Are We Becoming Too Tribal?

Like many people, I tend to keep tabs open on Twitter and Facebook while working, in spite of the thousands of advice columns on productivity that warn against it. Today, Twitter left me with a conversation that rambled into the concept that our society is becoming more tribal. Granted, this was a politically motivated conversation at the start, but it was reflected in an article I had just opened at Everyday Feminism.

The premise of the article was an offer of concrete advice for women of color who need a “pick me up” from the stress of working in a predominantly white/male office setting. Honestly, it did offer a fair amount of good advice, like specifically scheduling alone time before, during and after work. However, that advice is helpful for anyone working in a stressful environment, regardless of race or gender. The only advice offered that was specifically for women of color was a small section on addressing microaggressions in the workplace.

There is still a fair amount of debate over the validity of microaggressions, a term first coined in 1970. In context with this particular article, the primary complaint caught my attention:

It is no secret that women and people of color can experience microaggressions at work, ranging from someone inappropriately touching your hair to a male coworker belittling or ignoring your ideas.

Since I’ve actually been a “victim” of the latter, I will address that first. Even fair to middling comedy writers are well aware of a simple way to combat the concept of anyone belittling or ignoring the ideas of others. If the boss or co-worker ignores you, but doesn’t ignore someone else, why not talk to that “someone else” and ask them to offer your idea? Of course, this would require a fair amount of well-earned trust, since the second part of this exercise requires that you end up being credited with the idea. Also, it is a good idea to pay attention, and make sure that the offending co-worker is really singling you out for this treatment. It’s not a microaggression against you if the person is an ignorant sod who belittles and ignores everyone, or worse, behaves that way at first then offers everyone else’s ideas as his own later.

What really caught me was the “inappropriately touching your hair” comment. While I definitely am not in favor of suggesting that anyone is not entitled to their personal space, I can understand the concept of a white person – male or female – being curious about how a woman of color’s hair might feel. That said, yes it is inappropriate for anyone to reach out and touch someone’s hair in the office without permission, but no it’s not necessarily a microaggression if a person asks for permission to touch. It’s probably not a microaggression even if the person fumbles the interaction, and says something like “I’ve never felt the hair of someone like you.”

Unless there’s a specifically derogatory term being thrown into the mix, like the N-word, the fact is that more likely than not, the co-worker in question is probably just curious. The fact remains that even though people are supposed to be considered equal, that does not mean that people are supposed to be considered absolutely the same. Humans are innately curious, particularly about differences between them, and all of the “-isms” out there are based on fear of those differences. Celebrating our differences should also be about clearing the air, and making innocent curiosity a “racial crime” does not help.

Crying out about microaggressions because those actions make us feel bad is not acceptable, unless we also establish that the people who we consider guilty of those actions actually intended to make us feel bad. Otherwise, we are just encouraging everyone into a more tribal way of life, which will lead us to even more self-segregation than we have already seen. If we really want equality and diversity, then we need to learn how to teach each other about our differences instead of assuming that curiosity is hostility.

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