Ma’am and Microaggressions

Comic by Transitive Properties (see notes).

Comic by Transitive Properties (see notes).

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.

36 thoughts on “Ma’am and Microaggressions

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is exhausting, and then I get into “Is it the scarf I’m wearing? Is it my new hair cut?” etc. – and turn it around on myself instead of blaming the perpetrator.

      Like

      Reply
  1. Emily Gritz

    I hate being ma’am’d myself and I work in a customer service. I’m occasionally ma’am’d by customers who likely just want to be polite but I try to avoid gendering my customers by never using ma’am, sir, mister, miss, etc. Thankfully, I live in the PNW. Folks aren’t that formal here, so it (hopefully) doesn’t seem rude for me to not use those titles.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I’m always relieved when someone just asks “What can I get you?” or “How can I help you?” or “Next?”. It just seems weird to insist on gendering someone who is gender non-conforming – how I take my coffee has nothing to do with my gender expression.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  2. Cai

    My coworkers, friends, and regular customers know I’m a dude and are cool. Customers not as familiar with me still title me in the female, and I’m trying to figure out why–out of work, out of uniform, off the clock, I get read as male all the time! Just why not at work! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I hear you. This is my theory: for most cisgender people, assigned at birth = sex = binary = who you are – and they don’t think about it until they are personally challenged. They only see transgender people who fit the stereotypes (e.g. football player in a dress) – but there are no cultural stereotypes for trans men or trans masculine – only for butch lesbians (hence the misgendering). It is really frustrating.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
      1. Cai

        There are stereotypes for us guys. In some gay circles, they assume I’m going to “bottom” or “submit”. In other circles, I’ve heard us being compared to balls of raging hormones, assumptions of “roid rage”, and extreme variations of either penis envy or Napoleon syndrome. Or, yes, and the “lesbian in denial” bull. All stereotypes I’ve heard about.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I appreciate when people don’t gender me, or use gender neutral language. A couple of times (outside of a queer or trans event) someone who didn’t know me uses\d “they” naturally when referring to me, and it was really nice. It would be great if it happened regularly and not just to people who look ambiguous or gender non-conforming.

      Like

      Reply
  3. Ariadne

    Ah, we have been dealing with this type of thing lately. Last week we were driving home and stopped at drive-through Starbucks. My partner ordered, and the guy in the window ended every sentence he spoke to her with “Sir.” … “What can I get for you, sir? Thank you, sir. Here it is, sir. Your change, sir. Have a nice day, sir.” (Too late for that!) She was wearing makeup and earrings, and I couldn’t tell whether the guy was being passive aggressive or whether it was just mindless adherence to their protocol. Either way, it ruined the interaction.

    Also: “Does your boyfriend go to MIT?” Ouch! That is painfully familiar. 🙂 It continues even now. Once at work the boss was introducing a visitor to everyone, saying something about their qualifications, etc. When it came to me, he told the visitor my spouse was a postdoc at the university. (Which, while it does explain why we live in this city to begin with, ignores the fact that I was hired at this particular company based on my own qualifications!)

    Liked by 3 people

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      True, they never would have said that about a male employee who followed his spouse to another city. My favorite are the versions of “I didn’t realize MIT was co-ed” – since 1871.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
    2. Eleanor Burns

      I strongly suspect this chap has a brother who works at Sainsbury’s Metro in Cardiff… although to be fair, said shop assistant became painfully apologetic when I asked for a break in the constant “sirring” and explained why. I think a lot of people are just confused and eager to please, but haven’t a clue why, so I try not to be harsh about it.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Thanks for the link! I haven’t seen this version – I’ve seen some cards along the line of “how dare you presume I’m …..” but they didn’t appeal to me. I’m going to give these some thought. Thanks again.

      Like

      Reply
  4. halitentwo

    slapped with a dead fish… lmao, yes! I find “ma’am” irritating, but I find “ladies” infuriating. It is diminishing at best There feels a specific intent to “put me in my place” by the speakers and I don’t like it at all. I do wish I had a decent comeback.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      “Ladies” makes me want to put down my purse, take off my little white gloves, and slug the waiter. Oddly, when a bartender asked me “what will it be love?” it didn’t bother me at all.

