June 5th, 2020, Lisa Macafee
I have been wondering why it seems difficult for many white Americans to understand the deep harm of microaggressions. I am writing during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, civil unrest, and COVID-19 lock-down. These experiences have brought to the forefront of my memory one of the most horrible times of my life. I cannot stop thinking about it as being every day for some people of color. I am not a person of color, but I will speak to the insidious harm of microaggressions from my experience with dating violence.
I should note that I am autistic, and sometimes the intricacies of social interactions are lost on me.
I am a child of the 1980s. As such, I grew up with cultural messages about love from Disney movies. Your story is all about falling in love and starting your committed relationship. Once you’ve attained couple-status, your movie is over. That’s all there is. Happily ever after. The End… Of course, you and I know that is not how life works. Relationships are work! They are hard! No one ever told me that.
The other big and glaring thing that no one ever told me about was sex. As soon as I felt ready, I wanted to get it out of the way to see what all the fuss was about. No one told me how to have sex though, and my first partner was equally inexperienced as I was.
In school, sex ed was a series of dull black-and-white line drawings showing how a penis would be inserted into a vagina to deposit sperm to make a baby. There were two ways to avoid pregnancy; abstinence and condoms. They never told us there were other types and ways to have sex, or how to have sex at all. I guess they couldn’t.
Being a girl, I wasn’t over-exposed to pornography, and being greysexual, I really had no interest in seeking it out. The few that I saw featured women desperate over some weird squishy-looking thing and making the most bizarre noises. All the focus was on the pleasure of the man. The woman was something used by him to have an orgasm. She was a prop. Interestingly, most porn doesn’t show foreplay.
I was a senior in high school and in love for the first time. He was a boy unlike any I had known and he loved me fiercely. We were in love with one another. Here’s how my logic broke down at the time: if you are in love, that means you have found your soul-mate and will be together, forever, happily ever after, so it was okay to have sex before marriage, because obviously we will be together FOREVER. I figured sex couldn’t be that hard and that it would be obvious how to do it once we tried.
**TW: sexual violence** It wasn’t obvious. Neither of us had any idea what we were doing, and it hurt. A lot. And I bled. But I had heard that the first time a woman has sex, bleeding and pain was common. I wasn’t worried. But he didn’t have any discomfort and really, really, liked it. He wanted to try it again. I said that I hurt and was bleeding. He assured me that it only hurt because it was the first time, and the more we did it the less it would hurt.
A year passed. Now when I said that sex hurt, he said that was because of Eve’s original sin and that sex would always hurt women. That it was punishment from God. He would say things like “I can’t help wanting you, I love you so much, don’t you love me too?” He implied that it was this way for all penis/vagina interactions. Neither of us thought to look it up. Sex wasn’t something anyone talked about besides boys boasting of “nailing” some “bitch”. I never heard a vagina-owner talk about sex in a positive light, either. I never heard my parents make any reference that they ever had sex. The only proof of that was my existence. I didn’t know this was unusual. So we continued.
I have scarring. He could demand sex four times in a day. I would show him that I was visibly and actively bleeding and he would make inferences that he needed sex and that’s what couple did. Did I love him, or not? And I, inexperienced and autistic, let him do what he wanted.
I never thought of this behavior as abusive because I had never been given a sexual violence example as abuse. He wasn’t punching me in the face, so it must be fine.
He loved me. I truly believe this. He fell into the same sort of Disney-thinking that I did. If we were in love, we must be perfect for one another. But we weren’t, so he slowly tried to adjust me to be his perfect partner.
I had tattoos, and was even then, a weirdo-rebel. He would tell me things like: he wished I didn’t have tattoos because women with tattoos look trashy. When I would go for a haircut, he would tell me not to get it too short, because women with short hair look like they’re trying to be men and are ugly and when I came home, would tell me it was too short. He would ask that I wear skirts and dresses, because that’s what women look beautiful in (and why would we wear anything except for our estimation of beauty in our partner’s eyes?). He would ask that I wash my face more so I could avoid getting that gross pimple. He would tease me for eating my whole dinner at a restaurant, saying that now he could play with my squishy “rice tummy”. I weighed 131 pounds, up from 126 when I first started dating him and am 5’6” (I was TINY).
