Just over 10 years ago, I was asked to write an article about my experience as a gay man in 2005 versus my experience as a gay man in 1995. The article was published and entitled: Talking Back to Heterosexism: A Decade of Lessons Learned. I shared some of my experiences of prejudice and isolation, and how these experiences shifted over the 10-year period covered in the article.
I didn’t know when I started writing the article that I was writing about microaggressions. When the editor of the magazine sent back my first version with her comments, she wrote a brief paragraph explaining to me that she thought I was really writing about my experience of insidious trauma; the accumulation of microaggressions over time which were having an impact on how I saw myself, my relationships and the world.
At first I felt some kind of relief that there was a word to describe my experience. Until that point, I knew others probably had some of the experiences I did, but I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe them, other than to describe each experience individually and how insulted, offended, and hurt I was. When she shared the concept of microaggressions with me, I had a way to make sense of these experiences, why they hurt, and also why I felt so silenced by them. Having language didn’t extinguish the pain, but it did let me speak of the pain in a way that made sense and connected me with others who had similar experiences.
The History of Microaggression
Chester Pierce first used the term “microaggression” in the 1970’s as it related to the experience of African Americans. It has broadened substantially in the past 40 years. Now, when the term is used, it often refers to the subtle, frequently invisible, sometimes unintentional, but powerfully traumatic assaults toward an individual based on that person’s group membership. This includes people of color, women, LGBT people, elderly people, or any individual who is part of a group that experiences stigma or marginalization.
Microaggressions occur so automatically and are so commonplace, that those of us who perpetrate them often have no idea we’ve said something hurtful. And because they happen so frequently, those of us who experience them may not be able to quickly identify why our heart is beating so quickly, why our stomach is knotting, and why there is a quick rise of shame or sometimes anger, which we can’t readily attach to anything.
Often, it is only after we’ve experienced some kind of microaggression that we realize what happened. In my 2005 article, I wrote about the experience of listening to people talk about their weddings when I was not entitled to a legal marriage. I still remember attending weddings of friends and family members, congratulating the newly married couple and celebrating their life together while simultaneously wanting to run out of the room. I also remember, as not one of my better moments, angrily leaving a wedding reception but having no conscious awareness why I was feeling so enraged.
Even today with same sex marriage legal in the state of Illinois, I feel tremendous loss. While I can marry my partner now after almost 25 years together, many of the important family members I would want to celebrate this event with me are no longer living. Like many who experience microaggressions, a change in the present doesn’t eliminate the historical experience(s) of microaggression.
Microaggression in Clinical Work
Navigating microaggressions in my clinical work can be equally challenging. Robert and Abby were a mixed race couple who had been together almost 15 years when they began seeing me. Robert identified as African American and was an endocrinologist at a Chicago hospital. Abby was of Irish and German heritage; her family had been in the United States for several generations. She had a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and worked as a consultant, frequently traveling internationally.
When we began meeting, the couple identified communication problems as their primary issue. They described numerous conflicts that they “just couldn’t seem to resolve.” When they shared some of these with me, they returned to one actual conflict during a therapy session and I watched as their initial description of the problem devolved into an enactment of the conflict before my eyes. Despite several sessions of identifying communication barriers and working on basic communication skills, they still reported no reduction in the intensity of their conflicts. It wasn’t until Robert bravely challenged me to address issues of race which, he accurately reflected, hadn’t been explored in our work together.
In retrospect I can see how not bringing up their racial differences, and then not acknowledging that my race also differed from Robert’s, was perpetuating the silence and tension that existed between them based on their experiences of race. Robert then shared an experience of being at one of Abby’s work-related parties where she was speaking to a number of her colleagues and neglected to introduce Robert. Not only did Robert experience the isolation of being the only African American person in the room, but this was exacerbated by Abby’s failure to introduce him, which resulted in him feeling more isolated and invisible
The more Abby tried to explain away her failure to introduce Robert, the angrier he became. And the more I attempted to help Robert hear what Abby was saying, the more enraged he became with me. Soon, I realized that neither Abby nor I were acknowledging Robert’s experience, and neither of us were taking responsibility for hearing his pain. When I was finally able to name what I thought was happening, I could see Robert visibly relax in his chair, though it took a bit more time for Abby to understand what was happening and how her behavior was experienced as a microaggression. No one likes to be seen as a perpetrator. It becomes even more difficult to acknowledge when we’ve perpetrated a microaggression because we often don’t intend it and/or don’t know when it has happened.
