The emotional drain of giving feedback
When someone says or does something that invalidates you based on your race, gender, or other identity, you have to make a choice. Is it worth responding in the moment? If you are flooded with emotions, it will take energy and focus to formulate what to say. And the conflict might escalate, depending on how defensively the offender reacts. How do you decide if it’s worth it?
This triage can happen even when you are asked legitimate questions. It’s not inappropriate for someone to ask me about bias or culture—I’m a professional diversity educator, after all. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a drain on my energy, particularly if I’m not working. I know I’m not alone in this. Repeating explanations of things that touch on one’s belonging and safety can become frustrating after a while. And if the other person is skeptical of your answers, or interrogates you as a “devil’s advocate,” it can move into microaggression territory and become exhausting.
For me, which choice I make depends a lot on the relationship I have with the person. If I have an investment in the long-term health of our connection (for example with a friend or a colleague), I’m more likely to respond. It’s worth it, because I would like our relationship to grow. Also, it might lessen the chance that it will happen again.
On the other hand, if I’m never going to see the person again, I might guard my energy and let it go. Take a breath and move on with my life.
I was talking about this in a recent workshop, and a Black man shared that he felt the opposite way. He said it is tougher for him to speak up when he is in relationship with someone, and easier when he doesn’t know the person. He gave the example of chastising a patron at a restaurant who was being rude to a server. I asked why he bothered, and he said, “I hoped they wouldn’t do it again.” For him, it was worth using his energy, and the privilege he had in that moment, to stand up for the server.
The drain is going to be different for each one of us. But if you witness a microaggression or bias, and the target decides to let it go, remember that it might be a cost-benefit calculation. Everyone in a marginalized group has a burden of “otherness” to carry. Their emotional batteries may already be too drained to take on the extra burden of explaining that burden to someone else.
In times like these, it might be especially valuable for someone in the dominant group to pull their weight. Speak up, ask a clarifying question, interrupt the direction of the conversation. Or, if you are asking a person from a marginalized group for information or advice, remember they might be drained too. Not just around racial issues—I imagine trans people might not appreciate invasive questions about the process, the journey, or their body. Someone who “looks exotic” to you, might be tired of explaining where “they are really from.” Next time you have a question about something, think about whether you really “need” to know and, if so, where else you can get that information. (Hint: Google.)