I am the youngest child of four. My closest sibling in age is three years older than I am, and the oldest sibling is eight years older. I also have an older cousin. When I was small I wanted nothing more than to be like them. I wanted them to like me, I didn’t want to annoy them, and I wanted to have fun with them. One of my earliest memories is of playing blocks with my sister and accidentally knocking over her tower.
“I’m never playing with you again,” she lied.
I can’t remember if I cried or not, or if I “tattled” on her. Although it’s not the only memory I have of being taunted by my older siblings or cousin; it’s merely the first. As we got older the teasing got worse. They would tease me until I cried. Almost invariably an adult would hear my cry and come rushing to the rescue. Except they never rescued me. No. They admonished me in front of my tormenters. They told me if I just wouldn’t cry, if I just didn’t let it show that they were hurting me that they would leave me alone. And I believed it.
I would always get the dreaded command to “Chill.”
So, I would endure. I would sit there and allow them to tease me. I wouldn’t say anything back. I wouldn’t cry. I wouldn’t yell or scream at anybody. I would sit there until I couldn’t stand it, and then a cry would come out and then a yell, and soon an adult was back telling me the same thing. I continued experimenting with the “ignore them” advice, but it wasn’t very good advice. Mainly because at family functions all the kids were shunted to one room and told to “play together” so we would stay out of the adults’ hair. How am I supposed to ignore the people I’m forced to stay with? Sure, things start out fun and entertaining, but if I make one mistake or social faux-pas, it was back to the teasing. At least sometimes they would focus on my slightly younger cousin. I would never speak up, because I was enjoying my own small reprieve, but then again, he never spoke up when it was my turn (I assume for the same reasons).
Suffice it to say: ignoring them does not work. I doesn’t work for bullies who are your older siblings and it doesn’t work for bullies at school or work either. And it especially doesn’t work when those in authority over the bullies explicitly tell them that they have an excuse for their behavior: she reacted. So, they can tease and tease, and bully and the moment I react, they have their excuse. “They wouldn’t do it if they knew you wouldn’t react.” Well thanks mom, but they wouldn’t have an excuse for this shit if they didn’t know you believed it. It’s already fucked up that she and other adults were victim-blaming a small child because the child dared to show emotions. It’s another form of fucked-upedness entirely to say it in front of the bullies as well. If anything ever gave them a license to continue, it was that stupid “just ignore them” advice.
I learned soon enough that the system was broken. That the things deemed socially acceptable for me to do, and the socially acceptable way for me to react to being bullied was harming me. If I let it get to me, it was my fault for letting it get to me. If I ignored it, the bullying didn’t stop, but it also “wasn’t a big deal” because if it was a big deal, then it would get to me–in which case, then it’s my fault again.
Fast forward to today: I’m a bisexual atheist living in a world full of religious and hetero-privilege. I have a family with people who are bigoted against lgbt individuals, and some family who are bigoted against the non-religious, and they are open about this. They are open about it when I talk to them on the phone, at dinners, celebrations, and other family gatherings. They can call somebody a queer, or a pussy, or an immoral godless heathen, and nobody bats an eyelash. If I say anything to them though, suddenly everything is my fault. If I call them out on their obvious bigotry–call out the system that is actively harming me–then it’s just me being “weak” and “letting things get to me.”
My mother is allowed to be a bigot, and that’s the “normal” and “expected” thing. But I can’t call her out. If I call her out, then I’m just causing trouble. Why isn’t the bigot (or the bully) the one seen as the trouble maker? Why are their comments always supposed to be ignored?
“Because apparently the true mark of strength is conformism. And apparently being offended is only appropriate when existing social norms are contravened; not when existing social norms themselves harm you. And apparently existing social norms never unjustly impose on anyone; it’s those who want to change social norms who only ever imposed on anyone. And apparently proactively looking for injustices that may be being overlooked is bad because it is “looking to take offense”; where this is construed always as “looking to introduce conflict where otherwise there wouldn’t have to be any”.”
–Dan Fincke, Camels With Hammers
Brute Reason has a post that touches on this issue: Shit People Say to People Who Care About Shit. The post discusses the myriad of unhelpful things people who don’t care say to people who do care. Her response to the “What, are you surprised?” rejoinder was perfect:
“In fact, if something unjust happens so often that you think I don’t have the right to be surprised about it, doesn’t that make it much worse than a random, one-off act of injustice?”
Here’s the thing, I’ve gone round in circles with people regarding it. I’ll recap a bad experience/injustice. The person will say “You’re surprised by that?” or alternatively,”What did you expect?” Then I’ll say what Miri says above: the fact that this is so common place is what makes it so horrible. Of course, if it’s not a common place thing, and it is a one-off act of injustice, then it gets brushed off as “no big deal.” So, if it’s common place, then it’s not a big deal because it’s to be expected. If it’s uncommon, then it’s not a big deal because it doesn’t happen that often.
In all of this, I always go back to that one hurtful sentence “I’m never playing with you again,” and I wonder how I reacted to it.