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Microaggressions: What They Are and How They Work

John

Ever had a joke you couldn’t tell “certain people” because you didn’t want to offend them? Or felt less safe because of the “type of people”/ “part of town” you were near? It’s not like you are racist or trying to stereotype. You are a good person with good intentions, yet your behaviors change depending on who you are surrounded by. The thing is, we tend to react to situations and conversations differently based on the race, gender, or sexuality of the people we are around at the time. (And it happens more often than we think.) What is important to understand is that it's not necessarily anyone's fault because the majority of the time we don’t even realize these behaviors/reactions are occurring, but nonetheless they exist, and it’s not good. Here is why…. Microaggression is a word that not a lot of people have heard of, yet it commonly occurs in our everyday lives. Microaggressions are “the verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.” (Psychology Today; keep reading, I’ll explain what that means.) It’s important to acknowledge that not only does microaggression (MA) come in many different shapes and sizes but, more importantly, that is INVISIBLE. It’s not like you are racist, homophobic, or trying to offend anyone. You consider yourself to be open minded and up for trying new things, yet you find yourself uncomfortable OR don’t realize that you are making someone else uncomfortable with your jokes/actions.  And that, my friend, is what MA is all about.

microaggressionSo, let’s go back to that “inappropriate” joke I mentioned earlier. While you may not be a racist/sexist/etc, the fact that there is chance that you may offend someone at all is what makes it wrong. The fact that it feels ok to still tell it to “certain people” only feeds into the issue of problematic language, which is a HUGE part of MA, and it's so ingrained into our daily lives that it’s almost hard to spot. Problematic language is the “the use of and words or phrases that has specific derogatory meaning toward a specific marginalized group of people.” (Everydayfeminism.com)  Negatively portraying “outgroups” is being microaggressive and, whether you intend to or not, you are continuing to ALLOW oppression and marginalization of members who do not belong to the majority group. And this cycle is what causes MA to constantly flood our daily lives.

The whole “joke” example just shows us how invisible MA is, which is why it needs to be addressed. People who are marginalized often lose their desire to speak up. And why would they even want to speak if they all they are used to is being put down and negatively portrayed? It’s not like they don’t want to say anything. The truth is that these marginalized people may not feel comfortable, find it their place to, or even understand how to voice themselves without fear of being further ostracized or put down. And since they are already aware of the fact that THEY are the minority, the main issue becomes the people who do NOT identify with the minority group. They can either choose to take a moment to try and understand the topic at hand, or they can become defensive because they are left feeling uncomfortable or excluded since the topic is not centered around them. Choosing to refuse to educate yourself as you continue to stand your ground is what is referred to as exercising privilege, and privilege, in case you didn't know, is when you have “an advantage that is unearned, exclusive, and socially conferred.” (Allan G. Johnson.) 11150972_1025130684187007_3915906916063792018_n

Again, most of the people who are microaggressive, don’t know it because they really do have good intentions. But here is the thing (in regards to racial MA): Anyone who identifies with being white has the privilege of being white. Does that mean every single white person is driving around in a BMW and lives well over the line of poverty? No. That is not the kind of privilege I am referring to. Right now what I am talking about is the privilege that you have when you don’t have people act differently around you because of your skin color. And before anyone starts trying to justify that white "is a color too", remember that being of ANY European descent (Italian, Sicilian, Polish, German, etc, etc etc) USUALLY means you are still WHITE. When you think about white privilege, remember that white men had the privilege to vote LONG before women or people of color (both minority groups). Until just VERY recently homosexuals were NOT privileged to the institution of marriage (another minority group being forced to assimilate to the dominance of heterosexuality.) See what I am saying? Privilege isn’t “Who” you are, it’s HOW society perceives you. 

