Monique deflected the young white woman’s hand away from her afro and rolled her eyes. She was here to enjoy the party with her friends, not be treated like an exotic object. Just yesterday she stood uncomfortably still while her older white male coworker patted her head in passing.
Have you had the experience of responding two different ways to the same clear boundary violation? Afterward, you may have berated yourself for one or both responses, or you may have known exactly what calculations went into your decision.
At the party, Monique trusts her friends’ knowledge of issues around touching Black people’s hair. At her job, there are few Black women. Most people there would see themselves in her coworker’s position by default, causing them to sympathize with him rather than supporting her boundaries.
Boundaries form a flexible container for our sensations, emotions, and preferences. We often think of boundaries as fence lines around what we control, markers for our sphere of authority. We should at minimum have sole authority over our own bodies. Where everyone is respectful, we express boundaries freely. Where those with more power transgress against those with less, we perform complex calculations about hierarchies of authority before we speak.
Even when we strive to treat everyone equally, it is easier to express a boundary to people who have less power than we do. Not only is there less risk of retribution, but they are more likely to watch for our non-verbal signals of discomfort.
People with more power may subtly inhibit us from expressing boundaries. They may ignore non-verbal signals, loom just a little, or mention past violence. In interactions where you did not express a violated boundary, what influenced your decision not to speak?
The system is skewed
In addition to hierarchies based on age and authority, we live in a web of hierarchies based on privilege and marginalization. Characteristics such as skin color, gender, sexual orientation, religion, and level of health and ability intersect to determine how much power we have in relation to others.
Privilege is like biking with a personal tailwind. Marginalization is like biking with a personal headwind. People with privilege get better results for the same amount of effort, and people who are marginalized have to work harder to keep up. White, male, cis-gendered, straight, Christian, able-bodied people are given preference in many subtle and overt ways. For example, men are hired more quickly than women and white people are hired more quickly than Black people.
Since headwinds and tailwinds are invisible, in any individual case it is easy to blame the person or the circumstances. In the aggregate, it becomes obvious that the system is skewed.
PTSD as a disability
PTSD is an invisible disability. People who have experienced trauma are marginalized relative to people who do not have to contend with flashbacks, victim-blaming, and encounters with their abusers.
People with PTSD also have privilege relative to many people. Jaclyn, the young white woman who tried to touch Monique’s hair, burst into tears when Monique blocked her hand. Jaclyn suddenly felt like she was facing her mother, who often hit her for mistakes. While Jaclyn fully deserves support and comfort for her distress, it is not Monique’s responsibility to provide it.
Jaclyn could briefly apologize to Monique and seek comfort elsewhere. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have tried to touch your hair.”
Our place in the web
Most of us have a mix of characteristics that are privileged and marginalized. We may not notice the privilege that comes with characteristics seen as the default, such as being white, heterosexual, or able-bodied. What is your personal list of identities?
Next time you notice a boundary violation, take note of the lines of authority in the situation. Who has more privilege? Are there barriers to expressing the boundary? Does anyone show anger? People with privilege are free to express anger, while marginalized people are chastised for appearing angry even when speaking calmly.
In situations where you have less privilege, can you find a way to speak? Look for allies, and for power you do have to take action. Say a gentle hello to any feelings of helplessness that arise. Sometimes there is room to speak your truth, even when there is no room to enforce a boundary. “I don’t like having my hair touched.”
In situations where you have more privilege, can you make it safer for people to express boundaries to you? Stay aware of dominating body language, interruptions, and expecting others to yield to you. Speak less and listen more. Say a gentle hello to any feelings of defensiveness that arise.
It is distressing to have boundaries violated and feel unsafe to speak up. It is also distressing to be called out on a transgression or realize we have inadvertently contributed to oppression. Most of us find ourselves in both situations at different times, doing our best to bring awareness to lines of authority as we share power with those around us. Have compassion for your choices and the complex calculations beneath them.
Evidence that men are hired more quickly than women: “How I Discovered Gender Discrimination” by Mr. Kim O’Grady.
Evidence that white people are hired more quickly than Black people: “Unemployed Black Woman Pretends to be White, Job Offers Skyrocket” by Yolanda Spivey.
The book Blindspot by Banaji and Greenwald offers clear, readable proof that good people exhibit hidden biases.