      Like

      Reply
  5. PlainT

    Even though mainstream culture might minimize “microaggressions”, in reality microaggressions prop up macroaggressions. If it’s a genuine mistake, as it might very well be, that’s very different from someone intentionally assigning your gender for you; unfortunately it’s hard to know what someone’s intentions are.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The real problem with micro aggressions is that each individual act seems so minor (particularly to the other person) but the annoyance is with the sum total – if it only happened once a month I could blow it off – but the repeated combination of dread, low grade anxiety, and “I can’t believe I got called Ma’am again” turns it into something larger.
      I’ve read a lot (and practiced) using non-violent approaches with people I’ve disagreed with (around militarism and AIDS), but I haven’t figured out how to do it with this yet.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  6. Hart

    My particular thorn in my side is being called sir, then being corrected to ma’am. It just seems they’re more aggressive in ma’am-ing me after what they deem to be a mistake which was to grok me as male. Back when I worked customer service I never used pronouns to address customers so I know it is possible to go without. But yeah, it makes you feel like you’ve been slapped with a dead fish afterwards. Slimy, uncomfortable, and a little pissed off that it happened.

    Like

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      Absolutely “Sir, Ma’am, I’m sorry” is the worst. It is as if they think we’re trying to trick them into thinking we are men (no, really, it is all intentional and authentic – not my fault that it makes you uncomfortable).

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  7. micah

    What helped me deal with this was switching to male pronouns in my everyday life. It doesn’t fix strangers’ behavior, but being gender validated (well, specifically, not invalidated) most of the time makes the ma’amming sporadic enough to slide away. It is also why I decided to take T.

    Not saying you should do either. Just that, put in perspective, getting called ma’am is not inconsequential if it played such a significant role in how I chose to transition.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is complicated. Why strangers don’t see what I see and what my friends see – why if I am comfortable internally (in my own environment) should I have to go on T to feel comfortable in society. But I get how you gradually shifted over to the decision to take low dose T.

      Like

      Reply
  8. Fredrication

    I’m so lucky living in a country much less caught up in siring and maming people. We simply use singular you whenever we speak to one other. On the other hand I’m misgendered just as much, I just don’t know it until i overhear people talking about me. If people misgender me to my face I feel it’s easier for me to correct them (maybe because only family misgender me to my face… By mistake by the way…) than overhearing a conversation the cashier have with their coworker. How do I respond to that? Should I correct them, revealing I listened to their conversation or should I just ignore it, pretending they’re talking about someone else and act as if I didn’t listen to their talk?

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is hard enough to correct a direct misgendering – I can’t imagine trying to correct one second hand (particularly if it is someone I don’t know). It is just the assumption that everyone is cisgender, and that they can ignore my gender expression because they want to, that I find really annoying.

      Liked by 1 person

      Reply
  9. anexactinglife

    Well said. Where I live, no one is ever taught to use sir, ma’am or miss. I have worked in three retail jobs and it was never brought up as part of my training. Yet employees in retail and services use these terms a lot, even when not instructed to do so. I wonder if they have some outdated customer service ideas that are ingrained and that somehow take precedence over their training. I never use gender titles or pronouns when dealing with the public, and I hate it when my co-workers address a group of staff as “ladies” or “girls.” Grr! (Although, props to my team – we have a new staff member who is trans and everyone has been excellent about using his preferred pronouns from day 1).

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      It is usually polite, and somewhat deferential – which makes for an odd power dynamic – I am overall more privileged than most of the people who call me Ma’am (I’m white, raised middle class, college educated, financially solid). Which also means I have to be very careful if I say anything that I don’t come off like his lordship admonishing the stable boy.

      Like

      Reply
  10. notesfromachair

    Good post. I try to think of it in terms of intention and attitude of the person saying it. You can call two different people on similar micro aggressions in exactly the same way and one will take it as a learning experience and the other will be over-the-top offended. I also find that as the years and decades go on you begin to pick and choose your battles. This is not to say one shouldn’t fight back as much as one sees fit – only that we all have a limited amount of time and energy to expend and for self-preservation need to ask ourselves, “what is the best use of my time at this moment.” Sometimes the answer is in shutting down a moron – other times it’s simply exiting a situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      The problem I have with microaggressions (and being called Ma’am) is that each one is pretty minor on its own – but the overall effect of it happening several times in a short period of time is very aggravating – and I don’t want to lash out at the last person in a day who did it (as if they were responsible for all of the misgenderings) – but that is the way it would come out. I should have mentioned somewhere in the post that although I have a long fuse, when I get angry, I get really angry.
      Mostly I have the energy to engage with people I know well or have some kind of relationship with – it is an investment. I’m not sure I have the energy to engage with strangers that I may not see again, and it is a complicated issue to deal with quickly.

      Like

      Reply
  11. Skip

    I’ve commented awhile ago about being called Sir, Ma’am, Sir-I-mean-Ma’am-I’m-sorry-Ma’am!

