Recently, I learned about the metaphor known as spoon theory, that is often used for those with chronic illnesses, as a way for them to describe how limited the amount of physical or mental energy an individual may have for daily activities and tasks.
Spoon theory was coined by Christine Miserandino in 2003 (read about it here) to express how Christine, an individual with lupus, has limited units of energy (aka spoons) and the number of reduced spoons she felt she had due to her chronic illness, forcing her to plan out days in advance to prevent running out of energy. Since the coining of this term, spoon theory has been used to describe a variety of disabilities, mental health issues, forms of marginalization, and other factors that may place an extra, typically unseen burden on those who live with these factors.
Last week, I was presenting a short talk about racial microaggressions. Microaggressions, are brief and commonplace words, actions, or phrases that, whether intentional or unintentional, communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights, and insults toward People of Color (POC). In the moment, a microaggression can invalidate a POC’s experiential reality. Thus, we can say that, arguably, in the moment, a POC uses a few spoons when being microaggressed.
Now, if we then expect the person who is being targeted by the microaggression, to then attempt to diffuse the situation or address the individual who microaggressed them, we are asking the POC to then also use MORE spoons to address the situation.
So, as an example, let’s say I came to work with 10 spoons allotted. I gave a presentation to executives on a project I’ve been working on for a long time. The presentation used up 2 spoons leaving me with 8 spoons. During the presentation, my manager talks over me as I’m fielding questions even though they have not been a part of my project. Rather than trying to cut back in, I let my manager finish talking but they tell me to “speak up” and “communicate clearly” even though no one else has had issues with my volume or English. This interaction makes me feel like my manager doesn’t think I know what I’m doing and that my quiet and respectful style of communication isn’t one that is fits the norm of the organization.
By being talked over and demeaned during my presentation, I used up another 2 spoons trying to figure out if I had been fielding questions incorrectly and what about my presentation style was too “passive” even though previous presentations, I have gotten positive feedback about my presentation style.
I am now down to 6 spoons.
Later, I have a meeting with my manager to debrief on the presentation. I have to decide whether or not I want to ask them why they jumped in when I felt like I had a good handle of answering the questions asked. In debating this decision, I use another spoon.
The original 10 spoons I had allotted for my workday, is now halved based on one interaction with my manager and I’m left to choose where to spend my remaining spoons. Will I still be an effective employee? Probably not.
So, what can Allies and Bystanders do to help People of Color conserve spoons in situations like the example above?
A big part of why microaggressions is a “death by a thousand cuts” is because of the ambiguity related to it. In the example above, I’m not sure if my manager thinks I’m more “soft spoken” because I am Asian American and therefore, am stereotyped to be more quiet, reserved, and submissive, or if because I was truly speaking too quietly.
In the moment, an ally (another employee in the meeting), could speak up and say “I can hear you just fine” or “I am also struggling to hear, please speak up”, and therefore removing the ambiguity around the situation.
An ally could also say, “hey [insert manager’s name here], let’s let Julie finish answering the question first”, or “Julie, I’d love for you to finish what you were saying earlier”.
By stepping in and clarifying the situation or simply validating my experience, I could have been saved at least 2 spoons, if not more during that one presentation.
People with marginalized identities are often using more spoons than they anticipated, simply because of their existence and reality. Because of stereotypes and biases, we are forced to combat invisible factors that we cannot anticipate in advance.
Help your coworkers, your friends, those in your circle, who may be using more spoons than you might expect by validating their realities. Take the initiative to step in and reduce their usage of spoons without asking those individuals to spend spoons explaining to you what you can do to help.