Self-care isn’t just about taking care of ourselves. It also involves learning how to take care of others in kind and courteous ways. When we learn to approach others with curiosity and kindness, we discover endless possibilities for self-improvement. This month’s Self-Care Sunday posts will focus on reaching out and learning more about other cultures so that we can fulfill our greatest potential by helping others. Social justice begins with me.
Ever heard of microaggressions? Although the term has been around since the 70s, many people still don’t understand what it means or how it might affect their friendships.
An Embarrassing Incident
“We need to make sure we call ahead and check on the bathroom situation before we choose a gas station,” a male staff member said as we gathered for a debriefing on the last day of our field trip.
“Yeah. That last gas station had a confusing bathroom system going on,” another male agreed.
“We weren’t the only confused ones,” I added. “I walked into the women’s restroom and a big Black man walked in two seconds later. We looked at each other in shock. He grabbed the door to check the plaque, and I checked the shoes under the stalls to see if they belonged to women or men. He apologized profusely when he saw that he’d walked into the women’s room, and I directed him to the other side of the store where a temporary sign said, ‘Men’s Restroom.’”
As soon as I said the words, ‘big black man,’ I cringed inwardly but stumbled on with my story. Why? For the first time in seven years, we had a person of color working with us.
After a few chuckles from my colleagues, the principal spoke up. “Why ‘big black man,’” he asked. “If the man had been white, would you have said, ‘big white man?’”
Instead of apologizing and admitting that I had spoken thoughtlessly, I defended myself. Not my finest moment. Outwardly, I tried to justify my comment based on the facts. The man WAS black and he was much larger than me.
On the inside, I agonized over my words. My decision to use that precise phrase came from a combination of facts and the desire to highlight the fear that a woman feels when a strange man follows her into a restroom (or any small place). Inwardly, I knew I needed to apologize to my colleague, but wondered how long it would take me to screw up the courage to have the hard conversation.
Political Correctness or Love?
When I started working at a school for Native American kids, I realized that many of the terms and phrases I’ve used over the years offended my students. I learned to self-filter comments that may sound belittling or disparaging to Native Americans. Why? Not because I believe in staying politically correct to elevate myself, but because I don’t want to offend the kids I love.
I did not intend to make our new staff member feel uncomfortable. Although I’ve always thought of myself as unbiased, unprejudiced, and absolutely not racist, I’ve come to understand that I suffer from the culture I grew up in. I had used a microaggression.
The ultimate goal of self-care involves allowing ourselves to become the best version of ourselves. In my case, I need to train my mind to filter my mouth in order to make (and keep) new friends and move away from an ‘us vs. them’ mindset.
What Exactly IS a Microaggression?
Oxford defines microaggression as:
“a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”Oxford
Merriam-Webster Dictionary has a similar definition:
“a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Emily Skop, founding director of the Global Intercultural Resource Center at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, “argues that the power of microaggression lies in its invisibility to the perpetrator, who typically finds it difficult to believe that he or she possesses biased attitudes” (Merriam-Webster).
That describes me. When confronted with my use of a microaggression, I vociferously denied it and made the situation worse. I prided myself on my ability to get along with and interact with people from all races, religions, persuasions, ethnicities, occupations, socio-economic statuses, and colors. Unfortunately, that pride also blinded me to the fact that my words could make others feel less-than.
I failed to see that some of my own words and behaviors perpetuated stereotypes about other people. Even worse, my words had the power to hurt and offend others.
Types of Microaggressions
When I posed a question about microaggressions on Facebook, I discovered that many of my friends had no idea what the term ‘microaggression’ meant. This makes sense because many people use microaggressions without even realizing that they use them.
Only about a fourth of my Facebook friends belong to minorities (although about three-fours of my total friends do belong to a marginalized class—women).
The responses I received (mostly from white women), highlighted the fact that ALL of us suffer from microaggressions directed at us. The microaggressions my Black friends experienced bordered on blatant racism. Unfortunately, while we can identify times when people have used one on us, we can’t always detect when we use one on someone else.
Indirect (Sometimes Intentional) Microaggressions
Indirect microaggressions often occur in the workplace. Leadership positions (and the raises that go with them) go to males rather than equally qualified females as a matter of course. This happens because of ingrained narratives about men excelling in leadership or men needing to earn more money to support their families.
Some men make great leaders, and some don’t. Leadership talent doesn’t depend on gender, but indirect microaggressions occur when a company or organization bases its decisions on old narratives. According to research sponsored by Chase, women make up 40% of the heads of households in the United States.
Some organizations (especially religious organizations) assign rigid gender roles to those they hire. Women can work as ministers of music, for example, but they can’t preach from the pulpit or hold leadership positions that would cause them to ‘lead’ men.
If you’ve ever sat in a room of decision-makers and felt sidelined because no one thinks of picking a leader who looks like you (or may even BE you), you have experienced an indirect microaggression.
