44: Death by a thousand cuts

A Thousand Things to Talk About
A Thousand Things to Talk About
44: Death by a thousand cuts

Today, we’re talking about death by a thousand cuts.

Is it worth confronting the small indignities?

Show notes and links:
Obama: Every black man my age has been mistaken for a valet — including me (Vox)
Confronting Authority: Reflections of an Ardent Protester (Jstor)
Recognizing Microaggressions
African American Political Thought: Confrontation vs. compromise (Google Books)

Full episode text

In a 2014 interview with People magazine, President Obama discussed, among other things, the numerous small indignities he had experienced in his life, from the assumption that he was a waiter to being asked to valet a car when he was at a formal event.

These small indignities come with big impacts after a long period of time. As President Obama said, “It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse.”

There are a number of names and descriptions for challenges like these – bullying, microaggressions, or even just annoyances. And often, confronting them can feel like making a mountain out of a molehill. Yet more and more often, the internet (and society) seems to be learning that it can occasionally, or even often, be worth it.

Race theorist Derrick Bell argues that “small indignities” are important to stand up to, because not confronting them may mean we are less willing to stand up when larger human rights are at issue. Marcus Pohlmann outlines why, exactly, in his book when he says, “Tolerance may be a prerequisite for life in a civilized society, but those who make it a rule to let the small indignities pass without complaint can become so worn down by their treatment and so conditioned to remain silent that they will find themselves unable to fight more serious battles.”