Wow. Am I exhausted! Not just now, but always. Living my life means living in a perpetual state of exhaustion, punctuated by short spurts of productiveness brought to you by the makers of caffeine. It’s not just the physical and mental work I have to do to keep myself alive and in decent shape – it is dealing with and living in a society that constantly forces me to prove myself to them and which never, ever lets me let my guard down. I truly think that one of the most tiring and depressing things about living with a disability, especially a developmental disability, is dealing with micro aggressions on a day to day basis.
A micro aggression, if you didn’t know, is a subtle form of discrimination faced by oppressed groups. For example, a racist microaggression is when someone crosses the street when a person of color is walking near them. A transphobic microaggression is when a form only has two boxes, male and female, for gender. An abelist microaggression is people assuming that intelligence equals IQ, or that someone’s verbal abilities represent their actual ability to express their thoughts.
The thing about micro aggressions is that you aren’t always prepared for them. They come at you constantly, but at irregular intervals. Each one is like a punch to the gut. Each one leaves me a little bit tired. Dealing with them over and over and over, however, leaves me exhausted beyond belief.
I will give you an example. A few years ago a card game came out called ‘Cards Against Humanity’. It was a rip off of ‘Apples to Apples’, which is a fun, easy game about comparisons. I love words and I process language much better than I do other forms of media, so I love Apples to Apples. It’s easy to learn, fairly quick, and requires no strategy or skills that I don’t have. (Unlike, say, Settlers of Cataan, where you are expected to not only plan your moves but predict other’s moves.) So when my friends started playing ‘Cards Against Humanity’, I joined in, thinking it would be a fun way to spend an evening.
As it turns out, it was an exercise in ‘do I speak up or do I stay silent in the face of micro aggressions’. The game works with white and black cards. On the black card is a situation or a question with a blank in it. Each player is given a number of white cards which they submit to the person who is the dealer that round. The dealer picks the white card they think fits best. It works the same way as Apples to Apples, except that these cards, I quickly discovered, are not mean to be fun. They are meant to be mean. And they succeed.
I remember coming across the white card ‘the profoundly handicapped’. I’m the first to admit that disability is funny, but disability is only funny in a specific context in the disability community. I know many people who would fit the description, ‘profoundly handicapped’ – although the makers of the game clearly didn’t know that the term handicapped went out about 30 years ago and the term is disabled now. When I read that card, I thought of people I know – Sean, who mentored me and gave me my first political job, Missy, who never spoke a word but whose blue eyes and wild laugh fill my heart with joy, Brooke, who’s knock-knock jokes never fail to crack me up. I thought of my friends who have fought medical battles and refused DNRs, who have been knocked out by a seizure and gotten back up on the stage, who have given me support when I needed it most, driven me to the ER when I was in a crisis, texted me back in the middle of the night.
I quietly removed that card from the deck. I then went through the cards and removed a few more, ones that referenced things like dwarf-tossing. I thought of my friends who are Little People, and whose bones break so easily. My stomach twisted as I imagined them being tossed in the air, the butt of a joke.
Cards Against Humanity is an excellent example of how society normalizes micro aggressions. Because all of the cards are meant to make people laugh, people get into the mindset that no one card is worse than the other. This is not true. The basic fact is that oppressed groups do not have the social capital to defend themselves against an onslaught of micro aggressions because they are so busy dealing with bigger macro aggressions. We are trying to ensure our basic civil rights, so a card game or the off-color joke a cousin tells is simply too small to bother with.
This bothers me, because I think that small micro aggressions such as this card game, which normalizes making fun of people with disabilities, black people, Jewish people, really any minority group that you can think of, lead to bigger micro aggressions. It allows people in privileged positions, such as white, cis, nondisabled men, to laugh with no repercussions. They do not see how their laughter directly impacts public policy. But the fact is that a guy who thinks making fun of ‘the profoundly handicapped’ is okay is not going to speak up when a bill comes to cut special education funding, because due to this card, he has already ‘othered’ that group. The normalization of racism, where white people ‘othered’ POC, can be said to be a direct cause of segregated schools, red-lining and sundown towns. The normalization of making ableism means that nobody notices the lack of disabled people and disabled voices, and it is very hard to complain about a public policy when the policy makers are meeting in an inaccessible room. After all, w e don’t care about ‘others’, we care about ourselves.
Sometimes I feel that I straddle two worlds. On the one hand, I’m an intelligent, white woman, raised upper-middle-class, with a master’s degree, and I always appear put-together if I step outside my door. On the other, I’m surviving on social security, struggle mightily in day-to-day tasks, and spent years in special education, which means that my knowledge has significant gaps. I do things slower – I process things slower, I respond slower, I even walk slower. This doesn’t mean that I’m lesser than my friends who do things fast. It just means that I’m different, and that’s okay.
Because I process things slower and make decisions slower, it took me a few years to be able to stop ‘editing’ the cards when we played Cards Against Humanity, and instead, to decide that I was no longer going to play at all. I decided that by playing, I was contributing to my own and other’s oppression. I was saying that it was okay with me for others to make fun of people. And it’s not. It is not okay to make fun of people. It is not okay to treat them badly. The game made me a worse person. It made my friends worse people. It did not encourage us to be our best selves or our kindest selves, and if there is one thing I know for sure in this world, it is that you’ve got to, you’ve simply got to be kind.
Luckily, as my friends and I matured, scatological humor lost its funniness. We moved on to other things, other pursuits. Many of my friends are deeply involved in progressive political causes, and a number of them have children whom they would never, ever expose to a game like Cards Against Humanity because they want their children to be kind, generous, humble human beings. Whoever made that card game was none of those things. They might think they are, but they are not.
Somewhere in the Bible, somebody, I’m pretty sure it was Jesus but what do I know, I’m a UU, says something along the lines of, ‘remember that whatever you do to the least of mine you do to me’ – basically, however you treat any oppressed group is also how you’re treating those closest to you, those you love, because we are all the same. We are all humans, and living in this society we all contribute to micro aggressions. And if you wouldn’t want your mother or best friend to feel hurt – physically hurt, like a knife in the gut, like a PTSD-flashback to being called the r-word in 3rd grade, like a nightmare that leaves you sweaty and screaming – then you shouldn’t hurt anyone.
I’m not quite there yet, but micro aggressions can only be driven out of society by micro actions. By publicly refusing to play Cards Against Humanity, I’m publicly saying that it is not okay to treat people that way. Missy cannot speak but she does not deserve to be made fun of, and neither does anyone else I know. They deserve kindness. So do you. So do I.
PS. MicrosoftWord says that microaggression is two words. I’ve seen it written as micro-aggression, micro aggression, and microaggression. I’ve truly no idea which one to use so I have used all three.
PPS. I sent this essay to a friend of mine to review. He disagreed with me because, he said, the makers of Cards Against Humanity do good things – they donate to anti-Trump causes, they believe in the same progressive politics that I do. From the research I’ve done this appears to be true. However, I do not think that this excuses their abhorrent behavior. They continue to profit from the direct oppression of others. This is inexcusable. In a time when the vast majority of people with disabilities live in poverty, their jokes about ‘the profoundly handicapped’ keep us down while allowing them to live, I assume, at least comfortable lifestyles. (Because no matter how much money they donate to charity, I’m willing to bet my non-existent cash that they don’t skip meals or deny themselves basic necessities of life to save for their prescriptions.) The only way to solve this would be for the creators themselves to publicly denounce the game, admit they were wrong, stop selling it, and donate any profits they have left over to causes which directly impact the people they made fun of in positive ways.