The Erosion of Personhood

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By Evy Yeager

Since I started writing about human trafficking, the most common response I hear goes something like this: “I would love to be part of that work, but I have no idea how I could help.” It strikes people as a worthy and compelling cause, but one whose advocacy work is difficult to wrap your mind around.

Human trafficking seems far removed from our daily lives, but it is simply the extreme manifestation of a phenomenon with which we are all familiar: exercising unjust dominance over another person. Oppression is not a finite list of overt acts, but an entire spectrum of attitudes and behaviors. Thinking of oppression in these terms creates opportunities for anyone to make meaningful progress toward solidarity and inclusion.

Microaggressions — subtly hostile comments or actions aimed at marginalized persons — rest opposite human trafficking, at the other end of the spectrum of oppression. They appear deceptively minimal, but contribute to a culture that tolerates and even justifies subjugation of people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, economic class, and other qualities ripe for marginalization. (Intersectionality plays a key role here: individuals who are marginalized in multiple ways experience microaggressions more frequently and impactfully.)

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  • Asking people to identify their race by asking, “So what are you?” shows that you’re more interested in labeling them than understanding them.
  • Walking by undeterred as a woman is being harassed on the street demonstrates passive acceptance of this behavior.
  • Asking a woman if she has a boyfriend, in an attempt to understand why she rejected your advances, shows that you’re willing to honor another man’s claim to her sexuality, but not her own.
  • Patronizing establishments whose supply chains are known to exploit their workers implies that your convenience outweighs others’ safety.

The movement from offhand gestures to modern-day slavery seems like a questionable leap, but examining the space between them reveals a logical succession. Microaggressions, hiring biases, organized hate group activity, physical and sexual assault, labor and sex trafficking: the erosion of personhood is evident.

Microaggressions are frequently dismissed as problematic catalysts for creation of a culture of victimhood, or as not existing at all. But any denial of a person’s humanity is unacceptable, no matter how small. Whether a casual rejection of a person’s presence or outright enslavement, the core message of the gesture is the same: some people are less deserving of humanity in the form of respect, compassion, autonomy, care, and safety. Tolerance of microaggressions is passive acceptance of the idea that some of us are less human than others; from there, it’s just a matter of degrees.

Addressing oppression across its entire spectrum is critical. This is good news for people who feel like they lack the time or specialized knowledge to participate in the fight against human trafficking. If the problem exists on multiple levels, so does the solution: recognize seemingly isolated incidents as parts of a larger and powerful pattern, and speak up.

Traffick Free is a faith-motivated organization that seeks to provide the greater metropolitan area of Chicago with tools and sustainable programs to combat human trafficking and transform the lives of victims and communities.