Microaggressions in Everyday Life

In November of 2013, I attended a Lilly Conference on Teaching and Learning in Oxford, OH. One of the conference speakers was Derald Wing Sue, and he presented on his recent book Microagressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. His talk was quite powerful for several reasons:

1. I can vividly recall some folks rudely walking out.
2. Sue ran out of time, and I remember being quite disappointed because I wanted to hear more.
3. I recall feeling like I wasn’t alone and that I wasn’t crazy for how I felt and made sense about experiences I’ve had.

These thoughts and feelings led to me placing Sue’s book in my Amazon cart for future reading, which I just so happened to find time to do over the last week.

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Microaggressions, according to Sue, “are constant and continuing experiences of marginalized groups in our society; they assail the self-esteem of recipients, produce anger and frustration, deplete psychic energy, lower feelings of subjective well-being and worthiness, produce physical health problems, shorten life expectancy, and deny minority populations equal access and opportunity in education, employment, and health care” (p. 6). Sue goes on to discussed the negative impact of built up microagressions throughout one’s life. Although I read the book due to my own personal interests, I couldn’t help but consider if there is a way to include at least exerts from it into my classes (I’m still considering this).

Most powerful to me were the narrative examples that Sue shared from his research. I also found the book powerful because it caused me several times to consider counterarguments and then to question where such arguments came from, as well as why they came so easily. For example, when Sue discussed health impacts of microaggressions to various marginalized groups, I found myself wondering how he knew that the negative health issues were connected to microagressions. I could think quickly of numerous explanations for such negative health concerns that aren’t about microagressions–or so I thought until I continued thinking about it. I had to work to spend time considering the connections to microaggressions that Sue was discussing…at least a bit harder than it took to think of all the numerous explanations. I had to work harder despite connecting personally to several of the types of microagressions he discussed. For example, when I thought “oh, no that could be due to not eating healthy”, I then thought about all of the systems and structures that don’t make choosing to eat healthy as simple as choosing to eat healthy. I felt stretched through this process, and appreciated the book for providing such an opportunity. This isn’t to say that I necessarily agreed with all that Sue asserted (I’m “sitting with” much of it still), but I did find it worthwhile to consider.

One of the biggest overall takeaways for me was when Sue stated, “the most disempowered groups have a more accurate assessment of reality, especially related to whether discriminatory behavior is bias-motivated” (p. 47). This statement caused me to pause, and although it was provided early in the book (and repeated several times thereafter in a variety of ways), I’ve continued to spend time reflecting on it and what it means for my practice. I can’t help but wonder what the world would be like if such a statement was deeply believed by all.

Learning Lessons

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I find myself reflecting a lot this week on the concept of learning lessons, and where the phrase “I hope you’ve learned a lesson” originated. It has always felt like a scolding of some sort to me. So, I did a Google search to see what the Internet had to say, which only confirmed the connection I was making to being scolded. The FreeDictionary.com’s definitions included the phrases “bad behavior” or “unpleasant experiences” (what the dictionary.com had to say about it).

Yes, this does mean that I had an encounter recently with this lovely idiom (it usually surfaces about this time of year), and my experience reminded me of what Derald Wing Sue shared at the Lilly Conference this fall (2013) regarding microagressions. I was left with the feeling that the other person was trying to put me in my place. Yes, I have many new things to learn about in life, but there are also things I have already learned and new experiences only deepen that learning. This experience is contributing to the deepening kind of learning, and has often occurred in my life because, as someone once said to me, “I don’t show full respect for the privilege others have”. Don’t take that mean that I go around like a bull in a china shop because that is not the case. That wouldn’t do any good even if I wanted to do so. I own that I am still exploring what it means for me to “not respect the privilege others have” given that I have privileges myself (and I probably always will be exploring this, but I will save that for a future post :)). I do believe that this most recent experience, and these reflections about it, are a part of that exploration. Much to sit with.

I also think the phrase “I hope you learned your lesson” is supposed to elicit feelings on my part…where I am supposed to feel bad that what I did is now causing troubles for other people. And I often do dislike greatly the amount of time and energy that is spent dealing with such situations (yes, it would be so nice if such experiences never happened), but I don’t believe that I am intentionally trying to be difficult. Rather, I am being me, and yes, I can be asked to be incongruent with who I am, and I often am asked just that (please note, these are rarely formal requests), but there is a cost for me to do so, thus the decision is not an easy one to make. It never really feels like the phrase “I hope you learned your lesson” acknowledges that cost. And then what do you do if in staying congruent to who you are there is a cost for others? It can be tough stuff to navigate. Again, much to sit with.

I share all of this because it is on my mind, and also because I work in the field of education, which means that there are often “lessons” we are supposed to want others to learn. And in reflecting on those lessons, I can’t help but hear a connection to what James Zull (2002) calls the “Teaching Trap” in his book The Art of Changing the Brain. Essentially, Zull discusses how learning is always happening, but the question we should be asking is if the learning we want to be happening is the learning that is occurring, or is something else really being learned?