On Distinguishing Microaggressions

While for me the word “microaggression” made sense immediately, I’ve met people for whom the meaning doesn’t land right away.

The distinguishing feature of a microaggression is that it inflicts damage mainly by attrition. That renders the damage invisible, when taking any one isolated incident. It’s a siege tactic; like any offense, though, it ultimately works towards the same defeat, oppression, and hegemony as an outright attack. It’s only when taken in the aggregate that the damage reveals itself.

Most importantly, an invisible attack is hard to rebuff. You certainly feel it, but no one else knows what’s going on, maybe not even the attacker. By consequence, your defenses are lowered because any response looks like escalation, possibly alienating any sympathy and provoking further attack. This feeds into a kind of gaslighting where you’re not sure anything even happened, even as the inflicted damage remains.

That’s why I feel pretty glad the idea of microaggressions is being spread, to mitigate that cycle.

Caprice

I want to talk a little about caprice. I want to talk about its invisibility; its influence; its implications on privilege; and its implications on me.

What is caprice? They’re the things that we can’t control. It’s the agent of luck, acts of God. It’s unfairness. We’re all subject to caprice to some extent, and it’s treated some of us very well, and in other cases, it’s treated us pretty badly. Or maybe it’s been a mixed bag for you. Either way, we have no idea what it has in store for us.

I have the fortunate quality of seeing caprice’s role in my life because I haven’t always had a safety net. I’ve spent a little time in jail. I’ve spent a little time being homeless. I’ve spent a lot of time being broke. I’ve let health issues impact me for years out of lack of options.

I realize that caprice is a bit harder to see when it’s always helped you along, silently privileging you and your accomplishments. This is due to a pretty well understood cognitive bias, and we’re all subject to it. We can begin to internalize “good” caprice. Now, as I write, I’m at a shiny conference full of rich people, watching them socialize in a big room full of expensive computers and robots, and I wonder how many people in this room recognize the role of caprice—of privilege—in putting them there.

I think my favorite talk so far of Open Source Bridge has been Cameron Adamez’s talk about labor, ethics, and computing. She did this really awesome thing that led to these thoughts and underscored the contrast I’ve seen in my adult life so far. First, she played a clip of a documentary about San Jose’s tent city. Of course, she followed this right away with a small clip from Chris Anderson talking to an audience of “makers” leading startups.

What does this have to say? The juxtaposition spoke volumes: about elitism, about exploitation, about class, and most especially about how caprice unites all these factors.

Disadvantaged and marginalized people know caprice much better than those whom caprice has treated well. We know the world is unfair. This plays into our impostor syndrome, unfortunately. For those whom caprice has mishandled, we’ve internalized, at some point, the idea that only some people deserve to be where they are. In other words, we are subject to a different cognitive bias, a kind of survivorship bias, which blinds us somewhat to role of caprice in others’ success or to valuing our own accomplishments later on when they’re recognized and rewarded.

How we react to this situation interests me. Some people seem to look at their marginalized peers, see themselves and their accomplishments, and conclude they do not deserve their own success.

I’ve had a little time to observe the situation and think about it, and I am much more tempted to conclude, on the other hand, that others do not deserve their success anymore than I. I look around at my peers and wonder, why aren’t you guys as awesome as I am? And it has little to do with me. There’s not necessarily anything special about me (though I do need to own my accomplishments). By and large there’s an element of stupid, uncaring, meandering luck.

I keep wondering, how can I spread this professional success, my tech accomplishments, to my friends who may be struggling, who are equally talented but in another place in life?

I’m suffering less, maybe, from an impostor problem and more of a survivor guilt. Or maybe a success guilt. Maybe impostor syndrome is just a way of turning this success guilt inwards on ourselves rather than acknowledging the fundamental unfairness of the world around us.

Tolkien’s Racist Geography: Reading with a Conscience

I’ve been rereading Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings lately. I’m going to set aside all my other thoughts and feelings about the series and about Tolkien as a writer to talk about something that’s been bugging me.

