Every time I get called Ma’am, it’s like getting slapped in the face with a dead fish.
For years I’ve tried to adjust to strangers calling me Ma’am. I’ve tried to ignore it. To acknowledge it and let it roll off of me. To accept that in a cisnormative society I’m perceived as a masculine female or as a butch lesbian. To accept that some people must use only Sir, Miss, or Ma’am in their jobs. To accept that other people can’t imagine any other alternatives, even when one is standing right in front of them.
I’ve tried to listen to the tone of the Ma’am. To guess the intention. Is it friendly? Is it innocent? Is it automatic? Is it sardonic? Is it because they don’t know what else to call me?
I wish it didn’t bother me. There are far worse things going on in the world than the cashier at Whole Foods calling me Ma’am. Or the bank teller. Or the staff at the front desk of the gym. Yet each Ma’am smacks me in the face.
I don’t know if calling me Ma’am counts as a microaggression, but it feels like one to me. Columbia Professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Microaggressions are “different from deliberate acts of bigotry because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.” Microaggressions “include statements that position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same.”
Microaggressors are ignorant, with a little arrogance and privilege thrown into the mix. They think they know how I identify by looking at me, and that everyone who looks like me identifies the same way. They believe it is my problem that I don’t neatly fit into one of two boxes, and that they have the right to assign me to the one that makes them most comfortable. They don’t see the need to educate themselves, because they don’t see their own prejudices.
I don’t know if can respond to being called Ma’am honestly and without hostility. Without humiliating or putting the other person on the defensive. I don’t know if it is better to let it go or to say something. New Yorkers view all non-essential interactions as a delay. WIll someone on the back of the line sigh loudly, or make a snarky comment, if I start to say something?
When other kids picked on me, my parents told me to ignore them. To develop a thick skin. To not fight back. To take the high road. I tried to not let the name calling and teasing bother me, but it was impossible to ignore.
When I was in college, when I wore my MIT sweatshirt off campus, random people would ask me “Does your boyfriend go to MIT?” The question surprised me. Boyfriend? Me? I started answering with “I go to MIT and my girlfriend goes to Lehigh.” Some people took offense. Halfway through my first semester I stopped wearing the sweatshirt.
I don’t want to feel diminished, obliterated, or angry, but I haven’t found a way to turn being called Ma’am into a neutral experience or to stop it from happening. I haven’t discovered the magic way to protect myself from the damage, or to regenerate the damaged parts. The best I can do right now is to acknowledge it, feel the pain, take a deep breath, remind myself of who I am, and go on with my life.
Notes: Most media discussions of microaggressions, like Simba Runyowa’s piece in The Atlantic, focus on race and college campuses. Debito Arudou’s article, “Yes, I can use chopsticks..”, from the Japan Times, discusses the pro’s and con’s of challenging “friendly” microaggressions.
The graphic I used for the post is one frame from a comic by Transitive Properties aptly titled “The Fish Metaphor”. You can see the whole comic here – it accurately captures my experience.