When I first started working with this concept and its related aspects, I wasn’t quite sure that it really related to me. Sure, it may be something a professional may come into contact with when working in diverse environments, but how much could it truly pertain to me, a white woman who was brought up in the dominant culture? However, as I continued to work through the reading materials and assignments, I quickly realized that microaggressions occur every day to everyone. There are neither exemptions nor exclusions for any individual. Once this insight dawned on me, I decided to look for microaggressions in my own personal past in order to grasp this concept a bit better. Once I sat down to evaluate my life, I was shocked to recall two distinct moments of microaggressions, with one of including me as the perpetrator. Let me tell you a story or two …
The year was 2006, and I was roughly a sophomore in college going for my degree in education. The year before I worked at a camp for children and adults with special needs. While I was there, I worked along the side of many talented individuals, however there was this one particular gentleman that I struck up a close friendship with. Throughout the year, we kept in contact and even worked again together in 2007. It was during this year that the romantic feelings began to blossom, however I was hesitant due to his mild version of cerebral palsy that weakened his right side. Towards the end of 2007, this gentleman and I went out to breakfast to celebrate his birthday. During this meal, he opted to tell me that he believed I was the one he was supposed to marry. Shocked and speechless, I let this sentence sink in for a minute or two, trying to figure out what to say next. I glanced at his right side and his fisted right hand. Rather than thinking before speaking, I blurted out that I couldn’t marry him because I wanted a husband who could drive, and he couldn’t because of his cerebral palsy. This quickly became a defining moment in our friendship, in which we nearly called in quits in being friends.
Several years went by before we ever spoke again. During that time, I still believed that this gentleman’s disability automatically prevented him from driving a car. It wasn’t until my son was born and diagnosed with cerebral palsy that I realized how very wrong and insulting that accusation was. I made a random phone call to this old friend in 2011 to apologize for being so rude. He was able to share with me how hurt and ashamed he felt. Then he explained that his disability doesn’t stop him from achieving anything. He can drive, but he has chosen not to because he lives in a big city with public transportation. We were able to patch up our friendship and move on, which I’m very glad about. In fact, we will be getting married in November.
Being on the side of the perpetrator was an interesting experience. It’s true when Dr. Sue said that “it is the unintentional, unconscious forms that are outside the level of awareness that creates the greatest difficulty” (Laurete Education, Inc., 2011). Since I didn’t know that I was being microaggressive, I couldn’t visibly see or even imagine the amount of harm that I had done. If microaggression is done on an unintentional, unconscious level, the perpetrator truly doesn’t know. They are the ones who hold the power and indeed believe that they are correct. It wasn’t until I stopped to listen to my friend share his hurt that I realized the insult I said. Once I was aware that I was microaggressive, I immediately felt guilty because I never intended to hurt my friend. Coming to realize that I was a perpetrator made me step back and evaluate my words and actions.
Here’s another story for you (and I’ll try to make it quick): This microaggression example occurred with me being the victim, and it happened not too long ago. As many of you know, my son was born with multiple disabilities. When he was delivered via emergency C-section, he was immediately placed on a “head-cooling mat,” which was a fairly new program at the hospital that cooled my son’s body down significantly for three days to help prevent any further brain damage. Fast forward three and a half years to 2013. I had been invited to attend a Mother’s Day event for mommies of children with brain injuries. This was a fabulous time of manicures and massages that allowed a brief moment or two of relaxation and pampering. Upon arriving that day, I discovered that there was another mother there, whose son had recently completed a head-cooling program at another local hospital. I was so eager to meet her and share my now three plus years of experience with a head-cooled baby. Of course, there was a flock of people around this woman and her infant son, but I managed to squeeze in, introduce myself, and explain how my son was also a head-cooled baby, but at a different hospital.
Within seconds, another woman chided in (who happened to be on the committee overseeing the head-cooling program that this little boy had participated in). She claimed that the program that my son was in was poorly planned. I tried to interject to explain that it still had saved my son’s life. Yet, she just continued on, explaining all of the negative qualities that my son’s head-cooling program had had and distinctly pointed out that the hospital my son was born at no longer had the head-cooling program due to the fact that there wasn’t the proper long-term support. I was shocked and hurt to see someone bash the program that stopped my son from having any more brain damage. As if that wasn’t enough, this woman went on to rant and rave about the head-cooling program at another hospital and all of its glorious details. I was only left with doubt and shame, wondering if I had made the wrong decision with my son. It truly was “detrimental and damaging” (Laurete Education, Inc., 2011) on my sense of integrity and self-esteem.