First it started as this little tickle in the back of my mind, whenever Tolkien mentioned the West or the East. Cardinal directions play a huge role in Tolkien’s legendarium, along with geography in general. If you’ll indulge my elision of many of the subtleties in Tolkien’s plot, it suffices to say that the further West one goes, the more one ventures into peoples Tolkien characterizes as familiar, idyllic, and—even further west—a kind of heaven or paradisaical hinterland. On the other hand, every mention of the East is accompanied with shades of evil or mystery.

I had trouble getting into this world view because I grew up in the southeastern United States, and I subconsciously imprinted Tolkien’s geography on top of the US, the place I grew up in and learned about in school. I especially wanted to think of westness as a kind of frontier land, projecting my feelings from popular culture in the US. Adventure in the US is more often than not a journey from east to west.

That doesn’t accord with Middle-earth at all, and once it bugged me enough to provoke conscious examination on my part, it struck me as likely that Tolkien was projecting a Eurocentric tradition onto his own geography. The Shire, far flung up in the northwest of Middle-earth, embodies the English countryside—in terms of names, customs, and in a rough geographical reckoning.

It’s not hard to imagine then projecting the inhospitable desert lands in the south of Gondor and in Mordor onto regions with a similar geographic relationship to Europe—namely, the Arab regions of the Middle East and Africa. Beyond Tolkien’s eastern horizons lay cultures he didn’t understand, unfathomable distances, and alien climates. The same holds true for the inhabitants of Middle earth. For example, in The Two Towers, Gollum describes what’s south of Mordor:

And further still there are more lands, they say, but the Yellow Face is very hot there, and there are seldom any clouds, and the men are fierce and have dark faces. We do not want to see that land.

A Eurocentric description of Saharan Africa is not a difficult stretch from that description, especially considering Gollum is speaking to the hobbits while they are situated directly outside of Mordor.

There are, of course, other similar references that have been noticed by other critics. Tolkien’s descriptions of Easterlings and more notably still the Haradrim (who are likely referenced by Gollum above) have obvious racial tinges that reflect a Eurocentric world. Later on in The Two Towers, Faramir encounters a group of Haradrim, and the leader is described a brown-skinned man leading soldiers with scimitars.

In placing these regions, I personally drew some conclusions about Tolkien’s European compass, as he projected it onto his legendarium. I guess this leads me to ask a few questions about the series and myself. First, I could ask myself, was Tolkien himself racist?

Well, probably so. It’s easy to search the web for critiques of racism in the series, while on the other hand, it’s equally easy to find a lot of sources (drawing from letters or other places in his writing) which apologize for Tolkien or even lionize him rather uncritically. It’s clear that most consider his views on race rather progressive. On the other hand, I read his series and find his geography undeniably influenced by a European perspective, and I personally find that aspect of his creative works problematic.

This leads, though, to a second question, one that’s probably a lot more relevant. Does this Eurocentrism detract from my enjoyment of his works? Well, when Tolkien writes something that draws my attention away from the narrative to a problem in the telling, I find it, at best, distracting on a superficial level. I can regard his work as being in a high fantasy context, but even high fantasy doesn’t exist in a vacuum. I can’t ignore the problem or apologize for it.

On the contrary, I think I’d derive a lot less enjoyment and edification from The Lord of the Rings—or, really, any work of art—if I didn’t hold it in a critical light and explore its flaws. Finding racism in Tolkien’s writing doesn’t negate its artful qualities, ones worth experiencing. Rather than weighing the qualities of his art (or, again, any other) against a single value judgment, in my mind, it’s likely more useful to bring a holistic examination of Tolkien’s writing to the conversation.

So I don’t bring this up to shed light on anything particularly novel about Tolkien. I’m not the first to point out racism in The Lord of the Rings. Instead, I bring it up to participate in that conversation—a conversation which serves a necessary role as a conscience and without which the community of art and literature doesn’t really work. Unless we seek out art with an eye to unearth both the flawed and scintillating facets of the piece, we leave part of it in the ground.