Don’t Be So Sensitive: Derailing Important Conversations

I’m pretty sure all of us have been told at one point or another, after taking down someone who perpetuates any one of a sea of -isms, “Don’t be so sensitive.” When I was a kid, that cowed me. I was afraid of being perceived as weak and hysterical (ah, internalized misogyny!), and as everyone well knows, sensitive is but one step down the dangerous path of unchecked (and feminine!) emotion.

But now when someone tells me, “Don’t be so sensitive,” my reaction is to ask, “Why?” What do I gain from being less sensitive, apart from an increased tolerance for TMZ commenters? I can see where someone benefits – their egregious displays of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism remain unchecked. They can remain comfortable in an environment that is uncomfortable for everyone who isn’t them. They can control the dialogue.

But me? I gain nothing.

Maybe this will be easier with examples.

When someone tells a rape joke and then tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they’re telling you that violence against women is not a big deal. They’re telling you that women are a punchline.

That is not OK.

When someone tells a racist joke and then tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they’re telling you that the dehumanization and oppression of people of color is no big deal. They’re telling you that people of color might not qualify as people.

That is not OK.

When someone tells a heterosexist joke and then tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they’re reinforcing the heteronormative status quo. They’re telling you that other sexual identities are deviant and deserve scorn.

That is not OK.

When someone tells a cissexist joke and then tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they are telling you that the high suicide rate among trans* people is no big deal. They are telling you that trans* people’s identities should not be respected.

That is not OK.

When someone tells a Black person who is sharing an experience of racism, or a woman who is sharing an experience of sexism, or a trans* person who is sharing an experience of transphobia to “Stop being so sensitive,” they are erasing that person’s experience and replacing it with their own. They are telling that person that zie is experiencing things incorrectly, inaccurately. They are telling that person that they know better.

That is not OK.

When someone tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they are trying to shame you by calling on weakness, on femininity, on your deviance from the acceptable, masculine response.

That is not OK.

I know not everyone who says, “Stop being so sensitive” comes from a place of privilege, but the phrase “Stop being so sensitive” comes from the place of ultimate privilege. It comes from a place where no one has ever erased your identity and experiences. It comes from a place where your concerns are taken seriously and the concerns of others not like you are dismissed as secondary. It comes from a place where you haven’t thought about and acknowledged the fundamental humanity in every other person, regardless of race, sex, socio-economic status, sexual orientation, gender orientation, or disability. It comes from a thoughtless place.

So you know, I’ll be as sensitive as I damn well please.

11 thoughts on “Don’t Be So Sensitive: Derailing Important Conversations”

  1. When someone tells you to “Stop being so sensitive,” they are trying to shame you by calling on weakness, on femininity, on your deviance from the acceptable, masculine response.

    I just read a person on here telling an author not to “jump off a bridge” about something. I view that as just another variation of telling someone that they were overreacting or being too sensitive so I think we women do it to each other, too!

  2. This is my first comment, so apologies if it’s awkward.

    I have an honest question. As someone who tends to speak her mind and struggle with different approaches, I ask: do you live your convictions? Other than opposing to tasteless jokes, do you make remarks or act when someone makes sexist, heterosexist, racist, etc, assumptions? It has been my experience that if you’re not consistent, people don’t listen.

    I tend to enjoy tasteless jokes. I take power knowing how idiotic they are, and making remarks like, “as if a man would be better in that situation” and add to the joke rather than contradict it. Disarmed people have a better chance of listening than defensive ones.

    These are just some thoughts and questions I’ve had since reading this post. For a thorough understanding of my humor perspective, listen to ‘Avenue Q’.

  3. Would DBSS be in the same category as someone telling you that you are, “reading too much into,” a situation? Because my husband tells me this on the regular. Sometimes he’s just trying to help me gauge my emotional response, (“Yes that person is perpetuating rape culture, but you are worked into a fit of blind rage over some stupid blog read by assholes.”) But other times…

  4. The version of this I think I hear the most, or about as frequently, is, “Aren’t there more serious things to focus on?” or “Shouldn’t you be spending your energy worrying about something more important than this?” It’s so condescending and dismissive, and I usually reply that, believe it or not, I can be outraged and critical about more than one thing at a time, so never fear, I’m still angry about those big things you’re referring to that you’d probably also be dismissive of.

  5. “Don’t be sensitive” is in the same category as “I’m not a racist, I have black friends, but” and “In real life” which is the one that even bugs me the most. All of it denounce me as silly, stupid and not knowing what happens in the world.

  6. It’s not yet 9am, but here goes.

    “Don’t be so sensitive” is something i loathe, primarily because i recall hearing it often at school with regards to bullying. What i wanted to note though, was that in the Juniper household, we have the “Let it go, if you can” saying kicked around a fair bit. It’s not to deny the reaction that XYZ caused but to try and move past it, if possible and if not, then let’s deal with it. “Don’t be so sensitive” would be kicked out of our house in mere seconds given what lives here but “Let it go” is doing well.

  7. As my awareness of my privilege and the consequences of stereotyping continues to grow, what I find funny also changes (or rather it seems like there are just less jokes I find funny).

    A friend commented recently about how I don’t have a sense of humour about things anymore. He wasn’t trying to shut me down, nor do I think that my comments made him feel guilty, it was more that he felt like we had lost something we used to enjoy together. And to clarify, the jokes he was referring to are not blatantly racist, or heteronormative, etc.; I guess I’m just feeling as though most jokes are made at someone’s expense, and reinforce stereotypes and simplify complex issues.

    My friend’s perspective is that if a joke is shared just between the two of us, and we both understand that the joke is a stereotype and not a truth, that it is okay for us to have a laugh in the moment, because it is not malicious, just a way to relax after engaging in often tiring and discouraging social justice related work through the week.

    I’ve had trouble articulating a response to this idea, because in some ways I do miss the ignorance that allowed me to have an easier laugh.

    Also, I need some good non-oppressive jokes to counter with!

  8. My dad used to tell me this all the time when I was growing up. I’ve noticed people generally say shit like this to me when I’ve made them uncomfortable. Usually because I’ve called them on some crappy racist/sexist/homophobic/status-quo-upholding statement that made *me* uncomfortable in the first place. Funny how people think their comfort should trump mine. I think the world would be a better place if more people were *more* sensitive.

    Also, I hate that phrase more than almost anything.

  9. I wonder about the prevalence of this in other societies. I think that in mainstream American culture, there is a perceived norm of sensitivity, and to express dissatisfaction is often not really acceptable. Even in my regular group of acquaintances, who I’d generally describe as politically and socially active (we have all chosen to work in a low-income community), sometimes serious discussions are downplayed and things get brushed off, maybe with a joke, maybe with “but we worked all week, can we just relax now?”

    It often seems to me that our society values optimism and the pursuit of happiness too highly. There is a place for both, but they shouldn’t come with a price of apathy, ignorance, and overlooked hardship.

  10. My coined response to someone telling me not to be “so sensitive” is:

    Who says I’m being “so” sensitive or extra anything? You don’t have the monopoly on the correct amount of emotion or the “right” reaction. I actually get to react how I choose.

    I tell them to put their puppet strings away and stop telling me how to feel.

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