The other day I was chatting with the president of my university at a reception when someone came over and asked if he could interrupt and introduce someone. I said fine, and he proceeded to do so. I am an African American female and all the others involved were white males. He did not bother to introduce me, but only the president. I finally introduced myself. Of course he then apologized for the oversight. I couldn’t have cared less about being introduced to his person, but it was clearly rude of him to ignore me. Because I am African American and female, I experienced the act as one of microaggression.
After he left, the president turned to me and said, “That’s the microaggression you were talking about, isn’t it?” Astonished, I said yes. I had mentioned the concept to him in an email a few weeks earlier in another context, but we had never discussed it.
That he not only had read it, but recognized it when he saw it, and and actually acknowledged and pointed it out was pretty profound. It shouldn’t be, but, sadly in our society, it is, and I made sure he understood that. When I got home and opened my latest issue of Time magazine, there was a full page article on microaggression by John McWhorter, which I immediately also sent along to the president.
The reason what the president did was so profound is because when microaggression is noted, it is generally by the one to whom it is directed. If it is mentioned by them to someone outside the group that is the basis for the microaggression (often race or gender, but can be any traditionally marginalized group), that person will generally poo-poo the idea and give alternative ways to interpret it, say it was the object’s imagination, they misunderstood or they are being overly sensitive. This, lack of validation, of course, only further aggravates the problem and makes the object of the microaggression less likely to share this information again. Bit by bit a solid wall is built up until the object of the microaggression no longer discusses such matters with anyone outside his or her group again. Any communication that could facilitate understanding is lost. The acts go on, but there is little or no discussion of them, generally until some precipitating act occurs and the issue bubbles to the surface, usually in an acrimonious way.
You see this reflected in statistics such as the majority of whites thinking the Trayvon Martin verdict of acquittal was just, while a majority of blacks think it was unjust. It always seems to be such a surprise to the newscasters reporting it, but rarely is a minority surprised. We know of very few people who don’t have a “driving while black” or “walking while black,” other similar story. We also know that telling it to whites generally gets us nowhere because they will only say we are being too sensitive. So, when the Trayvon Martin tragedy strikes, we’re angry, but not surprised. Yet it always seems to take whites by surprise. The micro aggression that leads to such outcomes only seems to be apparent to those to whom it is directed.
That is, until now. For some reason the term has found its way into the mainstream and is now often the subject of the press and filtering into other areas of life. Thank goodness.
The term “microaggression” has been around for years but was mainly used by academics. The title of the Time magazine article is “Is ‘Microaggression’ the New Racism?” [note that in the online article the title is "Microaggression is the New Racism on Campus] It is a term that is used to describe the numerous daily slights and disrespectful acts that are primarily directed to women and minorities living in a world that, intentionally or not, marginalizes, demeans, belittles and overlooks them all day, every day in ways big and small. Most learn to ignore it or tune it out just to get through the day. Others choose to call out every slight as an intentional personal insult, often to a startled, unaware offender who is clueless as to what he could have done to deserve such ire. Those who take this approach are usually labeled as troublemakers, extremists, “angry black man or woman,” as “playing the race card,” or in the case of females calling out gender slight, a bitch, feminist, or a raging “feminazi.”
But, however the object of the microaggression chooses to cope with it, it has an impact that eats at your soul and acts to undermine your sense of self and comfort and is a constant reminder that you are not in a world of your making or intended for you. Dr. Laura Brown, a clinical psychologist and self-described “radical lesbian feminist,” in a talk at my university recently referred to it as the “acid rain” that erodes one’s sense of self. The end result is constantly feeling like an outsider, even in a place you may absolutely belong.
This must be addressed if we are to successfully move from diversity to true inclusion. Determining what that means only takes thinking about your own world at the minute level and thinking about what makes you feel comfortable. Chances are, there are significant parts of that feeling missing for minorities and women in most public settings. That is, outside the circle of one’s family and friends. That does not necessarily have to happen. The key is to treat people as you would wish to be treated. Sound familiar? Yep, the good old Golden Rule.
