The Importance of Small Things

Recently, Target announced that it would remove signs in its stores differentiating between "girl toys" and "boy toys". Unsurprisingly, the move drew both praise from those who thought the move was long overdue and criticism from others who thought gendered signage wasn’t truly problematic. This, of course, isn’t the first time such an argument has been made: those who refuse to refer to transgender people by their preferred name or pronoun often say that their refusal isn’t truly a big deal, and some people question whether street harassment is really harassment at all.

However, when we give these issues some thought it becomes obvious they’re not as small as some say. Imagine, for a moment, a young girl who simply likes to play with action figures. To buy them at Target before they removed gendered signage, she would have to go to the “boy toys” section. In doing so, she is subtly being told something incredibly powerful: you are an anomaly. Gendered signage tells every girl who likes toy guns and every boy who likes dolls that their gender isn't supposed to like those toys. This is just another way of saying "you shouldn't exist" which is an incredibly dangerous thing to tell a young and developing mind. It’s actually similar in a way to the message we send when we don’t use the preferred pronoun or name of a transgendered person: you are a mistake, I don’t recognize the life you choose, the individual you want to be does not and cannot exist. When it comes to street harassment the message we send again has greater impact than we believe: you commute to work or jog is also a spectacle, a source of my entertainment, and I am allowed to solicit you at any time and in any place.

The problem we often have in understanding the significance of phenomena like these actually parallels a concept we all know well: things seem much smaller from afar. To say that something isn’t a big deal even when others who are affected by it clearly disagree with us just means that we don’t experience their struggle. In other words, saying something isn't a big deal is an act of privilege: we don’t think something is a big deal because we're fortunate enough to not deal with it every single day. Does this mean that every single moment of outrage over every issue is completely warranted? No, of course not. Sometimes people do genuinely overreact. However, before we rush to judge a group’s outrage, we need to do seriously think about whether they truly are overreacting, or whether we simply don’t understand the magnitude of the problem.