This month I attended a workshop at work about microaggressions. I chose this workshop over others for two reasons: I knew that the presenters would lead a good workshop (they always do), and I wanted to learn more about what microaggressions are and how I can avoid doing them.
Microaggressions are the way we communicate—usually with spoken words, but also with gestures, facial expressions, and body language—our disdain or dismissal of other people because they are different from us. Deliberate insults and purposeful dismissals are not microaggressions—they are full aggression, easily recognized and easier to address. Microaggressions are usually unintended; they are the result of insensitivity rather than overt prejudice or bigotry. They are unplanned slights toward other people because of their race, language, gender and sexual preferences, age, economic status, religion, political beliefs, and the like.
Saying, “she’s pretty smart for a woman” is a microaggression. Assuming that the white middle-aged male is the head of his department is a microaggression. Choosing which customer to attend first based on skin color is a microaggression. I felt that the workshop gave too much attention to microaggression toward people of different sexual preferences or gender confusion—but my label “gender confusion” would probably be considered microaggression. On the other hand, we all hurt the feelings of other people without intending to be hurtful; sometimes we might even intend to be helpful.
One example was given by two people attending the workshop. A patron had approached the two of them gushing over a book about diets and weight loss. The patron had found the book very helpful, and she thought these two workers would also benefit from it. They were polite while she was near them; after she left, they turned to each other and asked, “Did she just say we are fat?”
I attended the workshop to learn how to avoid troubling other people. I also learned that I am sometimes the victim of microaggressions. An example that came to mind during the workshop was the wailing and gnashing of teeth in my department the day after the national election. Nobody went so far as to claim that they were cheated or to organize a protest, but the conversations definitely reflected an assumption that everyone within earshot wanted Hillary Clinton to win, and that no one in the room considered her the greater of two evils on the ballot. A common expression was, “It was a terrible mistake, but we need to be calm and to live with it for the next four years.” I kept silent at work that day. I did not remind my coworkers that not everybody in the room supported Clinton. I did not even offer those words as an example of microaggression at the workshop, because I suspected that I represented a minority also within that group of people. Reticence to address a topic or a perceived insult is one of the signals that microaggression is in play.
An even clearer example of microaggression happened to me shortly after the workshop. One of my coworkers told me that a third coworker had needed to go home early that day because of a kidney stone. While he was telling me this, a fourth coworker approached us. The coworker speaking to me proceeded to share with the two of us an email from the coworker who was now at home. This coworker (who is an atheist) disparaged the poor design of the human body (making kidney stones possible) as evidence of the absence of a wise Creator. The fourth coworker responded, “I consider myself a spiritual person, but that’s pretty solid evidence,” or something to that effect. Both these coworkers know that I am a Christian, that my relationship with God is a very important part of my identity. Yet I saw no way to address their casual dismissal of faith—if I were to deliver a lecture on the problem of evil from a Christian perspective, it would not have been effective or well received at that time. Yet I had no short answer to show these two coworkers how disrespectful their conversation was toward me.
Sometimes you can’t win. Jews and atheists might feel dismissed by “Merry Christmas” greetings, while Christians feel slighted by “Happy Holidays” greetings. In the end, we do the best we can to respect one another’s identities and values. Meanwhile, we obviously need to find better ways of informing others of their insensitive microaggressions that trouble us. J.