Think about the public setting in which you feel most at home: work, school, church/synagogue/mosque, a bar, the barber shop, playing a sport. Wherever. Now, think about why you chose that spot as the most comfortable. What makes it so? The people? What about them? Because they look like you? Share your interests? Dress like you? Share your values? Your goals? Your socioeconomic status? Your choice in clothes? Music? Hairstyles? Language? Sense of humor? Ideas? Food? Family background? Geography? Facial expressions? Tone of voice? Choice of words? Outlook on life? What do they do that makes you feel comfortable? Speak to you? Speak to you in a pleasant, familiar way? Make eye contact? Have open, welcoming body language? Treat you as someone familiar rather than alien or different? Not act standoffish? Smile rather than scowl, look officious, or ignore you?
Chances are, the more of these you say yes to, the more comfortable you are.
Now, imagine if those things were not the same. How different would the picture be? How would it effect your comfort level? If everyone wore long hair or a beard, and you didn’t, would it feel the same? Would you have the same comfort level? What if they didn’t wear shoes, or wore flip flops and you wore dress shoes? What if they spoke a different language or were rich and you weren’t? What if they did not smile at you, but scowled, or simply ignored you? Would it feel the same? Should it? Could it? Would it matter? Should it matter?
My point is that an awful lot goes into what we consider comfortable and most of us take it for granted. Unless, of course, it is not available to us. We often don’t even realize when we are doing it for one group and not for another. This was demonstrated in a startling way in a ABC 20/20 piece, “True Colors,” by Diane Sawyer in 1991. Many more of these types of pieces have been done more recently with the same or similar results.
In many ways—most ways, actually—so much of how we feel in our environment is controlled by small things that we have completely in our control. There are no big laws that can be passed to handle that. Changing this is up to us. I tend to think that for most people, it is mostly a matter of it being brought to their attention because they simply are not aware. Amoja Three Rivers does a great job of showing us how this occurs in her piece, “Cultural Etiquette: A Guide.” For most people, once they know better, they do better.
Of course, there are others who actually intend to treat certain groups poorly, and I don’t know that there is really anything to be done with them except pray for them, bless their hearts.
So, what does microaggression look like? It is acts that make someone feel like an outsider, “the other,” like they are “exotic,” or otherwise not just a part of the group. Pointing out, or only dealing with them on the basis of their differences and never bothering to deal with anything else qualifies. Only dealing with them on race/gender/LGBT/ethnic issues (depending on the group the target of the microaggression belongs to). This is seeing them as only having an existence relating to that aspect of themselves rather than as a whole person. I am African American and female, but I am also a mother, a writer, a quilter, a gardener, a textbook author, a lawyer, a friend, a sister, an enjoyer of music, a mystery reader and writer, a lover of poetry, a grandma, a gym rat, enthusiastic survivor of a simultaneous double knee replacement, a tea lover, a social justice activist, a spreader of love….is that enough to add some dimension?
A black female colleague told me last week that she was the only person of color sitting in a meeting about diversity and rather than asking the group the question, a white faculty member shocked her when he turned to her and said something like “So, tell us what blacks want” or some such nonsense, as if she was supposed to speak for all African Americans. And, of course, making it clear that he thought she was only there because of her race rather than anything else she might bring to the table. The great irony was that it took place at a diversity meeting of those who supposedly knew better.
It could also be giving backhanded compliments (“You’re really pretty for a dark girl” or “I don’t think of you as black”–leading the person to believe that if you did, that would be a negative). Or, perhaps, treating someone only as a member of a group rather than as an individual (“I think black people are so funny! And y’all can dance so well and play sports so well!” or asking questions like why all blacks expect a handout or why they all like watermelon or chicken (as if KFC’s Colonel Sanders got rich off only black folks. I haven’t been to a country yet where there wasn’t a KFC). Yep. I actually get these questions. It’s also not making eye contact with someone you don’t consider to be like you, not engaging them in casual conversation as you would others. Simply not treating them as you would like to be treated in similar circumstances.
Because they are members of the human race and are social creatures, everyone has the need to feel accepted and included. Short of death, the worst our society offers to its worst transgressors is solitary confinement. That is, taking a convicted criminal who has committed heinous acts against society away from the society of other inmates. Even for hardened criminals, it can drive people mad to feel isolated and outcast.
The isolation doesn’t have to happen all at once like solitary confinement. It can instead be like death by a thousand cuts. It will come out in seemingly insignificant ways.
Like totally ignoring the black female as the only other person not introduced to someone in a group.
As the object of the microaggression, you don’t get used to it, you just learn to cope with it so you don’t go crazy.