He was going to be an English teacher and was going to UCLA. He told me, who was going to Saddleback Community College, that only losers went to community college, and if I wanted to be successful, I had to go to a university instead.
I started taking a Korean course to try to talk with his parents. As it was, whenever I came over to his house, he and his parents would have long arguments in front of me in Korean that I was expected to sit quiet and still through until they were done. We often didn’t go to his house. We would meet at the library, or some other place instead, where he would request we have sex in the car, in broad daylight, in front of businesses. We never did learn about foreplay.
The summary of this relationship was that I didn’t matter. What I wanted didn’t matter. Who I was didn’t matter. My existence was meant to bring him pleasure and that was that. I dated him for two and a half years. TWO AND A HALF YEARS. During that time, he systematically broke down who I was and re-made me into the partner he wanted. And I let him, because “I loved him”. As if that made the things he did okay.
These are microaggressions. One little innocent comment by itself is not that big of a deal. I have a wonderful partner now who occasionally microaggresses accidentally. The difference is that when I point out how what he did made me feel, he apologizes and we work together on how to support each other better. Another big difference is that I am safe and encouraged to point out when I am uncomfortable and have the energy to do so.
So many people experience microaggressions that are harmful and damming to the core of their being, but that are too small in and of themselves to bother picking a fight over or addressing ever time they come up. Eventually, one becomes so tired of trying to correct them that people often just accept them as part of life and ignore them.
The danger of too many microaggressions from within our personal structure of support is that we can internalize the remarks and messages, and therein lies the true damage.
I will never know what it is to be a person of color who experiences microaggressions, but I do know how much what I experienced in this relationship harmed me. I had no self-esteem. I believed I was worth nothing without him.
When he left me (I would never have left him), I was devastated. I drove home running red lights and sobbed on the floor of my home for hours, too limp to even cry on a bed. I cut all my hair off and got more tattoos and slowly found pieces of myself that had been broken and shoved into the dark recesses of my mind. I tried to fit them back together and made new ones when those pieces were irreparable. A lot of myself was irreparable.
I justified continuing to live to myself by teaching at Los Amigos and trying to find the kids in situations like me and help them. If I could help other kids not make the same choices I did, then I could allow myself to continue living. It was a deal that I devoted myself to 100% until I was able to slowly re-build my sense of self and worth.
I was 30 by the time I could look in the mirror and not hate myself.
I was 33 when I decided that I could allow myself to go to therapy to heal, that I might deserve that much of someone else’s time to talk to worthless me about my life (what a huge burden)!
I was 37 when I got my autism diagnosis that helped me piece together the stories that never made sense.
I’m 38 now when I mustered the courage to get this toxic experience our of my mind and write it down.
I can only imagine how challenging it could be for people of color for whom microaggressions come at them from their partner, children, supervisor, peers, family, random-person-on-the-street-who-feels-entitled-to-your-time, EVERYONE. To have these subtle implications that ___ is better than whatever you are doing thrown at you all the time. The mind staggers.
This 1 minute video clip encompasses the damage of internalized oppression from microaggressions. Every iteration of the classic "White Doll, Black Doll" experiment used to win Brown vs. Board of Education makes me cry, but this image from the end is the one that gets me.
Hello friends! I would like to publish writings from myself and other people with autism as snapshots of how autism has affected them, since there are so many misconceptions and confusions about adults with autism.
Some background: I completed a 12 unit certificate program to be able to serve autistic students and am angry at how the program focused only on little boys as autistic and completely left out adults, the trans autistic population, and girls/ femmes/ women autistics. I am currently pursuing a PsyD to do more research on autism and gender.
Please contact me if you would like to add a story! If so, please send me your piece, publish name, title, and an image (can be a picture related to your content, your picture, an autism meme, etc).
I am interested in publishing this collection, because people don't know enough about us (but sure do assume a lot). Also on Facebook!
Lisa Macafee, autistic counselor with a hankering for social justice.