthusiastically, “Oh my god, that boy band is so gay. They’re probably lying about having girlfriends so they can be gay together!”
I wasn’t an authority figure and I knew they'd laugh at me if I tried to act like one. I played it cool, and shrugged. “Whatever. Even if they are interested in men, it doesn’t really affect how good or bad their music is.”
There was a long moment of reflection. Their mouths hung open. I tried to keep my face relaxed and almost disinterested as I watched them process my words. I could see the gears turning. Then they changed topics on their own. I realized I had been holding my breath, exhaled and smiled.
Had they been older, I might have said, “Sounds like a fun tour bus.”
3) The humanizing non-sequitur
This one is my favourite. Humanizing non-sequiturs are most useful when someone makes a harmful generalization about a group of people they have had little to no real contact with.
A group of peers was telling jokes, and one of them minimized sexual assault against a sex trade worker by equating it with theft instead of rape.
It's harder to joke about something when it becomes real to you. My peers saw 'prostitute' as a hypothetical concept. Something out there. They didn't see sex work as an actual profession involving people who are entitled to live with agency, free from violence.
I frowned, then looked at them. “I remember this one time, I was volunteering at a resource centre for sex workers. I made this baby spinach salad with blackberries and goat cheese and balsamic vinaigrette for lunch, and one of the clients asked where I went to culinary school. It is still the best compliment I’ve ever gotten on my cooking.” When telling the story, I let the joy of that memory fill me up. I let the fondness and appreciation show on my face. Everyone stopped laughing and looked a bit ashamed. I managed to change the conversation just by telling an honest story from my own experience.
Have you used similar tactics? Let us know in the comments below!
Katie Bell loves board games, hugs, and talking about intersectional feminism. She wrote and performed a one-woman show about depression called "You Are (Not) Dead" for Toronto Fringe in 2016, and is trying to get her other creative writing projects from the back burner to the...front burner? Most days you can find her writing for entrepreneurs who love what they do but hate writing. Words are important.