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May132014

MICROAGGRESSIONS #1: THE PROBLEM

 

 

 Consider the following snippets from actual conversations:

Neighbor: Hey, did you meet that new family down the street?

 Kelly: [whose family does not attend church]  No, I haven't.  Did you?

Neighbor: Yes, but it was sort of uncomfortable.  They're really nice but they're atheist--or I guess not atheist but humanist or Buddhist or something--same thing, thoughh  Anyway, I just feel funny being around people who aren't Christian, you know?

Kelly: Ummm.  . .  I guess so. . . .

 

Client: [Enters Ann's office, with her name and title on the door]  Umm. . .  Hi.  Is this where I file a harassment complaint?

Ann: Yes, it is.  Why don't yu have a seat and tell me what happened?

Client: Well, actually, the person who sent me here suggested that I talk to the Director.  Is he around?

Ann: I am the Director.

Client: Oh.  OK.  I didn't know.

 

Co-worker: Hey Al, do you have a minute? I need to ask you a question.

Al: [who is Black]  Sure.  .  . .  What's up?

Co-worker: Well, we're starting a diversity committee and it doesn't have ny diversity.  So I was wondering if you could join.

Al: Well, I'm not sure I'm the best person for the committee.  My schedule is really tight.

Co-worker: Oh, well, we can schedule the meetings around when you're available.  We really need someone who is diverse.

Al: Oh. . .  Um. . . .

Monica, a middle-aged professional African American, is standing with her husband in the supermarket checkout line.  An elderly White woman walks in with a partly-used bag of fruit to return.  Without any request or "excuse me," she pushes her cart directly in front of Monica's.   When her husband begins to protest, Monica assures him, "She's probably with that man in front of her."  They shift to another line.  The man in front of her finishes checking out and leaves alone.

Nothing huge is going on here, right?  Kelly's neighbor lumps everybody who's not Christian togeteher and expresses discomfort around people who are different from her in this way.  Ann's client assumes so strongly that the Director must be a man that he misses the title on her office door.  Al's co-worker appears to believe that any person who looks "different" can bring the needed "diversity" to his committee--and wants to.  The elderly White woman is learly rude, but is it fair to conclude that the main reason she crowded in front of Monica and her husband was because they were Black?  Do you see any blatant discrimination here?  Any overt racism?  Anything that would violate the law or even make the news?

Only a few decades ago, violent Anti-Semitism, gay-bashing, and the lynching of African Americans often went unnoticed.  Today, the Trayvon Martin case and hate crimes like the James Anderson and Marcelo Lucero killings still happen (http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/hate-incidents), and although anti-Semitic incidents are at an all-time low, there were 31 violent assaults against Jewish people in 2013.( http://www.cnn.com/2014/04/14/us/kansas-shooting-suspect-profile/ ).  In addition, almost 60% of the LGBT shigh school students in Iowa report having their property stolen or deliberately damaged at school, and over 33% report physical harassment   (www.iowapridenetwork.org/climatestudy.html)  Racial and cultural violence is still a serious problem in the US.

An equally serious problem is that almost all of those who identify with or appear to be in a cultural minority, whether it's racial, gender, religious, age, disability, or sexual identity, experience microaggressions literally every day.  The snippets of conversation capture common, repeated experiences for many of today's cultural minorities and show that many people who identify with cultural majorities deal with difference very poorly.  Online, "The Microaggressions Project"  (http://www.microaggressions.com/) has received more than 15,000 submissions and has had over 2.5 million page views from 40 countries.  In March, 2014, the New York Times quoted a Univrsity of michigan graduate calling microaggressions "racism 2.0. . . .  You hire an Asian programmer because you think he's going to be a good programmer because he's Asian."  A Harvard student noted,"It's almost scary the way that this disguised racism can affect you, hindering your success and the very psyche of going to class" microaggressions.tumblr.com/‎, and http://nyti.ms/1r2vWBr

"Driving while Black" still gets people of color stoppedin many U.S. cities and towns.  Women are assumed to be subordinates, and they still earn less than men do in similar positions.  Loss Prevention Specialists at Wal-Mart and Target commonly follow many more Latinos and Blacks than they do Whites.  In the 21st century, microaggressions are one of the biggest challenges to encouraging multicultural moments that matter.

