A few years ago I was shopping for clothes at a chain store in New York City. I had already tried on several dresses, and had found a nice suit I wanted to buy. As I was handing my discards to the changing room attendant, she said, “You need to use the changing room on the third floor.”
I had a guess as to what that might be about, but it still hurt to get off the escalator and see that the third floor was all menswear. There was no way I was marching in to the men’s changing room in a skirt and makeup. I brought my dresses back down to the first floor changing room. When the attendant saw me she said, “Oh you’re back,” but she still led me to a room.
The winter before last I was in a different store, shopping for a coat, wearing full makeup and jewelry (see the photo above). I went up to the mezzanine, where most of the women’s clothes were. A salesclerk asked if she could help me, so I asked where the coats were. She told me the basement, so I took the elevator down to find only menswear. I went back up and found the women’s coats on the ground floor. I didn’t buy anything.
Instead I went to a different store and found a nice coat. When I got to the counter the clerk looked me up and down, gave me a big smile and said, “You look great, girl! Going out tonight?”
Last week I didn’t even want to go shopping, but my boots were a little too big, so I went looking for some socks. figured it was a good time to buy some of the over-the-calf socks that were in style this winter. I went into a store, but the only women’s socks I saw, a small display by the cash registers, were ankle socks.
I looked around, and found a sign saying that in the basement they had men’s clothes and women’s clothes. I went downstairs, and the only socks I saw were men’s socks. I was heading for the escalator when a salesclerk asked if she could help me find anything.
“Socks,” I said.
“Right over here.” She led me back to the men’s socks.
“Those are men’s socks.”
“Right. You wanted – oh.”
She saw the look on my face and immediately apologized. She asked a co-worker where the women’s socks were, and he told her upstairs, by the register. As she led me back there she explained that she only really knew her department. And she told me I looked very good.
These four experiences have really clarified my understanding of microaggressions. The first experience, being told to change on the third floor, was ambiguous until I saw that the changing rooms on the third floor were for men. Because there was no way to avoid that fact, the attendant’s order was not a microaggression, it was just plain aggression. It was a way for her to tell me I wasn’t welcome in her changing room.
The fourth experience, being led to the men’s socks, wasn’t aggression at all. Women shop for men’s clothes all the time: for themselves, and for their husbands and boyfriends and sons. The salesclerk thought that was what I was doing. It hadn’t occurred to her that I could have been misdirected by the signs. I reacted strongly because I had had two negative experiences before.
The second example, being sent to the basement, is a classic microaggression. As Taylor Jones explained so well, microaggressions require ambiguity and plausible deniability. If I had tried to report the clerk, I’m guessing she would have claimed it was an honest mistake, that she thought I was a man who wanted to buy a men’s coat. To this day I myself still sometimes wonder.
The third example, receiving exaggerated compliments when I was just buying a coat, is a type of interaction that has sometimes been called microaggression. I didn’t really appreciate it because it felt forced, and it felt like the clerk wouldn’t have complimented me that way if she hadn’t thought I was trans. But it wasn’t a microaggression, because there was no possible interpretation that suggested any intent to hurt me. I had the impression that the clerk was not just saying these things to close the sale and make me want to come back, but because she wanted to be nice to a trans person. Again, not ideal, but I’ll take it.
“Microaggression” is a useful term precisely because it is so specific. It covers behavior where the intent may be aggressive, but the speaker can plausibly deny having any such intent. It does not cover situations where aggressive intent can be easily established, or where there is no evidence of any aggressive intent. Including those situations dilutes the concept.