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July 28, 2009

Sensitivity

Filed under: Uncategorized — thirdxlucky @ 4:43 pm

sen·si·tive (sns-tv)
adj.
1. Capable of perceiving with a sense or senses.
2. Responsive to external conditions or stimulation.
3. Susceptible to the attitudes, feelings, or circumstances of others.

There is no such thing as being oversensitive. When a person or population is described as “oversensitive,” what is actually being described is an imbalance of sensitivity.

A given situation or problem requires a certain amount of sensitivity qua perspicacity to solve. To be sensitive to something means to be capable of perceiving it; the more sensitive one is to a particular stimulus, the stronger one’s reaction to and the more nuanced one’s experience of that stimulus will be. If one person is being forced into the uncomfortable position of being oversensitive, it’s because others in the situation are being undersensitive, failing to take on their share of the necessary burden of feeling and seeing uncomfortable truths.

Here’s an example: White people frequently accuse People of Color of being “oversensitive” to racism. Let’s unpack that.

In Uprooting Racism, Paul Kivel draws an insightful analogy between racism and economics. The economy impacts almost every aspect of our lives, how we interact with others, how we see ourselves, decisions we make from the microcosmic – what food to buy at the grocery store today – to macrocosmic moves in international policy. Whether or not we’re conscious of them, the economy is woven into the fabric of our daily existence. Being able to perceive and describe the way economic factors influence a given situation requires a certain amount of sensitivity to, or perspicacity about, economic influences. But no one would ever accuse someone who points out (or even complains) that what we eat is influenced by food prices, and that food prices are influenced by oil prices, of being “oversensitive to economics.”

Likewise, racism is woven into the social (and economic) fabric of our culture. Pointing out the racial factors influencing a given situation does not create them, it illustrates a higher degree of perceptiveness about them.

Some people are perspicacious about the economy because they are scholars of it, others because they have to deal with it consciously on a daily basis. It’s unsurprising that most economists, business people, store owners, bankers and brokers have a more conscious, articulated and nuanced awareness of the economic factors in a given situation than, say, most artists or elementary school teachers would. In the same vein, People of Color encounter and have to deal with racism every day in a way that white people don’t, so it only makes sense that they will be more sensitive – in other words, more savvy – than white people when it comes to seeing the racial factors in their environment.

This “oversensitivity” is a survival skill. It’s largely forced on people who are vulnerable in their environments, and need to be especially perceptive in order to keep themselves safe. Having your senses turned up to eleven all the time is not comfortable or fun. It’s distracting and exhausting. It gets tiring having to see racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia everywhere you go. But the other option is choosing to not see it, which really isn’t an option if you’re the one likely to get attacked by it.

If someone is more sensitive than you around an issue, especially an issue that affects them personally, it’s not because they’re “seeing things that aren’t there.” It’s because they’re seeing things you can’t see. Most likely, that’s because they have to deal with some bullshit you don’t have to deal with. There are two ways, as the less sensitive person, to respond to this:

1) You, as the more powerful person, can punish them for being able to see what you can’t. You can ridicule them, write their experiences off, take their perspicacity personally and make things all about you. In addition to whatever bullshit they’re already dealing with, you can force them deal with your bullshit by calling them “oversensitive.”

OR

2) You can take responsibility for your bullshit yourself, and learn to look harder.

Sensitivity is not itself a problem. It points problems out. You’ll find, if you think someone is being too sensitive, that the way to get them to be less sensitive is probably not to harden your heart further and close your eyes tighter, but for you to be more sensitive about what’s going on.

You probably still won’t be able to come close to being as sensitive as they are – not for a long time, anyway. But you can take some of that burden off their shoulders and share it around a little more equally. If you take the trouble to be a little more sensitive, they can relax and be a little less sensitive, because they can count on you to be looking out for them as well.

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