This week I read something that stopped me in my tracks with its unconscious bias. It hit me wrong immediately. I realized it actually was quite offensive. But ever since then I’ve been puzzling through the reasons why. Because it clearly was not meant that way.
What did I read? In this case it was a pair of 42-year-old microaggressions. What made it nag at me so much was that I wanted to be fair, combined the fact that they were not meant that way.
We’ve all heard about microaggressions and unconscious biases by this time. That is, we have unless we’re living under a rock or militantly Not Paying Attention. But unpacking exactly what counts as a microaggression – or how we can become aware of our unconscious biases (pro tip: we all have them) – isn’t clear for most of us. It all seems kinda hard to pin down.
That’s because it is hard to pin down. And that’s usually because we sense that something about it is offensive, even though it’s not meant that way.
The Origin Story for These Particular Microaggressions
The passage that made me stop and do a double-take came from Sundiver, David Brin’s first novel. That’s the one where he set up the universe for the “Uplift” series. The book dates to 1980 (Startide Rising, the sort-of sequel and the one that made the big, er, splash, didn’t come till 1983). I was reading it because I’ve been going back in time to read or re-read a lot of “vintage” science fiction lately.
Also, since I’m writing about an “uplifted” species, I thought I should refresh my memory of the novels that put that term into widespread science fictional use. I’d gotten roughly a third of the way into the book when I encountered the introduction of the character Helene DeSilva.
She’s been pre-introduced as “the best commandant a Confederacy outpost ever had.” When she first walks into the book, protagonist Jacob Demwa describes her as athletic, blonde, tall, and slender. She opens with a happy announcement in “geek-speak” about the mission. She is presented as a well-educated, capable, intelligent – even extraordinary – person. So far, so good. Brin is clearly bent on following a radical break with tradition in science fiction at that time: presenting female characters as, like, full-fledged, competent people. (You’re shocked, I know).
Insert Foot Into Mouth
Then her (male) boss introduces her this way: “this is Helene deSilva, Confederacy Commandant here on Mercury, and my right-hand man. Couldn’t get along without her.”
A little later, after Jacob learns her age and his reactions to her shift, she says, “I’ve worked too hard at becoming a woman, as well as an officer and a gentleman, to jump from ‘jail bait’ into Social Security.” She also makes it clear that, because he’s the only attractive man on the base who’s not subordinate to her, she’s interested in him sexually.
Oh, my. Where should I start? First of all, he didn’t mean it that way. (How many times have we heard have we heard that before?)
Trying to Imagine What That Would Look Like
Let me state right off the top that the purpose of this post is NOT to beat up on David Brin. I’m reasonably sure he had good intentions. In his daring first novel, which also involved many other complex scientific ideas and dramatic tasks to accomplish, the young author tried to walk what was still an extremely unfamiliar line in 1980.
Among all the other challenges, he sought to portray a woman as a confident, competent leader who was three-dimensional enough to also have “a female side.” But like many white, male science fiction writers of that period, he’d spent his life immersed in the overwhelmingly white and male world of “hard science.”
He probably had never been consciously aware of meeting a real live self-actualized professional woman of the sort he wanted to portray. Hypothetically, he thought they could exist. But he clearly wasn’t sure what such a being would “look like.”
Unpacking the Part that was Not Meant That Way
But the unconscious assumptions embedded in these lines torpedoed his best intentions. Like many early attempts to do something unfamiliar, it was – perhaps awkward is the kindest way to put it. (And yes, I’m aware of the microaggressions embedded in that comment).
Let’s first talk about the odd uses of male characterizations that we almost never hear anymore: “right-hand man” and “an officer and a gentleman.” Used as they are here, both would today be seen as microaggressions. The assumption that underpins them is that a man (implicitly understood to mean “white, male, and well-educated”) is the ultimate standard by which everything else is measured.
If you’re metaphorically a “man,” you’re being praised as “best-quality,” even if you’re biologically not a man, and therefore (by inferred definition) inferior. It’s the obverse of the assumption that gave us “run like a girl,” “throw like a girl,” “drive like a woman,” and “scream like a little girl.”
What Lurks Under the Words?
“My right-hand man. Couldn’t get along without her” sounds archaic to most of us today. That’s for good reason. Very few men these days remain unwary (or oblivious) enough to publicly refer to a powerful, competent woman as their “right-hand man.” Not if they expect to survive her wrath, that is.
