Church Fires & Big Pictures

I’m not a lady. I mean, I’m a woman; I’m female, but I’m not ladylike.

If you’re familiar with the Myers-Briggs methodology of personality classification, I’m an ENTP. Male and female ENTP’s combined only make up about 3% of the population, and they say most of them are male. According to societal standards, the characteristics of an ENTP are decidedly masculine. We’re the “debaters.” We thrive on connecting disparate ideas to construct new theories and turn existing systems on their head. We value logic and reason to a fault, with an almost dogmatic distaste for emotions. In a man these are considered leadership traits; he is strong, convicted, smart. In a woman, they’re considered faults; she is bossy, a bitch, cold and socially-stunted. A male ENTP gets the job done, a female ENTP should smile more and consider people’s feelings.

Most of the time, I don’t give any of this a second thought. I have always subscribed to the “let the work speak for itself,” school of thought, and I’ve written about that in the frame of being a woman in agriculture before. What I haven’t written about is what that looks like on a day-to-day basis, what it means to “let the work speak for itself,” what it’s like to walk through the world wearing the armor of emotional callous needed to make that school of thought–that theory–reality. I’ve come to realize that this omission, though unintentional, is significant. It makes it seem as though doing this–being a minority who refuses to remain in the confines of the ill-fitting box that has been allotted me–is effortless, but the reality is quite the opposite, even for an emotionally-stunted ENTP.

The thing about microaggressions is that they’re almost imperceptible unless you’re on the receiving end. It’s not the outright bigots, those who make a big show of cutting you down, who do the most damage. Those people are easy to write off for the loons they are. It’s tiny slights even the perpetrators often don’t know are slights. It’s the quiet undercurrent that whispers, “no matter what you do, you will never be good enough.”

The other thing about microaggressions is that they’re cumulative. Take on too many, too quickly, before your mind has time to clear them out, and they begin to alter your perception. Future slights, no matter how micro, are magnified. Take on enough in a short period and you begin to see everything through the lens of the microaggressions; everything becomes one. Entrenched in an environment laden with microaggressions, you begin to lose your ability to deal with them; they accumulate quicker.

There was a period in my life where, due to gender-related microaggressions, I felt like I was going to war every single day. But in this war there were no clear enemies and allies. With microaggressions the same people are both. In this war, they are allies one minute and enemies the next. There is no rest, no safety. I was always on high-alert. At first you know their intentions are not vicious, and you give them the benefit of the doubt, but over time the intention loses significance.

I felt like I was losing my grip on reality. I questioned everything, including–no, especially–myself. I lost every ounce of confidence I have ever possessed, I become depressed, I gained sixty pounds, I began to have uncontrollable panic attacks every day, the stress took such a toll on my body I began to have stress-induced heart arrhythmia. This is a short list, and one which is difficult for me to admit even to this day. And that, I suppose, is another thing about microaggressions: it’s easy to internalize them as your own problem.

The message I internalized, one that the shame I feel writing this post even now points out is still inside of me somewhere, is this: If only I had been stronger, I could have dealt with slights as quickly as they came my way. I failed. Except I have two distinct advantages in all of this. One is, ironically, the same personality traits that have so often caused my grief. Especially, my innate tendency to prioritize logic and reason over emotion. Even if I feel like a failure, I know microaggressions are not the problem of the person or group at whom they are directed. In this case, they are not mine or a part of me. The other is that the microaggressions I experienced are not ubiquitous. There are many places in this industry–in this world–where I do not have to deal with them at the level and frequency I was dealing with them during that time. There are plenty of roles, places and people who admire and value the traits that made me a target in those other places with those other people and in those other roles. And, most important of all, I was able to adjust my life in such a way that I could remove myself from it. It was not an overnight fix. It took nearly a year, but it was possible.

Last night another church with a predominantly Black congregation burned down. I don’t know if it was arson or an unfortunate coincidence in the timing of an accidental fire. If it was arson, I don’t know if it was a crime fueled by hate or one spurred by stupidity and pyromania. But here is what I do know: It doesn’t really matter. There is a whole group of Americans immersed in an environment where microaggressions against them are ubiquitous and they cannot escape.

Meanwhile, this nation has embroiled itself in a misguided debate about intention. As a person who highly values facts and whole stories, whose default mode is collecting tiny pieces of information from every available corner to put together a bigger picture, I get it. I understand the want for more information, and the reluctance to hang our collective hat on something that may have holes in its veneer. What I don’t understand is the insistence to hyperfocus on one sliver of the picture so intently we fail to see that we can make a bigger, more powerful image without that sliver anyway.

We don’t need to wait for the investigation to determine the cause; any inquiry into whether or not this particular church fire was a hate-fueled arson is of absolutely no consequence to anyone other than the local law-enforcement who are tasked with bringing justice to whatever perpetrator they may or may not find. On a national level, it is nothing more than a distraction from the greater, much more productive discourse we should be having: that until we address the microaggressions against Black Americans, every aggression, regardless of intention, will be magnified, and major aggressions will be powder kegs tossed on a raging fire. And most importantly, that this is not the problem of the people whose community has collectively absorbed so many microaggressions they have reached a breaking point.

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