“Mama, what is THAT?” a guide to microaggression


If you have been downtown this week, you have likely noticed visitors from around the country here for the Creating Change conference, many of which may appear “unusual”, including deviations from traditional expressions of gender. What better opportunity to talk to our children about how to talk to and about people who are different from ourselves?

Connection is good and thus communication is good… but not when it marginalizes, embarrasses, stereotypes, or otherwise causes harm. I have learned in recent years about the concept of microaggressions (first named by Derald Wing Sue), which can occur when your statement to or about another person or actions, even if entirely well-intended, causes hurt. A classic example is telling a person of color “you are so well-spoken!”; on the surface this may sound like a complement, but in fact has the underlying message that because of the hue of his/her skin, the fact that he/she speaks good English is surprising or notable. There is an underlying negative stereotype being communicated.
Even though I am a member of three marginalized groups as a Jewish, lesbian female, I am as guilty as anyone of committing these against others. As a professor, it has taken effort to learn how not to be a microaggressor of people in my classes, but it has been harder to purge tendencies to do this when I meet new people in a more casual setting. It is my hope that sharing what I have learned will help you be a more kind and open person, rather than just make you feel bad.

While my first example about race may seem obvious, other types of microaggressions may not. Another type of microaggression is the invasion of privacy – in my case, when someone asks how I, a lesbian, got pregnant. A good way to test for whether you are committing a microaggression is to ask yourself whether asking the question/making the statement to someone of the dominant group would be considered inappropriate. When we see a heterosexual-appearing couple with a baby, no one would dream of asking them “how they got pregnant.” It is simply too intimate, and frankly, irrelevant. This is along the same line as “who is the real mother?” or “Who is the father?”- and yes, we have received these questions literally dozens of times. As a self-described ambassador and educator, I take it upon myself to answer these questions in gentle and generous ways, but folks should be aware that it isn’t good manners to probe into someone’s intimate personal life unless you have been invited to do so.

In the U.S., pretty much any question or statement relating to someone’s physical person is considered highly personal. Thus, commenting on or asking about someone’s body shape (“Are you pregnant?”), sexual practices (“So who is the ‘man’ in your relationship?”), skin color (“But you don’t look Hispanic”), gender (“Are you a boy or a girl?”), or other physical feature (“So, was your mom Asian or something?”) is not respectful.

You may be thinking at this point (as I did at one time), “Geez! I guess I can’t say anything to anyone! I think people just need to grow a thicker skin for gosh-sakes.” If so, consider this: would you make a comment to a white male in a business suit you just met about his body? Why not? When I framed it like this for myself, I realized that I automatically obey rules of civility and respect with someone like this, whereas I may not with someone with lesser social status. Commenting on someone’s body is a power play (consider the boss who comments on the legs of his secretary); one automatically does not do it with someone of perceived equal or higher status.

Curiosity about bodies is frequently behind microaggressions, and folks with an obvious physical difference are very familiar with experiencing these types of microaggressions. We all know that staring is rude; however, many do not realize that actively avoiding looking is alienating as well. Reaching out and communicating with others isn’t the problem; putting differences at the forefront is and ignoring rules of civility are. When our son saw a man at the grocery store with dwarfism and asked me about him, I encouraged him to talk to the man directly (but not to ask him “what is wrong with you” or assume that the man wanted to talk about being a little person). I also looked the man in the eye and addressed him with respect. In this way, we hope our son learns to see the person, not the difference, first and foremost. Later, I explained to our son that talking about people’s bodies is private, but that he can always introduce himself and get to know someone if he is curious.

The next type of microaggression is one I am particularly guilty of committing. This is the type where someone is singled out from the group without their permission. For example, I used to do an exercise in my class where I had students come to the front of the classroom to plot on a graph their own height against their father’s height (yeah, I know, bad – even that alone assumes everyone has met their father, knows their father, and wants to show connection with their father), to illustrate statistical concepts. These days, I draw a dummy-graph on the board and ask the class as a whole to explain why a father’s height doesn’t perfectly predict a child’s height, even though height is a genetic trait. Any student can answer “because people don’t necessarily have a genetically-related father” among the myriad of other reasons (e.g. gender of the child, nutritional difference between generations, the height of the mother, disease, etc.). By inviting responses, no one receives an uninvited spotlight, or is pressured to disclose something personal. Another example would be when I would unintentionally make eye contact with the Japanese-American student in the class any time I mentioned Japan in a lecture. Self selection is the key element here; our son loves to talk loudly about celebrating Rosh Hashana (singling himself out), but feels bad if the teacher announces to the class, “Jeremy won’t be here tomorrow because he’s Jewish” (being singled out).

The last type I have been made aware of (and am also guilty of) is that of presumption. Asking “So, do you have lots of siblings?” to a Mormon person is yucky because it makes an assumption based on a stereotype. When said in the first conversation with someone, a statement like this also reveals that the speaker is seeing the person as a category, rather than an individual. This is why “Some of my best friends are (black/Jewish/gay/from another country/disabled)” is such a stupid thing to say. It may be that the person committing the microaggression is excited to show off their “knowledge” as a way of connecting, but when on the receiving end, I find it to just be alienating – it makes me feel invisible. I once had a mentor who would bring up the fact that I was Jewish in nearly every conversation we had, even if there was no direct relevance. Her best friend growing up was Jewish, and clearly being with me reminded her of her friend. But my mentor herself was not Jewish, and her comments about understanding “Jewish mothers” (for example) made me very uncomfortable. Just because you had a friend/read a book/did research on/spent time in a certain place doesn’t mean that you know what another’s experience is.

A friend recently gave me an example of a microaggression that puzzled me for some time: saying “You sure are lucky to get to bring your dog with you” to someone with a service animal. Initially, this seemed to me to be innocuous enough, especially if said with eye contact and a smile. But one problem is that this statement is terribly presumptive; whether having a condition that warrants needing that kind of help is “lucky” is not anyone else’s call to make. The other problem with it is that it makes light of something that is actually quite serious. It made sense to me when I remembered people saying to me that I was “lucky” that I didn’t have to go to school/work on Yom Kippur. I find that comment very irritating; I spend the “holiday” fasting and sitting in (often very dull) religious services reflecting on everything I did wrong that year. Saying that it is “lucky” suggests that you are getting something special for your minority status, rather than simply something that you need. It is not fun or special to have to depend upon a service animal to function independently.

MP Fawzia Koofi. Photograph by Farzana Wahidy for the Observer

I love meeting new people and want to find a point of connection with them. I want the person I am with to know I’m okay with and even celebrate who they are. If I want to connect with the interesting woman from Afghanistan, it is far better for me to seek out a true, shared experience, even if it is only that we are standing in the same line (“Geez, we sure are moving slowly!”). Having children is a great one; most parents love to talk about their kids, and parents do have some universal experiences. “Where did you get that neat t-shirt? I’d love to buy one for my son.” Or “My 7-yr old loved that toy, too.” are statements that make connection without presumption, invasion of privacy, or singling out.

As a final note, and in case you aren’t convinced this is worth your time, consider the experience of the “different” person. A single, ignorant comment or question does not cause the harm- it is instead the day-after-day, year-after-year aspect that can keep a person alienated from the main culture. Microaggressions are so dangerous because it is a constant drumbeat that the person is not worth the regular rules of civility and respect. Microaggressions have been compared to “death by a thousand paper cuts.” They silence and disempower. For me, the main benefit of being aware of and avoiding microaggressions has been opening the possibility of real connection with others, which is what I wanted all along.

I’d like to thank Shanna Katz for her edits to this blog.