I should note that the phrase “right-hand man” has a military origin. It dates to the 17th and 18th centuries. Also, it’s often equated with “my man Friday.” That one’s been in the vernacular since 1719, when Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. As you might recall, in that story Friday was an Indigenous man who acted as a servant to the shipwrecked Crusoe. A “man Friday” has been understood ever since as meaning a (racially inferior) servant or assistant. Doubly demeaning in its subtext is the appellation, “Girl Friday.”
“Couldn’t get along without her” is, if anything, even more condescending than the supposedly-flattering elevation to male status. It implies that she exists to ease his way. From there it’s a very short walk to the limiting traditional status of (and the often-unreasonable demands placed upon) a “helpmeet.”
The “an officer and a gentleman” example just piles it on higher and deeper. It again uses a phrase layered with military tradition. Also, it once again equates being superior (an officer) with being a man (which, of course, used to be literally true). And it lifts “man/gentleman/privileged being” up as the ideal thing to be.
If at this point you’re thinking those phrases really didn’t seem all that obnoxious to you, say hello to your own unconscious bias. Yes, I’m going on and on about a couple of stupid little phrases that weren’t meant to offend anyone. They were not meant that way. Just the opposite, probably. But that’s my point. These are microaggressions because while they may not be meant badly, when you open up the hood on them, they’re monstrous. They “merely” take it for granted that men are better than women. That’s all. Where could the harm possibly lie in that?
Confronting one’s unconscious bias is uncomfortable. It’s exhausting to be more mindful of the subtext that lies within the things we say. A whole bunch of the unconscious stereotyping has been baked into our understandings. So it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and defensive. Especially if people are offended, even though our words were not meant that way.
Exhaustion Happens, But it’s An Excuse with an Expiration Date
The first response of those who’ve lived their whole lives in a place of privilege, only to find it being challenged now, is often to push back. Aside from that, thinking is hard work. It’s exhausting. It takes a lifetime to build the habit of mindfulness. Worse, we’re going to get it wrong. A lot. Especially at first.
People who’ve always previously had the luxury of not having to worry about who they may offend won’t like this. It’s terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable. So much easier and simpler to attack others by complaining that they are “too woke” and unreasonably “politically correct!”
But most of the world, throughout most of history, hasn’t had such luxury. They’ve been forced to think about every word they say and everything they do in the presence of those with greater privilege. Now demographics are changing. Some population groups are growing. Census experts say the United States will lose its white majority and become a “majority minority” country by 2045. Parts of it have already gone that route. Other parts of the world are experiencing similar shifts.
Privilege Won’t Let People off the Hook Forever
The handwriting is on the wall. Currently-privileged, dominant-culture white people will become one of the minority groups in the country by mid-century. And unfortunately, contemporary trends give us little hope for a peaceful transition. It’s more likely entitled, privileged white people with power will fight any erosion of their privilege (and their license to offend others without consequences).
But microaggressions add up, and they can be stifling to the recipients. Decades-long trends tell us they’re growing less and less tolerant. Less willing to submit meekly to abuse. Given the kind of demographic shifts we face, it’s not hard to foresee more awareness about microaggressions. And that means the time will come when “it was not meant that way” will no longer be any defense.
The covers for David Brin’s novels and his bio photo all came from his website, “Worlds of David Brin.” Learn more about Sundiver here. Learn more about Startide Rising here. The covers of my (so far) three “XK9 books” about uplifted police dogs on a space station are courtesy of Weird Sisters Publishing LLC. Cover art, L-R, is ©2020 by Lucy A. Synk, and ©2019 and 2020 by Jody A. Lee.
Many thanks to the Terry Clarke Blog for the definition image for “microaggressions.” I’m doubly grateful to the New York Times and Nicole Tersigni for the wonderful glimpses into her book Men to Avoid in Art and Life. Thanks again, Bored Panda and Anne Taintor, for the “Put My Needs Last” image. Some readers may recall that I also used it in G. S. Norwood’s post “A Spotlessly Beautiful Home” last August.
I appreciate Quotemaster for the quote-image from Charleton Heston. And I deeply appreciate Mira Yang’s perspective as one who has been on the “receiving end.” Read her op-ed in The Daily Northwestern for a deeper look at her experiences.