Microaggression and Intersectionalities
In the graduate social work course I teach, the first day of class I engage the students in an activity that invites disclosure about multiple identities. The purpose of the activity is to invite a deeper understanding of the complexity of our identity and how all of us are comprised of multiple intersecting identities—some of which hold power and privilege, and some of which are more marginalized and oppressed. As we move to different identity signs posted around the room and share more about how our various identities intersect, there are always a few times when only one person is standing under an identity sign.
When we finish the activity itself, we typically engage in some discussion about the experience. I have learned over time to explicitly invite dialogue about being the only person to stand under an identity. Often, the identities that have only one person standing under them at some point are those that have histories of marginalization. We carefully explore what it is like to be “the only one,” and the pressure that we experience in speaking for an entire group to which we belong; how the classroom is only one place where this happens. Those of us who hold one or more marginalized identities often feel some responsibility to speak up for a group to which we belong in the context of larger groups in which we feel less empowered.
I write about this as we speak about microaggressions because when we perpetrate a microaggression, we often have implicit or explicit expectations that we should be “told” we have done something wrong. Often, this exacerbates the experience of the original microaggression because we don’t feel empowered to challenge the person or persons “in power” or of the dominant group. It also makes it easier for those of us in the dominant group to cede responsibility for change to those who have the least ability to challenge us.
When we talk about this in the classroom, when we talk about it in therapy, and when we talk about it in organizations, we are vulnerable to paralysis. My students frequently voice anxiety about perpetrating microaggressions in the classroom and in their clinical work. My colleagues voice similar anxiety, and my clients echo this anxiety. And those of us who experience a microaggression voice anxiety about how to address it and anger about having to be the one to address it in the first place.
Who is Responsible for Change?
I wish there was a formula for addressing microaggressions. Through my lens of being part of the LGBT community, I can easily say it is the responsibility of those in power to know when microaggressions occur and to make the necessary changes to reduce inequality and the “isms” I experience. Through my lens as a white man, however, I can just as easily say that those who experience microaggressions need to let me know when a microaggression has occurred or I can’t foster the necessary changes. I hold both these identities—and others too—with varying levels of privilege and oppression, and varying experiences with perpetrating and experiencing microaggressions.
When I was working with Robert and Abby and we had finally become more explicit about how microaggressions played out in their relationship, I asked Robert if he thought Abby wanted to hurt him. “Of course not,” he replied immediately. “But that doesn’t excuse her when she says or does something that feels racist and causes me pain.” I agreed with him, and turned to Abby: “When Robert is hurt or angered by something you’ve said or done, is it his sole responsibility to consistently ‘police’ you?” While my wording took Abby off-guard, she understood my intent. “No! I don’t want Robert to feel like he always has to be the one to make me aware of his experience,” she offered.
And with that, we began an exchange about how to understand microaggressions in general and how they manifest in their relationship. We discussed how Abby could use “binoculars” more regularly and examine the ways her behavior might hurt Robert and resonate with his past/history of microaggressions. We also discussed how Robert might try to share with Abby when something she had said or done had crossed a line that only he could readily see. We agreed on the motto: “Assume good intention. Respond with compassion.”
There is no easy way to address microaggressions in the moment—or even after they have occurred. We also run the risk of naming every hurt a microaggression as a way to compensate for decades without language or a way of understanding this kind of trauma. Still, if as social workers we believe we are agents of systemic change and supporters of social justice, it is imperative that we find a way to raise consciousness about microaggression and insidious trauma in an effort to reduce both macro and micro power differentials. As humans, however, we are imperfect. I will not always be aware when I have perpetrated a microaggression, and I may not always have a voice to let others know when I have experienced one.
Toward the end of the first class I teach, I ask that students sign a statement that provides guidelines for discussion. There are a number of ideas included in this statement, but one that strikes me as the most important is this: “Some immunity must be granted. Assuming that the conversational engagement is honest and earnest, we must be able to hear and say things that some might find offensive as we stumble toward interpersonal empathy and understanding.”
Assume good intention. Respond with compassion.
By Jeff Levy, LCSW, CTRS