Being the victim of microaggression verses being the perpetrator are two completely different experiences. At the receiving end, I felt belittled, betrayed, and depressed honestly. I doubted who I was and the decisions I had made in regards to my son’s health care. I found it interesting that within seconds years of self-worth and pride were immediately drained from my being. Microaggression truly tears down the victim, and it makes it ten times worse when an perpetrator is microaggresive without even knowing it. If someone knows that they are doing it, then perhaps they will come to their senses and apologize for being so rude. Yet, if it is completed on an unconscious, unintentional level, it’s as if there is little hope for the perpetrator to realize the hurtful things that were said. As the victim, I ended up walking away, alone and saddened. I knew that if I said anything, I would be the person who would end up looking like the fool, because the perpetrator just didn’t know. Being on the receiving end of unintentional microaggression renders a person almost helpless and voiceless.
Alright, so I contemplated and evaluated microaggression in my past. Now it was time to look for it in my present life. Could I find examples of this within my daily going abouts? I began to listen and watch, but at first I couldn’t see or hear anything. I began to wonder maybe microaggression isn’t in my world anymore. Yet, once I began to look past my personal biases and truly listened to those around, I realized that microaggression was indeed around everyone, even me.
The first scenario occurred as my team and I had just finished putting our students on the buses. It’s been rather warm lately in Pennsylvania, so we were all sweating and complaining about how hot it is. Standing nearby, there was a Hispanic couple who also agreed with us about how warm it was. As we walked away, one of the teachers remarked, I don’t know why they are so hot. This weather is the weather of their country. I was shocked to hear such a statement, yet I also knew that she was not trying to insult this Hispanic couple. It was clearly an instance of unintentional, unconscious ethnic microaggression.
Another situation took place when a friend and I were watching a movie. We tend to watch the movie to the very end – even through the credits. As the names flashed before us, my friend saw the name “Maggie Murphy” and claimed that that person must be German. By a single glance at a name, my friend had automatically assumed that individual must be German. I was a bit astonished that my friend made such a statement off of a single word. (I’m not quite sure if this would qualify as a microaggression, however I believed that it was. I imagined that if someone looked at my last name and claimed that I was Polish, when I am not, I would feel offended.)
Observing and being the bystander during these two microaggressive incidents, my thoughts and feelings were very similar. Since I was paying close attention to microaggression around me, I was startled and shocked to learn that situations were occurring right under my nose, from people that I would never expect. I experienced feelings of defensiveness. I wanted to defend that couple or Maggie Murphy, since they were unable to speak up for themselves. I was also saddened to see such subtle attacks on an individual’s ethnicity or culture. I was left a bit speechless, as I wasn’t quite sure what to say. Do I speak up and mentioned something, or should I just let it go? If I did speak up, would I have been looked at funny or told that I’m making a big deal out of it? Unconscious, unintentional microaggression walks a very fine line that can be easily crossed.
Reflecting on both my past and present experiences with microaggression, my perceptions on the effects of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes were affected. Below you will find a bulleted outline of these new insights.
- One of the biggest changes in my perceptions is the origin of discrimination, prejudice, and/or stereotypes. I realized that the root of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes often begins with some types of microaggression. When a microaggression occurs, it should stop there, however the receiving individual (or even bystanders) may not want to intervene. Since these people may be hesitant and fearful, they may not say anything to the perpetrator. Not only will this feed into the power felt by the perpetrator, but it can also contribute significantly to the development of stereotypes, discriminations, and/or prejudices.
- I also realized that some discriminations, prejudice, and stereotypes stem from the unconscious, unintentional intentions of individuals. When I made that comment to my friend about his “inability to drive,” I was stereotyping him due to his disability, but here’s the thing: I didn’t even know that I was doing that. This made me see that “individuals who are unaware of their biases … indeed do the greatest harm to individuals” (Laurete Education, Inc., 2011).
- Since microaggressions often occur through the unconscious, unintentional efforts of individuals, this helped me to understand that I need to be more aware and consciously attentive to what I am saying and doing, as well as those around me. When I pay attention, I am able to intervene and provide accurate information to help correct a discrimination, prejudice, or stereotype, which will actually help address those microaggressions that “perpetrated in our society” (Laurete Education, Inc., 2011).
- Finally, my perception of discrimination, prejudice, and stereotypes was affected through the powerful insight that microaggression occurs every day through every person. This helped me realize that discriminations, forms of prejudice, and even stereotypes are developed daily from any individual, and we all need to exercise caution to help avoid this development.
Thank you, once again, for reading this week! I look forward to sharing more insights and information over the coming weeks. Stay tuned!
Laurete Education. (2011). Microagressions in Everyday Life. [Media Presentation]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/portal/frameset.jsp?tab_tab_group_id=_2_1&url=%2Fwebapps%2Fblackboard%2Fexecute%2Flauncher%3Ftype%3DCourse%26id%3D_2821339_1%26url%3D