This summer, in order to knock off a few credits, I took an online novel into film class through Emerson. It was around the same length as a regular semester and involved reading a different novel each week. After finishing the book, our professor would start a discussion on Canvas, an online education portal, where we were required to answer questions and respond to our classmates. The instructor would also respond to our comments and thus, generate discussion.
One particularly difficult week, we were assigned to read “Horseman, Pass By” by Larry McMurtry. The novel is about a young man, Lonnie, living on his grandfather’s ranch in 1954 whose despicable uncle Hud influences his coming of age. Westerns aren’t generally my cup of tea, but this story made me especially trepidatious. On the back of my library copy, the synopsis read: “Hud Bannon was as tough as the Texas land he lived on. Women were drawn to him like pins to a magnet. The boy Lonnie made an idol of him. But was he a rapist?”
As I read, I saw McMurtry was deliberately creating a world full of misogynists: the ranchers treat women horribly, often comparing them to animals, specifically cattle. Most of the men think of women only in regards to sexual conquest. There is only one female character with agency in the novel, the black housekeeper, Halmea. Lonnie has a crush on her; Hud is abusive, using slurs and touching her inappropriately. In the climax of the novel, Hud brutally rapes Halmea, a scene written in graphic detail. As my stomach turned, I had to wonder why the synopsis posed Hud the rapist as a question, when really there was no room for question at all.
In the Canvas discussion that week, I wrote explicitly that as a woman, the novel was exhausting to read. In his reply, our professor commented, “Mary Kate, I hope that anyone would find this novel disturbing.”
Lest I be labeled overly sensitive, I didn’t then nor do I now have any problem with this professor, who is a man. I enjoyed the class, thought that the questions were stimulating, and found the discussions and assignments interesting. I don’t think this professor intended to dismiss me in writing that comment. However, after that remark, and several others from male classmates whom I’m sure also meant well, saying they, too, found the comments disturbing, I found myself growing upset.
Though I believe none of these men had the intention of invalidating I had written my comment in an attempt to express my feelings about a particular female experience. Any person of any gender can experience rape and abuse, but our country hosts epidemic levels of sexual violence against women. According to Rape Response Services Online, one in five American women “has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in their lifetime.” That rate increases for women of color, trans women, and disabled women. When I write that Halmea’s rape affected me as a woman, I am writing from that perspective, with those facts in mind.
I do hope that the horrific abuse described in “Horseman, Pass By” is disturbing to anyone who reads it, but my comment wasn’t meant to be universal. It was meant for women living in a society that isn’t all that different from McMurtry’s take on 1954. Though unintentional, my professor invalidated my personal experience of reading the novel by implying that anyone should feel as I feel, which negates the unique perspective I was attempting to voice.
His behavior is a “microagression.”
PsychologyToday describes microaggressions as “hidden messages [that] may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons.” A recent example of this is “#AllLivesMatter” co-opting the “#BlackLivesMatter” hashtag on social media. No one is arguing that not all lives matter—Black Lives Matter is addressing another particular violent epidemic in our country, coming from a particular perspective of people of color. To dismiss this movement is to invalidate the lived experience of black people living in America.
Microagressions are insidious because they’re difficult to combat. Often they’re borne from systemic prejudices so ingrained within us that we don’t even realize what we’ve said or done. In order to facilitate discussion and change, we need to eliminate microagressions from our everyday lives. We need to think before we act, speak, or type, and remember how easy it is to invalidate someone’s perspective with just the click of a button.