Microaggressions (Diversity Equity & Inclusivity Blog)

When I first heard the term “microaggression,” I thought, “What?” and then I thought, “But I am a nice person and now every move I make is being scrutinized?” and then I thought, “I am never going to measure up.” Then I began to read more about it. I took a deep breath and I shook off the shame that I felt and began to understand the extent of the privilege I have experienced and the bubble of whiteness I have lived in my whole life.

Amber Cabral, in her book, Allies and Advocates, describes microaggressions as “small or subtle behaviours that occur in casual encounters that judge, accuse, demean, marginalize or show prejudice toward someone.” They are “small behaviors, but they are considered aggressive because of their frequency.” She goes on to explain that it can be “verbal or non-verbal actions that discount a person, single someone out or belittle someone based on a part of their identity, such as age, race or gender.” In other words, they are small things that have a big impact. Intention is not necessarily part of it.

The information is all out there for any of us to find. Microagressions are described on social media, in our favorite TV shows and in newspaper articles. People are talking about it. That is step one – becoming aware and talking about it. It is so important to take the next steps. To bravely walk into the unknown, admitting that we are learning and to be humbled by the discoveries along the way.

Brené Brown, in her book, “Men, Women and Worthiness,” describes the difference between humiliation and shame. Humiliation is when someone does something nasty to us and our self-talk says, “they should not have done that.” We don’t own it. It does not affect our mental health. It sucks, but is not long-term damaging. Shame is when someone does something to us and our self-talk is “I am bad.” This can be long-term damaging.

I was thinking about microagressions as I was listening to Brené, and I thought, what if someone crossed the road when they saw me coming. I might not think anything of it or I might wonder what they were thinking when they did that. It would be about them. If it happened again with another person, I might think, “Hmm. What is up with people today?” Still, it is about them. If it happened again, I might look down at my clothes, or try to catch a reflection of myself to see if there was something amiss. It would start to filter in that it is about me.

What if it happened over and over again, day after day, for years? I would definitely come to the conclusion that I should be avoided, that the kind, caring person I am cannot be seen and does not really exist, and I would feel shame for who I am. Is this why microaggressions are so important? The everyday exposure of not being seen, subtle messages that you are not enough, that your race, gender or age expose you to experiences of being dismissed, avoided and put down, build until it is no longer tolerable. And yet, for many people this is their life and so they tolerate it. We, as a society, can and must do better.

We all experience microagressions, and we all perform them. Even the “good people.” It is through listening, researching and sharing that we learn about how we affect others and how we can do better. When someone tells us we are acting differently to them than to others, listen carefully. In our line of work, it is easy and often necessary to make quick decisions. What judgements are we making about others as we make these decisions? How do these judgements affect our decisions? Reflecting on our decisions, and asking ourselves if we would have handled the situation the same, if it had been someone close to us, will be helpful. Look for the messages in the media about microagressions, both stated and subliminal. They are there and they will help us understand and avoid the same behaviours. Talk about microaggressions in staff meetings, in the staff room, with your friends, your family and your colleagues.

We are good people. And we can do better.

~ Sheila Olan-MacLean