    When I was a baby in the 1960s, my mother Scotch-taped a pink bow on my head to label me.
    When I was a pre-teen in the 1970s, a younger child once asked “Are you a boy or a girl or a boy-girl?”, which, looking back on it, was rather precocious and quite ahead of the times with the option of “boy-girl”!
    When I was a teen in the 1980s, my mother exasperatedly shrieked at me, “Can’t you at least LOOK like a girl?!” as she was trying to put makeup on me (for the first time) for some reason (school picture?).
    As an adult, when I first started getting “Sir”red, it bothered me and I “corrected” people snippily. Gradually, I came to secretly get a chuckle out of being “Sir”red instead of “Ma’am”ed, and I stopped “correcting” people. Eventually, I have accepted that neither is correct, and I’ve realized that I don’t really have a preferred pronoun or form of address, and so I’ve learned to answer to whatever I’m addressed as.

    Some background for people wondering why other people are determined to address them by gender:
    I have spent most of my life in the Southern U.S. At least in the 1960s-1980s, children were taught to respect adults, and in the Southern U.S. it was considered respectful to address them as “Ma’am” and “Sir”. Some areas of the Southern U.S. went further and taught their children to address familiar adults as “Miss Brenda” and “Mister Joe”. Sample usage: “Miss Brenda, ma’am, my mom wants to know, are we gonna see you and Mister Joe at church this Sunday?” Even today, I know some children who address adults this way, so the practice persists at least in my corner of the world.

    So, it’s possible that the people addressing you as “Ma’am” or “Sir” aren’t even thinking about it; it’s just first nature because they’ve been calling people “Ma’am” and “Sir” all their lives. I’m 50-something and still catch myself doing it. And then I wonder why I’m doing it.

    Liked by 2 people

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      All through my youth and adolescence I was pleased when I was “mistaken” for a boy – unless it happened in front of my Mom. After I came out it felt awkward, but I still kind of liked it.
      I guess I feel more seen when I am called Sir than Ma’am – it is at least an acknowledgement of how I try to present (masculine). But, on some level I feel that all gendering is misgendering, and I’d be happy if it became socially unacceptable to use Sir and Ma’am.
      I very rarely Sir or Ma’am anyone younger than me, and I think I only do it when I’m trying to catch someone’s attention – as in Sir, you dropped your Metrocard – and it does seem a little weird to do it.

      Like

      Reply
  12. Lesboi

    I live in a border-line southern state and a lot of the older ladies that work in the stores around here call everyone hun, sugar, sweetie and even darlin’. It doesn’t matter what gender you are or are not that’s what they call you. I find it oddly comforting and endearing. I know it irks some people for a stranger to call them sweetie but to me it’s such a relief from sir or ma’am that I sigh in relief when I get them at check out. I’m no more used to being called sir than I am ma’am. Neither is comfortable and I wish people would just quit it. There might be occasions where it is appropriate but definitely not at Starbucks or the gas station. I recently put a complaint in with Staples because an employee insisted on referring to me as Miss Dawn throughout my checkout process and it really pissed me off. I haven’t seen her again at the store and no one has gendered me there again either. This reminds me that I have a newish employee that does a lot of sirring and ma’aming and I need to put a stop to that. Dead fish! Yes, that is exactly how it feels!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply
    1. Jamie Ray Post author

      I had written almost the entire post without the dead fish metaphor (I think I wrote that every time I was called Ma’am a little piece of me died – also true) and then I was looking for a graphic about being called Ma’am and found the comic and changed the post around just because it is such a good metaphor (even though I have not actually been slapped with a fish, and I haven’t been slapped in the face since I was a teenager (for talking back to my mother)). But it is like “WHAP!” and ouch.
      If someone called me “Miss Amy” I would go on a rampage.

      Liked by 2 people

      Reply
  13. Eleanor Burns

    This resonates all too clearly… In South Wales we also specialise in a microaggression where retail assistants (even in quite high-class stores) will address anyone they register as male as “fella” in a surly voice. I am having to resign myself to this. One despairs of communicating the niceties of genderqueer ethics when basic politeness is often not even a part of people’s daily lives. From what you describe, New York is not so different… 😦

    Like

    Reply
  14. Sage

    I can relate to this and would definitely call it a microaggression. It feels similar to when people use the wrong pronouns, you know? Also find I get called “miss”, “girl”, and “lady” a lot. There are days when that happens and I look in the mirror and ask, “really?”

    A little while ago a friend of mine posted something on facebook asking for non-gendered alternatives to “Mr./Ms. and ma’am/sir” to use while she worked in the food service industry. She said that she felt pressured to use these kinds of honorifics with her customers in order to be polite/formal, but also recognized that they were problematic. We discussed using “Mx” instead, but other than that, people weren’t really sure. It’d be nice if that caught on more, as well as other default honorifics for addressing those we don’t know that do not assume gender, because hearing “ma’am” or “sir” or “miss” over and over again when these things either don’t reflect or go against who you are can really wear on a person…

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s