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Jun072014

MICROAGGRESSIONS #2: WHAT CAN YOU DO?

Last month (see below) I talked about “Microaggressions,” which 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 .  Like when a Latino professional has the occasion to mention her graduate degree, and her White conversation partner replies, “Good for you!”—as if the accomplishment requires the kind of recognition offered to people who do more than they’re expected to.  I hope some of the examples rang a bell for you, and that you’re interested in ways to reduce or eliminate microaggressions.

 Whether a comment, look, smile, or shrug is interpreted as a microaggression depends on several things, including the relationship between the communicators, each person’s history, the topic, etc.  When you want to do what you can to reduce microaggressions in your own communication life, though, the following suggestions can help.  There’s more about this topic in the “Multicultural Moments that Matter” chapter of the New and Revised version of U&ME: Communicating in Moments that Matter that will be out in a month or so.

Step #1:  Be Aware of Your Own Cultural Identities

            Five of my main cultural identities are that I’m male, White, husband, parent, and writer.  These are all central to who I am.  They’re cultural identities because each comes with historically-based meanings, expectations, and communication patterns that I’ve learned and that I consciously and unconsciously help pass on to others with similar identities.  What are your top five?

            After you’ve identified your cultural identities, write down or explain to someone else what each means and why these are your main ones.  Part of what it means for me to be male, is that when I’m conversing with a  woman I try hard not to interrupt.  Part of what it means for me to be White is that where I live in the U.S. Midwest, I have considerable unearned privilege. 

            This is an important activity to do, because it’s impossible to be multiculturally competent until you know where you are standing culturally whenever your communicate with others.  Some Caucasians, for example, overlook the fact that White is a color that is as culturally significant as being Asian or African American.  If this is a difficult exercise for you, have a look at some helpful resources athttp://www.afs.org/blog/icl/?p=3606, orhttp://www.nafsa.org/_/file/_/theory_connections_intercultural_competence.pdf.   But don’t just skip over it.  Get to know your own cultural identities.

Step #2:  Move from an Ethnocentric toward a Cosmopolitan Perspective

            When a person is being ethnocentric, she is “centered” in her own “ethnos” or culture.  Ethnocentrism means treating your own culture as “normal” and evaluating practices different from yours as “abnormal.  For example, ethnocentric Asians might resist overt expressions of feelings and evaluate a noisy conversation among, e.g., African Americans or Jewish friends as “immature,” or “embarrassing” because they talk in ways that are different from what the Asians are used to.

            When you have a cosmopolitan perspective, you see differences as normal and as sites for exploration.  This perspective empowers you to experience your own culture in the context of others, and to evaluate different practices within their own cultural context.  For example, if you are White, cosmopolitanism can mean accepting your African American colleague’s belief that almost no Whites are really sincere as a legitimate perspecitve, given his experience.  It means responding to cultural differences with humility, empathy, and curiosity rather than defensiveness and rejection.

            If you’re aware of your own cultural identity and working toward cosmopolitanism, you’re less likely to shake your head and scowl in disgust when you see an interracial couple or two women obviously in love; you’re more likely to slow your car for every pedestrian, not just those who look like you; and you’re less likely to expect that the person in power is going to be male. 

Step #3:Try Applying the Platinum Rule

            The Golden Rule—“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”—is a valued ethical standard in many cultures.  It’s good in that it helps you seriously consider the impact of your choices on others.  And it’s limited, because when taken literally, it can promote ethnocentrism.

            If I do unto you strictly what I would want you to do unto me, my thinking and behaving remain within my own cultural framework.  For example, I may know that “respect” in my culture means looking me in the eyes.  I may forget or ignore the fact that in your culture, respect may be communicated partly by looking at the floor, and that direct eye contact may be a sign of challenge or hostility.  If I treat you the way I want to be treated, in this case it’s likely to make things worse.

            So effective multicultural communicating requires you to “Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.”  This is the Platinum Rule.  It sets an even higher standard than the Golden Rule, because you need to be sensitive to, learn about, or ask about what’s appropriate in the other person’s culture, and then follow their lead.

HUMILITY, EMPATHY, CURIOSITY

            When you want to avoid microaggressions, these are the three key attitudes.  Humility means remembering that you aren’t always right, and your ways are not the only ways.  Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBT) people might not be accepted in one or more of the cultures that you inhabit, but they are accepted in many other cultures.  Poverty creates cultural spending patterns that make sense to the people following them, even if they make no sense to you  Humility does not require you to embrace or even agree with every version of sexuality or financial management, but it does mean that you understand and accept that there are differences.  You can respect people for their humanity and their character, not just because they fit into categories that you approve of.

            This may be as far as you want to go, and that can be ok, or at least helpful.  When you’re humble, you’re much less likely to say and do things that are interpreted as microaggressions. 

            And there’s more you can do.  Empathy means trying to take the other person’s point of view.  When a cultural difference smacks you upside your head, you resist just defending or complaining, and you try first to find out where the other person is coming from.  This can be a step toward actually benefitting from the difference.

            Empathy can lead to curiosity—inquiring about whatever differences you notice. When you make this move, you’re even more likely to learn about the diversity that enriches whatever you’re doing or whatever group you’re in.  When culturally-different conversation partners are humble, empathic, and curious about their differences, they often (a) learn something and (b) operate together better.

            There’s much more to be said about microaggressions, but hopefully these two short posts help point in some fruitful directions.

 

 

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