gender microaggression and feminist identity development- for me, knowledge was power


I’m not sure when I became a Feminist. It may have been a gradual process that began during graduate school or it may have been a gradual processed that began the day I was conceived and my chromosomal makeup reflected an XX orientation. As a child I was blissfully ignorant of power dynamics, perhaps due to many privileges allowed me by my race and my middle class socioeconomic status. I was authentic as a child, I was hyperactive and spontaneous and internally driven towards self expression. I was also ADHD. I suppose at that time I experienced a level of rejection from society and my peers- many ADHD kids have a difficult time socially, however I was somewhat unaware of how I impacted others and because of this had an effervescent joie de vivre often reserved for the most confident and unfettered among us.

At some point this changed, at some point I became aware that I was unacceptable. I was bullied, singled out, shamed, accused of being “overly emotional,” “unintelligent,” “Fat. Fat. Fat.” I took up too much space physically, emotionally, and socially and in order to conform to a more accepted place in the world and perhaps to make myself “smaller,” I developed a clinical depression that would come to define much of who I was and who I would become. Although this does not appear to be related to my sex or gender, particularly early on, it was related to the ways I was “outside the norm” or had inadvertently challenged the “status quo.” I was different– and while many children dream of being the president, an astronaut, a doctor or an actor- I dreamed of being normal.  Ahhh… the American Dream: normal. To me normal meant that I would perhaps be above vulnerability to the cruelty of others, or maybe it meant that I aligned more with the majority. To me normal was the seductive thought that I could be of average weight, average intelligence, average social skills, and only stand out when I wanted to. Either way I was never going to be average, which now in my adulthood is a much less painful reality for me- in fact perhaps now a place of pride.

As I pursed my degree in Clinical Psychology I began to notice an interesting theme: that individuals who struggle to have a voice in society, for whatever reason, experience higher rates of mental health pathology. I came to learn that women, people of color, and LGBT individuals all have more reasons to be depressed in this society. I learned that they are made to feel responsible for the pathology of the systems they inhabit. I learned that pathology often resides in systems, particularly hierarchical/stratified systems. Patriarchal systems based in power differentials, whose reality is defined by majority, white, male experiences. Cue mind being blown. What did this all mean?!

I still was not a feminist at this point, and as I stated earlier I struggled to engage with the parts of my education that required me to give one-sided empathy to the emotionally painful experiences of minorities. I had so many emotionally painful experiences which had not been affirmed and cared for, raw painful wounds inflicted by a culture that viewed me as abnormal. I was not seen in my own culturally inflicted pain and therefore could not see others truly and deeply in theirs.

I went on internship and was supervised by a tall, gentle, bearded Buddhist psychologist and a petite, curly-haired, feminist, lesbian psychologist. I fear that these descriptions trivialize these influences in my life so readers please know that these are two of the most treasured and cherished individuals that walk this earth. They saw me, they knew me, and they taught me. I began to develop a feminist consciousness rooted in social justice and power analysis. I saw oppression: my own and that of others. I felt affirmed and free to fight for the wellbeing of others whom society told were overly emotional, unintelligent, unwanted, too much.

In these days I still called myself a “girl.” I could not wrap my mouth or brain around the word “woman” when referencing myself. I was 28. My fellow intern noted that this was strange; I concurred but did not think much more about it. Fast forward a few years.

A series of experiences in my professional life lead me to a desperate Google search of “bullying in professional settings.” At that time I came upon an article that discussed gender related microaggressions. My world began to change- for the better. Sue, 2010 describes microaggressions as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, or religious slights and insults to the target person or group. As I read more about gender, feminism, women’s issues and microaggressions-what I came to realize was that my experiences were common experiences for individuals with certain marginalized groups. I began to understand the world in a new way. It was empowering for me to have my experiences of invalidation reflected in peer-reviewed journals. My reality was shared by others and there was, in that moment, a window that opened in my mind- a potential community that could be out there, people who had shared some of my own experiences and wanted things to be different.

Subsequent to my discovery of feminist theory and gender related microaggressions I have spent time intentionally seeking out women in powerful positions at my place of work. I think my goal originally was to share my story and to hear theirs… I got much more than that. I gained a network of wonderful and smart women who have given the me the opportunity to experience mutual empathy and support from a place of understanding. It has been therapeutic and it has reminded me of why and how I come to call myself the a feminist. The F word continues to illicit condescending and at times vitriolic responses. Another psychologist once described my feminist theoretical orientation as “rah rah women are great” therapy (read: MICROAGGRESSION). For me now I can weather these indignities as I have found support- there is such beauty in finding community amongst others with experience being relegated to the margins.



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