The Weight of Microagressions
by Lisa Hancock
The stares that tell you you don’t belong. Invasive questions about how, why, and “how badly” you are disabled. Pats on the head from complete strangers. These are all examples of microagressions. Further, these are all microagressions I have personally witnessed and experienced as the wife and primary caregiver for my husband, Justin.
Merriam-Webster defines “microagression” as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” In the disability community, it can be difficult to recognize microagressions as they are occurring and figure out how to respond to them. Or, if we do recognize them, we might feel too tired, hurt, confused, or angry to be able to respond in the moment. Further, we might tell ourselves that people who commit microagressions do not know better, and thus, we should probably let these thoughtless actions go instead of trying to correct them. Yet, the problem with not saying anything is that they pile up on us until they are too heavy to bear.
In December 2009, after a year and a half of marriage, Justin and I went on our honeymoon to Disney World. On our second day, we had tickets to a special holiday extravaganza after Magic Kingdom closed for the day. The night before, we decided not to plug in Justin’s wheelchair because the battery was at 85%, and at home, 85% could easily get Justin through an active day of rolling. Except, unlike Lubbock, Texas, Orlando has hills. We thought we were going to make it through the day just fine when suddenly Justin’s chair battery plummeted from 55% to 30% on our way to find seats for the parade that concluded the holiday extravaganza. Trying to manage what felt like an impending crisis, I disengaged Justin’s chair from battery power and pushed him to the ADA seating area.
When the parade ended, everyone started heading toward the park exit. I knew we were going to hit key points in the transit from the park to the hotel when I would need Justin’s battery to do the work and I didn’t want to risk running out of battery before then. So, I began pushing Justin out of the park. If you’ve been to Magic Kingdom, you might have noticed that there are trolley rails all along the street leading to the park exit. So, there I was, 5’ 2”, pushing a 500lb wheelchair down a street filled with people, and the casters on Justin’s chair kept getting caught in the depressions around the rails. Each time the chair got caught, I would have to come to a complete stop and free Justin’s 500lb chair from these troughs.
After wrestling the chair out of a particularly problematic area, a woman with a stroller came up to me and said, “You know, if you’ll just approach those rails at an angle, they won’t be a problem.” I have no idea what my face actually looked like, but I imagine it must not have been as appreciative as she wanted, because she took one look at me, walked right past me, and then told the person next to her, “Well, I’m just telling her because that’s what you learn when you have to push a stroller.” In that moment, I was simultaneously angry and overcome by a wave of isolation and loneliness. In this sea of people, the only help anyone offered us was, in effect, “Hey, you should try pushing that 500lb wheelchair like I push this 30lb stroller and then it won’t be so hard.”
That night, we experienced microagression after microagression, such that the weight of people’s discrimination and neglect felt heavier than the 500lb wheelchair I was trying to free from trolley tracks. When I consider taking us to new places, whether down the street or across the country, I often think about that experience at Magic Kingdom. For many in the disability community, leaving the house includes discerning whether we can handle the 500lb emotional, mental, and sometimes quite physical weight that people may place on us with their disdainful gazes, neglect, and lack of understanding and care. Microagressions can weigh us down little by little until the internal resources we have for moving through the world are whittled away, and we are left feeling utterly isolated and lonely.
On that December night, I also remember this deep sense of knowing that we were not alone in the midst of the loneliness and isolation created by the crowds. We had each other, and we knew that God was, and is, with us. The hope this brought me then and brings me now is twofold. On the one hand, when our neighbors actively reject us in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, God continually welcomes, embraces, and loves us. Nothing, not even microagressions, can separate any of us from the love of God. On the other hand, a God who is so committed to being with us through every circumstance we face is also a God who transforms God-followers into persons of radical welcome and love for all people. The God who is with us when we experience microagressions is also the God who calls God’s people to be aware of their words and actions, to act with dignity towards persons others might call “other” and “strange,” and to actively spread love in the world.
If you are a person worn down by the experience of microagressions, you are not alone. The people of The Julian Way and SNs 360 are here to journey with you, to encourage you and remind you that God is with you, too. And, if you are a person who thinks they might have committed microagressions and wants to do something about that, you are not alone. SNs 360 and The Julian can connect you with new friends and resources as you continue to learn the fullness of what it means to love God and neighbor.