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Microaggressions: Who Gets to Belong?

Over the course of the past couple of years, I have been introduced to the term “microaggression.” I think I have known what microaggressions are for years, but hadn’t had the right word for them until recently. The term “microaggression” refers to an unconscious discrimination or degradation of a person related to their gender, race, ability, income or sexual identity.

Microaggressions are “-isms” in their most subversive forms. They are manifest in social interactions from the most casual of conversations to business meetings.They can come up at family events during the holidays, in business meetings, and even in church.

I know all about microaggressions because I am guilty of committing them.

Just recently, I was part of a group that made a presentation to the annual Synod of the CRC. As I prepared for my part of our presentation, I thought to myself, “What could I say that would endear these people to me?” Many people, either by looking at me or seeing my name, assume that I did not grow up in the CRC. I work diligently at times to prove that I am “one of them.” For our presentation, I noted that I had the privilege of growing up in the CRC, and referred to the women who sat in the row in front of me each Sunday in church and passed me King Peppermints. I leveraged my knowledge of Dutch culture to get people to like me.

I wanted people to know that I was one of them, even if it was to the exclusion of others. I responded to the microaggressions of others with a microaggression of my own. This was not a conscious decision on my part, but one that I made nonetheless.

I have also been on the receiving end of microaggressions.

At work, microaggressions have been evident in meetings where people either ignore what I say or repeat what I say in their own words like it was a new idea. They are evident in what some of us call “mansplaining”, when men speak to women like they are explaining something new when it is something quite evident.

Here are some examples of microaggressions, as well as how they might be addressed:

  • A person with a physical disability is welcomed into a new job by being introduced around the office by his supervisor. Several of the people who welcome him speak loudly, slowly or talk like they are addressing a small child. The supervisor notices this, and speaks to those individuals privately, telling them that she is thankful for their kind welcome of their new staffer, but that his disabilities are not related to his hearing or mental capabilities, so they can speak to him like they would anyone else.
  • An African American is in a Bible study with women from her church, all of whom are white. During the a discussion, someone asks her how the black community feels about what happened in Charleston, South Carolina. She responds, “Well, I can’t speak for everyone in the black community, but I can speak for myself.”
  • A woman is in a meeting with mostly male colleagues. She explains an issue she has identified and proposes a process for moving forward as a team. A male colleague says, “Yes, that’s nice, but the real issue here is…” and then goes on to explain what he perceives to be an issue without addressing the issue she presented. Another colleague at the table notices this and says, “I appreciate your insight, but I think we need to address the issue that we were presented with at the opening of the meeting before we move on.”
  • A Korean Canadian Seminary student preaches pulpit supply at a congregation in his community during the summer. In the sermon, he refers to having grown up in the area and attended local schools. After the service, a number of the people who shake his hand thank him for his sermon and compliment him on how good his English is. He thanks them but points out that it should be good, considering that he has never lived outside of North America.

Microaggressions are about power. They are also about assumptions. How we listen or don’t listen, whose opinion we accept and whose we merely patronize--these are microaggressions at work. Whether it is a man who refuses to look a woman in the eye when he speaks to her, or the well-meaning acquaintance who says, “I never would have thought you were a minority. You look white to me!”, microaggressions pop up every day.

What can we do about them?

Notice. Observe body language. Pay attention to the ways people (and even you) hijack conversations or leverage power over others.

Identify. Name the microaggressions that you observe.Giving credibility to an experience is important. When we name things, and identify them as not the way things are supposed to be, we can work on changing them.

Address. Don’t let microaggressions slide by. They aren’t harmless. They reinforce power dynamics that keep the God-given gifts and dignity of some suppressed. Do what you can to address them, either by naming it for the person who was the recipient of the microaggression or saying something to the person who did it, or both.

Examine yourself. If someone rubs you the wrong way, ask yourself why. If someone points out a microaggression that you have done, don’t get defensive.

Microaggressions can be addressed by the recipients of them as well as others who observe them. We all have power and a responsibility to care for one another. It is all of our responsibilities to cultivate communities where everyone feels valued, safe, and a sense of belonging.

For more examples of microaggressions, visit We are Calvin Too or Microaggressions: Power, Privilege and Everyday Life.

[Image: Flickr user ~Izee~bleu~]


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