Minority burden


When you happen to be left out of a dominant majority group, if you’re a feminist, gay, transgender, disabled, a person of color, an atheist or another religious minority, you really can’t help but notice how many unreasonable things are expected of you. It comes with a countless array of indignities that hardly anyone in the majority would ever have to deal with, let alone on a daily basis. And even when they play a part in perpetuating these insults, most of them don’t realize that it’s happening, because they have the luxury of not being impacted by these things and thus not having to think about them.

I’ve started calling this the “minority burden”, because that’s the best way I can think to describe it. It’s the totality of all the thoughtless and inconsiderate attitudes people are subjected to just for being different. Like when we’re expected to laugh at jokes at our expense, and be okay with it when people call things “gay”, or say someone is a “fag” or a “tranny”. If we point out why this is actually insulting, they tell us this couldn’t possibly be offensive because they’ve decided that it isn’t, and if they didn’t intend for it to be offensive, then no one can ever take exception to it. Any harm that it might do, and any dangerous attitudes that it might promote, are instantly mitigated by the power of their good intentions.

Or they’ll tell us they have a friend who’s gay, or trans, or black, or a woman, and they said it’s okay to use language like that – and of course they’d rather listen to the people who would give their approval to this than the people who are explaining why it’s objectionable. Or maybe they’ll excuse it by saying there are jokes about straight people and white people too, as if that’s the same thing as making fun of people who are actually ridiculed and disrespected in society. Or they might just feel like telling us we’re being “oversensitive” for taking issue with this, so nobody will take us seriously and they don’t have to listen to anything we say. It’s a great way for them to foist responsibility onto us for their own willful disregard.

They expect us to ignore all the so-called “little things” and just let it go. What are the little things? Well, it’s an elastic definition that encompasses anything they don’t personally care about. Any widespread social issue can be broken down into smaller pieces which are then regarded as isolated incidents, each of them too trivial to bother with. Never mind the fact that all of these “little things” can be part of a big problem. We’re supposed to act like none of it ever means anything.

Or how about when we’re always required to act in such a way as to avoid aligning with any stereotypes people have? If you’re gay, you shouldn’t look too gay, or you’re just reinforcing the stereotype! If you’re a woman, you can’t be emotional, or you’re just confirming the stereotype! Apparently we have to be worried about this, but other people don’t. We’re expected to live up to a separate standard from everyone else, and we’re not allowed to do the things that they can do without running afoul of someone’s stereotypes. Why? Because we’re always going to be taken as representative of whatever group we’re a part of, and as a result, we always have to think about how our actions will reflect on that group.

Other people never need to concern themselves with this, but we’re the ones who will come to mind when they think about gay people, or atheists, or women – so we always have to be on our best behavior! It turns our lives into a constant campaign of public relations and image management that pervades every aspect of our existence. And as long as people see us in this way, even our own group will tell us, “You’re making us look bad!” As if we’re the ones who are responsible for people’s faulty generalizations.

But what’s really hurtful is when we’re expected to accommodate people’s prejudice against us, as if this is somehow understandable. People try to justify this by telling us “Well, that’s just how it is”, like their own lack of concern is meant to explain why nothing can be done about it. It’s easy to say that when you’re not the one who has to live with it.

They’ll tell us that parents just don’t want gay scout leaders out in the woods with their kids, and we’re expected to be okay with people thinking we might rape their children. They say we shouldn’t have a problem with companies making donations to anti-gay politicians, because they were only thinking of their business interests – as if this ceases to be a problem because they consciously chose to ignore it. We’re expected to just deal with not being allowed to bring our partner to family events when everyone else can, because some of them might be uncomfortable. We’re expected to respect people’s opinions that our marriages aren’t legitimate, like it’s just a matter of personal preference that requires no explanation. We’re expected to be understanding when people don’t even respect us enough to use our names.

And as always, we can’t get angry about this even when we should be, because that would scare people away. And we don’t want to look bad!

Taken together, all of this reckless distortion functions as a way of coercing minorities to participate in their own marginalization. People are free to disrespect us as much as they want, and we have to play along, or else it’ll be even worse for us. There is no option here that would allow us to stand up for ourselves. The only choice it leaves open is never doing anything.

This isn’t something we should be expected to tolerate. We shouldn’t always have to be the better person. We shouldn’t have to quietly endure an endless barrage of contempt for the sake of ensuring that people are comfortable in their prejudice. We need to stop enabling this, and stop playing along. And if you’re someone who’s been perpetuating these attitudes, and practically all of us are in some way or another, this needs to end. Nobody deserves to be silenced like this. And when you stop talking over them and start actually listening, you’ll find it’s not that hard to respect people.