Ask Sahaj: Responding to microaggressions is taking a toll on me. Can I stop?

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Q: I’m the only minority person in many of my classes and in my church group. The people around me make a lot of not-okay jokes about other minorities, and I feel as if it’s my job to respond to these microaggressions, even if I’m not *insert minority here*. It takes a toll and makes me feel alone.

Should I get rid of this responsibility that’s ingrained in my brain?

– Alone

A: As a minority, you should not have to do the emotional labor to educate White people making racist jokes. However, you also don’t want to forego your own values and sense of self to fit in.

I wonder how not responding and still hearing these offensive jokes will impact you? You say feeling responsible to respond makes you feel alone, but I wonder if it’s that you’re surrounded by people who don’t share your values or beliefs? Even if these jokes are not directed at you, they can still impact your own sense of self. Protecting yourself is an act of resistance as a minority, and only you can decide if – and how – to do that.

How do you respond and how are you received when you do? It’s one thing to feel like you have to educate or offer long-winded replies, and it’s another to make short, direct statements about how these jokes make you feel – which you can prepare in advance to minimize stress. This can sound like, “I’m uncomfortable when you make comments about [minority group].” Or, “I don’t think that’s funny.” If they aren’t sure why, you can say “Here’s how I perceived what you said and why it really upset me.”

You may even ask them to clarify to put the onus back on them to really think through what they said. This may sound like, “What did you mean by [repeat comment]?” Or, “You said [repeat comment]. Is that what you meant?” You can also change your behavioral responses rather than making verbal ones. This might look like not laughing, changing the subject or simply walking away.

Finally, consider if being a part of this church group is good for you. Is it worth these feelings of alienation? And if you can’t leave the classes altogether, find ways you can take care of yourself and build other circles and relationships that don’t include microaggressions and inappropriate jokes.

Q: Middle sibling in a big family here. I feel squeezed on all sides by everyone’s baggage, hormonal changes, sensitivities. With grown siblings, spouses, in-laws, and now growing and vocal children all in the mix, planning get-togethers, keeping traditions and changing traditions all seem to take an exhausting level of emotional diplomacy. How do we keep it all in balance without giving up on each other?

– In The Middle

A: When new people enter a family, that family automatically shifts and changes. There may be a grieving process for how things are no longer the same but it doesn’t mean you can’t learn new ways to engage and be together.

“Balance” will look different for everyone, and it seems like you have an ideal version of how your family should interact and spend time together. But ultimately, you have to also honor what other family members want and need for themselves, without feeling like the sole person who has to problem solve.

It’s not your responsibility to maintain people’s relationships with each other. But you can focus on your relationship with your family members. Be honest about how close you were with individuals in your family before members got married or had kids. If the relationship already lacked a level of emotional intimacy, care, or intention, then it makes sense that it lacks this now. Regardless though, you should be more intentional about nurturing your individual relationships with loved ones and voicing your desire for time together. This may sound like, “I miss you and want to spend more time all together. Can we try to plan something next year when we are all free?”

It’s possible you “feel squeezed” because you have yet to create some distance between your own needs and others’ expectations of you in the family. I sense that you are monitoring how others feel and are the one who plays a role for keeping the peace – hence the need for emotional diplomacy. It may require some unlearning and boundary setting to separate yourself from the belief that you have to figure it all out for your family. The next time someone comes to you with their “baggage,” you may say, “I think you should talk to [name of person they are talking about] instead of me.” Or, “I’m not comfortable talking about this.”

Different family members are going to have different capacities and availability as life goes on and priorities change. Reflect on where you are and how much you are willing to try or make more of an effort to maintain these family traditions and dynamics – while accepting what everyone else is willing and not willing to do.



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