MICROAGGESSIONS AND CULTURAL DIFFERENCES

Microaggressions are communication events that feature brief and commonplace verbal or nonverbal indignities intentional or unintentional, that are readily interpretable as hostile and derogatory toward cultural minorities. (D. W. Sue, Microaggressions in Everyday Life:  Race, Gener, & Sexual Orientation.  Hoboken, N.J.:  John Wiley, 2010.)  Microinsults are subtle snubs that demean a person’s cultural heritage or identity, such as when an employee of color is asked, “How did you get your job?”  The implication is that the person must have obtained the position through some affirmative action or quota program and not because of ability.

          Microinvalidations exclude, nullify, or negate the experiences of a minority person.  When people of color hear, “I don’t notice race at all; I’m color-blind” from a person in the majority culture, the effect is often to negate their experiences as racial/cultural persons.  While those of us who enjoy white privilege may go through days or even weeks without noticing how our ethnicity affects our experience, most people of color in the U.S. are reminded of their cultural status daily. Virtually no Latinos or Blacks have the privilege of living, parenting, working, loving, playing, and laughing in a color-blind world.  In the U.S., Whites are the only people with this privilege.

Similar invalidations happen when a gay or lesbian person is asked, “Have you ever had normal sex?” when restaurant patrons roll their eyes and slowly shake their heads at the appearance of a racially-mixed couple, and when a well-meaning able-bodied person grabs the handles of an occupied wheelchair without asking, and pushes it up a ramp.

Some individuals with strong cultural identities shrug off microaggressions.  One reports in The New York Times, “I don’t get bent out of shape if a white person asks me are you, like, Hindu or something?  I just correct them.”  (http://nyti.ms/1r2vWBr )

         At the same time, continuous microaggressions can be difficult to deal with, partly because they often come from well-meaning people who think they are being sensitive and even inclusive.  Their intent is sometimes good, while the effects of what they do are hurtful.  For example, when a Latino professional has the occasion to mention her graduate degree, and her White conversation partner replies, “Good for you!” the intent is probably encouragement but the inference can be that most persons of color don’t succeed in graduate school.  As a White male with a doctorate, I have never been told “Good for you!” for earning my degree.

Microaggressions are also difficult to deal with because people inside the majority group can pass off the minority person’s interpretations as due to “over-sensitivity,” or “lack of self-esteem.”  Unfortunately, these dismissals are often evidence of defensiveness or insensitivity more than they reflect a genuine effort to understand. 

        Why?  Because the charge of “over-sensitivity” ignores the well-documented and crushing cultural histories of racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, and disrespect of disabled persons that unfortunately frame the lives of many minority individuals.  These histories provide the context for their negative interpretations.  When people like you have suffered overt and even violent indignities for decades or centuries, it’s understandable that you’d interpret microaggressions negatively.  One student of color summarized the experience in a focus group discussion when she noted, “Being Black at this college is like having a second, full-time job.”

         A third problem with microaggressions is that they can build up over time, to the point where the minority person’s explosion is a scary surprise to the well-meaning majority person who does not regularly experience these subtle put-downs.  After having her credibility, competence, effectiveness, and suitability for her city job being vaguely questioned over a period of days or weeks, Ann responds to a fairly innocent question, “What’s the matter?  Because I’m a woman, you don’t think I could know anything about the engineering side of this project?!  Give me a break, dammit!”

         Many historians argue that the defining characteristic of the 21st century is globalization, and this means that each of us needs to deal on a daily basis with people who are different from ourselves.  Multicultural competence means consistently dealing effectively with these differences.  And this isn’t easy.  Almost all of us know better than to engage in overt cultural violence, and yet even well-meaning people contribute to microaggressions every day.

On the one hand, these subtle invalidations and insults can be easier to reduce, because they’re smaller.  On the other hand, they’re also often unconscious and well-intentioned, and this makes them much more difficult to eliminate.  I hope you will commit to becoming aware of them and to search your heart and mind about whether they are part of your communication life.

My next post will suggest some practical ways to avoid microaggressions and encourage multicultural moments that matter.

 

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