Gender-role microaggressions affect men as well—especially when the positions have a history of being one of the few open to women. For example, male nurses or male elementary school teachers often find themselves in the minority or have their choice of career questioned.
We use subtle microaggressions when we use qualifiers attached to a statement. Many of us don’t even realize what we’ve said or done might diminish someone else.
Using the phrase ‘big Black man’ highlighted the difference between me and the man who entered the bathroom after me. I used split-second self-editing to add detail to make the story more shocking.
Unfortunately, I didn’t self-edit enough. I failed to consider how a black person hearing the story would feel when they heard the term.
One of my Facebook friends, an aspiring dental student with a passionate heart for service, offered this example of a microaggression that has made her feel diminished many times, “You’re pretty for a black girl.”
“That phrase qualifies my beauty,” she says. The subtle microaggression highlights the difference of the recipient from the giver of the ‘compliment.’
Some microaggressions can only be felt and seen in real life. Another friend (who has a business designing and manufacturing beautiful, stylish, plus-sized clothing) shared a hurtful statement from her doctor as he looked at the results of a cardio stress test. “You’re in surprisingly good shape.”
This statement displays the cardiologist’s prejudice against heavy people and his assumption that weight and ‘being in good shape’ have a direct correlation. While the two CAN have correlation, some skinny people suffer from obesity, and some people who don’t fit within the parameters of ‘healthy weight’ can outrun me in a marathon.
Subtle microaggressions highlight the differences between us. They separate, pigeonhole, and label. When we use terminology that separates us, we set ourselves up as competitors in a no-win situation. No one likes to have their differences highlighted—especially in social settings.
Subtle Microaggressions that Come Across as Put-downs
Other friends related how they’ve felt diminished when someone uses the word ‘just’ in reference to their chosen occupation.
“Oh, you’re just the nurse.”
“You just stay at home all day, huh?”
“If only I could have the summers off just like you do!”
Another subtle microaggression that comes across as a put-down involves comparing one to many. For example, another Black friend of mine has had people tell her, “You talk and write so well!” As if white people have a corner on speaking and writing well.
We accept duality in ourselves—speaking to a pet in baby talk and using different vocabulary when addressing a co-worker or boss—yet we patronize minorities when we hear them ‘speak well’ or even if we hear them speak in their dialect or language.
This skit highlights how insensitive we can act regarding people from other cultures (pardon the one bad word—the video merits watching regardless).
Entrenched narratives that we’ve heard from birth feel like the hardest type of microaggressions to excise from our lives. They come in the form of innocuous-seeming phrases that reinforce stereotypes about different groups.
For example, when our girls ran around the house seemingly out of control, I would laugh and say, “Stop acting like wild little Indians!”
This statement lumps all Native Americans into one wild, unruly bunch—and highlights their potential danger to ‘civilized’ people. A small amount of research will show that Native Americans had highly advanced civilizations, acted in orderly fashions, practiced democratic of forms government, and had war practices that barely matched the European invader’s in ferocity and brutality.
Consider phrases such as ‘thieving Indians,’ ‘Irish twins,’ ‘rednecks,’ ‘white trash,’ ‘on the warpath,’ ‘full of Blarney,’ and ‘wetback,’ as microaggressions. You could probably add to this list.
We often incorporate microaggressions into our speech without evaluating where the term came from or what it means. Therefore, we fail to understand why someone gets offended at our statement.
Once we understand microaggressions, we can work to eliminate them from our vocabulary. By making a commitment to excise hurtful words and terms, we welcome more people into our world.Want to love better and expand your world? Excise microaggressions from your vocabulary! #microaggression #love #knowmoredobetter Click To Tweet
Making and Keeping New Friends
I grew up knowing that racism was wrong, but didn’t know how to cross cultural and racial barriers to befriend people who didn’t look and act like me. All of the students in my elementary and high school came from the same socio-economic class and had white parents.
In my senior year, I transferred to an out-of-state school and for the first time had classmates whose parents grew up speaking another language and whose skin color didn’t match my pasty-white complexion. White kids still made up the majority of the school population, but I had the opportunity to make friends with kids who didn’t share my skin color and cultural background.
Spending time as a foreign exchange student in college helped me understand what being a minority feels like. Eventually, I fell in love with a Cuban who became a U. S. Citizen shortly before our wedding. We raised our children in a bilingual household and spoke Spanish exclusively to them until they started high school.
But because we all have light skin, no one ever looked askance at us when we spoke Spanish in public. Strangers never told us to ‘learn to speak English’ or acted rudely towards us. Most of my friends look about like I do.
As an introvert, making and keeping friends doesn’t come easily for me. I’ve used introversion as an excuse to gravitate towards people I think I’ll have the most in common with. In my quest to become the best version of me, I see multiple opportunities for growth in regards to how I make and keep friends.
It took me months to apologize to my colleague. Afterward, I felt lighter and more hopeful that one day more of us will get along more of the time. Social justice and getting along with others start with me.
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