Lately, I've been thinking a lot about microaggressions. Microaggressions are something that I, as a WoC (woman of color), experience everyday of my life. I live on a very busy street and every time I walk out the door, I get honked or hollered at. Having experienced this everyday over the course of the past three months, I now become extremely anxious when leaving the house. If I'm wearing a dress or shorts, I make sure to put on pants and a jacket. If it's rush hour, I will stall as long as I can until rush hour is over. If my partner doesn't seem terribly busy, I will ask him to come with me to walk the dog. Sometimes I will watch through the window until there is a green light and cars are driving by rapidly because a red light means a bunch of stationary cars (and stationary eyes) right outside my door. At some point comes the inevitable acceptance of what I'm about to experience and I must put on an extra mask for protection - the blank face. If I react in any way to the honks and hollers, I only get more honks and hollers, and sometimes I get outright aggression and threats. Names of 'bitch' and 'cunt', threats of physical and sexual violence. So I pretend I can't hear, I pretend there are no cars, and I walk as quickly but inconspicuously as possible to my destination - a side street, any side streets.
This kind of daily battle has left a permanent traumatic mark on my being. And in the grand scheme of my life's sufferings (let alone the grand scheme of human suffering), it's nothing. So accustomed have women (and especially women of color) grown to microaggressions that if we let ourselves be affected by every single instance, we would never be able to function as human beings.
I know by now some of you must be wondering why this post is on the Dharma in Color blog and not on my private blog. Here's the thing - our sanghas and our understanding of dharma have to address issues that are unique to the beings who suffer them. In this instance, microaggressions are something that are intimately tied to gender, sexuality, ability, and race. When I tell my partner, a man of color, about my intense anxiety over leaving the house due to street harassment, he can sympathize but he cannot truly understand because those thoughts never cross his mind when leaving the house. He rarely, if ever, experiences street harassment. This acknowledgement of privilege is why I feel safe telling him about my feelings and experiences. This acknowledgement is also why he would never dismiss my anxiety by telling me that what works for him would also work for me.
That kind of acknowledgement and understanding is key to creating and sustaining a diverse and compassionate American Buddhism. When critics call PoC sanghas/retreats/groups 'divisive' or unnecessary or even (can you believe it?) racist, what they are really saying is that they don't want to confront their own privilege and conditioning in this world. But isn't that what Buddhist practice is about? Coming to an understanding of your conditioning and accepting how it marks your worldview, your place, and your life? Once you arrive at this understanding, I think the compassionate thing to do would be to try and level the playing field a bit, to create safe spaces and opportunities for all to flourish.
Doing nothing is a luxury that most cannot afford. As Buddhists we act out of compassion and only through compassion can we build spaces where all voices are heard and respected.