Microaggressions

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.

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13 thoughts on “Microaggressions

  1. I probably would have spoken up about the kidney stone issue. I would ask if they knew whether or not people in all cultures over all the ages have been prone to kidney stones. I would venture a guess that kidney stones have a lot to do with diet. It might even be possible that following the laws of Moses regarding diet would not lend itself to kidney stones in the way our culture does. I don’t know, but I bet they wouldn’t know either! 😀 (They might go away thinking “don’t mess with the old folks.”)

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s easier to find the snappy comeback a week after the conversation. Everything you say is true. I think, though, that I might take a different route. Perhaps I would say that a wise Creator allows kidney stones and worse in his sin-polluted world to call sinners to repent and to remind believers of the suffering of his Son to redeem sinners. Then again, I may have had the wrong audience for that message. J.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I read some today by C. S. Lewis in which he pointed out how seldom one seeks God when everything is going well. As you say, in suffering we try to find answers – and rightly , the answer most anytime is God.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hmm, I am a huge fan of good manners, kindness, and accommodating others. Just the same, people being offended by just about everything very nearly drove me into complete silence, hiding under my desk least I step on someone’s toes simply by existing. I’ve made a promise never to let that happen again. So, as contrary as it is to all my diversity awareness training, today I am simply aggressive-aggressive. I’ve had enough cowering in fear and being bullied.

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    • There is a gray area between the two extremes of hiding under the desk and deliberately offending everyone in sight. A vast gray area. But having the Christian faith attacked so casually shortly after a workshop on the subject did open my eyes a bit. J.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed your post. I have been retired from the workforce for some time and had never heard of microaggressions, even though I was a licensed counselor for many years. Your story is inspirational, yet may I suggest that those of us who are true citizens of the kingdom of God need not seek a place of mutual comfort with those clearly committed to merely this life. Scripture tells us we are ‘aliens’ – NOT of THIS world – so, just as they rejected Christ, they likewise reject us. This should cause personal celebration (to suffer with Christ), not a surrender to intolerance. But I agree and appreciate fully what you’ve shared. Peace!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I am seriously guilty of this by my body language quite often

    Due to some things from the past I have a real tendency to carry myself in a way some find intimidating and sometimes speak that way too

    I have to actually strive to loosen my demeanor up

    Good post

    Liked by 1 person

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