Now I know that this isn't the easiest pill to swallow, but that doesn't make it any less of a problem. It's almost a given that when tasked with trying to understand something that is unfamiliar or questions your character it is easy to get angry, upset, scared, or even feel uncomfortable. Remember the most important, and by far EASIEST, thing to do when you are in a situation like this, is to take a deep breath and a step back. It can be really hard to step outside of your bubble and consider things that are beyond your comfort zone, but the thing to keep in mind is this: The most you have to lose is learning something/gaining a new perspective. I mean, it kind of makes sense that if you find yourself not understanding the views that someone has about something, you should try and put yourself in their shoes. It's ok to accept the fact that we all come from different walks of life and that, unfortunately, discrimination is not dead.

images (2)If you choose to deny yourself the opportunity to educate yourself and expand your knowledge about what it is like to be a part of a minority group, the only other alternative is to defend yourself. In doing so, it is important to realize that your defenses may be rooted in centering. Centering is the act of drawing the attention back to yourself/your group and refusing to allow the focus and attention to be around a group you cannot identify with. Centering, essentially, is persistently using mainstream mentality to justify why a minority groups actions are troublesome, or even "wrong."  So if you end up arguing with someone who is trying to raise awareness or celebrate identifying with a group that you don't identify with try not to make it all about you. Continuing to reaffirm that you are the majority group does nobody any good. The most likely result of deciding to fight that person may result in further denying that person /group any validity to their feelings, knowledge, and experiences.  For example: A person who identifies white says: "I don't understand why we need a whole month for Black History. There is no 'White History Month'." That statement is centering because that person has now implied that a minorities skin color is invalid and that the negative experiences they have encountered solely based on their skin tone is their own fault; not the people who did the discriminating. And that the history of people of African decent is not as important as those who identify as white. Follow me? This example is MA at it's finest when it comes to racial minorities.

Now, don't sit here and think that I am blaming anyone for microaggressive behaviors. If you think about it, we spend our whole lives in an EGALITARIAN society, meaning that we are taught that everyone should be treated as equals. But the problem is that the events that make up our history contradicts equality amongst all people, which can cause quite the internal conflict in ourselves. Black Americans are to be viewed as equals, yet history shows enslavement and a civil war to try and keep them enslaved. White people ran out a whole country of indigenous people for their own greed and then continue to negatively portray Native Americans even to this day. Are you picking up what I a putting down? How are we to view everyone as equals when people of “outgroups” have historically been treated otherwise.

At the end of the day, minorities/outgroups already have enough burden to bear. It's not like they asked to be born "different," yet it affects how they are interacted with and treated on a daily basis. Our society is SO majority-group centered, from what we teach in schools to laws that we have historically enforced.  The purpose of this article is to help spark the MUCH NEEDED conversation about microaggression and help encourage a more open dialogue about it. I am here to tell you that IT'S OK TO BE UNCOMFORTABLE! Trust me, the discussion you may choose to engage in surrounding this topic is likely to be far less uncomfortable as some of the dialogue minorities encounter during their lifetime.

What are your thoughts about the subject of microaggression? How does this article make you feel? It's ok to speak your 2 cents so long as you are respectful. This is a safe space for all and personal growth is encouraged here.

Please join me Friday September 11, 2015 for the very special release of my review of Tekhni Delta Koinonia, which was made exclusively for a babywearing group where "marginalized families [are] seen, heard, and understood- especially where alternative parenting methods are concerned."

Tekhni Delta Koinonia: A BOC EXclusive Review

For more resources about microaggression please browse the following links: What Microaggression Looks Like In Everyday Life (Buzzfeed)

(The following links were contributed by Babywearing Love and Support's (FB group) social justice 101 files)

Problematic Behaviors - How to Respond

Microaggressions - What are they and how do they affect us?

Ableism / Ableist Language

Privilege / White Privilege - What it is, and how it benefits even those of lower socioeconomic status

Cultural Appropriation - What is Cultural Appropriation and what does it have to do with babywearing?

Allyship - What does being an ally mean? How do I be an ally?

Facebook Groups / Blogs - Where can I go to learn more? How can I begin to unpack?