Make sure you affirm and support risk-takers in public, not in private with microappreciations
Constantly being microappreciated can be harmful to self, relationships, and ultimately the fight towards justice.
by Tynesha M. McCullers
A few months back, I was in a training and I chose to speak up about the importance of understanding people’s varying identities in the workplace, and how those identities influence how they show up and how they are perceived as individuals. After I spoke, I was minimized by the presenter and verbally assaulted by a participant in the space because of my views.
I immediately felt embarrassed and alone, but then I looked at my phone. On it were messages from other people in the room disagreeing with the people who had minimized my words, agreeing with my sentiments, and thanking me for standing in truth. I thanked them for seeing me and agreeing with me, but I started to feel sick to my stomach and uneasy.
My spirit is content when I tell the truth; this is something that I’ve learned over the years which is why I continue to do it. However, I’ve noticed a pattern whenever I’m attacked or berated by ignorance: I tell it like it is, someone disagrees and makes it known by trying to insult me, then I respond with a valid critique of their statement, everyone then moves on by not saying anything and then the messages of appreciation come in, privately.
Don’t get me wrong, I think being appreciated and validated privately after being micro-aggressed publicly is fine, but there is something that feels just as harmful about this approach just as much as the microaggressions. While I don’t want to tell people how to “appreciate” other people doing good work, I think that we should take some time to consider the ways microappreciations can be harmful and figure out how to hold each other accountable when they do happen.
I want to be very clear when I say this: part of advocating for people is not necessarily expecting something in return from them. To expect reward and praise for doing what is morally right, given historical and present understandings around power and oppression, calls into question one’s motivation for getting into the fight for justice. If one is looking to be applauded for drawing attention to disparities and/or inequitable practices that limit the liberation of people, then they may be in the wrong proverbial “lane.” I think about this often; it’s one of the reasons why I struggle with receiving accolades for doing what I feel to be right. However, struggling with receiving support or recognition doesn’t mean that I don’t want or need it from time to time. I say this because I know that I cannot fight for justice every single day on my own; this fight is a collective one.
As a Black woman, I am constantly speaking up on behalf of people who would never look my way or give me a second thought—people who look like me and don’t. Don’t get me wrong, speaking truth to power can be liberating for me, but it can also be isolating. People who may have been friendly with you before, might separate themselves from you when they realize the number of risks you take by holding oppressive systems and people accountable.
These individuals tend to be the ones who will vent to you in private about how they experience oppression due to living at the margins. They’ll show rage, they’ll cry, they’ll laugh out of hopelessness. They might even be bold enough to craft a response to the bullshit and practice saying it to those who have wronged them. These people feel good leaning on you, being embraced and heard by you.
I, for one, feel a sense of purpose when I can be a refuge for these individuals—to affirm them. I even take it a step further by advocating for them in public spaces, speaking generally without naming them, of course. I just feel this weird sense of confusion when they remain silent in public, particularly because of the inauthentic nature of it and the consideration that silence can be interpreted as violence. And, the silence is followed up by private praise in small gestures.
I call these microappreciations, and they might seem like affirmations and motivation for someone to keep going; however, constantly being microappreciated can be harmful to self, relationships, and ultimately the fight towards justice.
I tend to feel like I’m being gaslighted when I receive microappreciations. Like the negative feelings I experienced in front of the crowd are somehow not real or valid, because I was actually doing something positive, that simply lacked positive rewards. I question my reality and wonder if what happens in private (sharing of truths with “spectators”) is something that should be reserved for private and not public spaces. When I read “thank you for speaking up to that person, they shouldn’t have spoken to you that way”, what I register it as is “thanks for saying something, that person was wrong and it’s a good thing you told them they were.” Imagine what getting multiple messages like that is like. Imagine being in a room of fifty people and still feeling alone because not one of those people was willing to take the risk and support you publicly.
Public shaming, microassaults, and discrimination due to deviation from the status quo, deserve public accountability and not just on the part of the person being harmed. Accountability needs to come from the people serving as “spectators” in the space. “Spectators” being those individuals who believe in what the risk taker is fighting for but for whatever reason are unwilling or unable to stand in solidarity with them.
Those same individuals may be the first to send microappreciations via text, phone calls, notes, etc. privately to someone who speaks up, when it’s all said and done and the harm has already occurred. Microappreciations hurt, especially when you really needed someone to stand in solidarity with you in public. What good is showing solidarity privately when you failed to do so for a harm that occurred publicly?
Activists, advocates, fighters for justice need just as much advocacy given back to them as they give out (if not more). Individuals who find purpose in taking risks for the betterment of their communities need to be held, protected, and affirmed in public just as much as they are in private.
Fighting for justice, doing what’s morally right, and taking risks rarely comes with immediate rewards, if any at all. It can be frustrating, isolating, and taxing, and yet there are people, like me, who still do it. And I imagine, we do it because we would feel lost and unfulfilled not doing it. While I long for the day that individuals who appreciate me in private are bold enough to appreciate me in public, I long even more for the day that liberation doesn’t come at a cost of harm for anyone.
Tynesha is a strong-willed higher education professional in the DMV with a passion for social justice. Born and raised in North Carolina, Tynesha is true to southern roots. Tynesha has a B.S. in Human Development and a Master of Education. Tynesha’s interests include watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, singing, painting, traveling, and writing.