Microaggressions No Small Issue

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Microaggressions No Small Issue

Offensive actions, assumptions and expressions directed at marginal populations occur on many levels and in everyday life. Rooting them out takes vigilance, awareness and more.

By Eugene Curtin

Much has been said recently about “microaggressions,” those usually unconscious but offensive allusions, expressions and actions that are more habitual than antagonistic and so ingrained in popular culture and vocabulary that rooting them out will require patience, grace and a large dose of humility.

One Creighton University professor compares them to paper cuts. Each one stings, she says, but it is in their accumulation over time that the real damage is done, as a sense of “otherness” imposes itself on populations with marginalized identities victimized by thoughtless actions, assumptions and expressions.

Rooting out microaggressions takes vigilance, says Erika Dakin Kirby, PhD, a professor of communication studies in the College of Arts and Sciences and the A.F. Jacobson Chair in Communication.

“I try to make people in my orbit super aware of this problem,” she says. “Someone close to me recently said that they were the lowest on the totem pole, and I said, ‘You know, you really probably shouldn’t say that. I know it’s part of common vocabulary, but it uses ways-of-being of Indigenous people as a way to describe hierarchy in ways that they wouldn’t want us to, so perhaps you shouldn’t say that anymore.

“I do think that there are so many places where these things happen.”

The term “microaggression” is fairly longstanding, having been coined in 1970 by a Harvard University psychiatrist who used it to describe casual disparagements visited upon African Americans by people of other races. It has since become an umbrella term for verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights against any socially marginalized group — whether related to race, sexual orientation, social class or ability.

Sade Kosoko-Lasaki, MD, MBA’05, has her eye on the ball when it comes to microaggressions. A Nigerian-American, she is associate vice provost for Health Sciences and professor in two Creighton medical departments. She is also, and has been for more than 20 years, director of Creighton’s Department of Health Sciences-Multicultural and Community Affairs. In that capacity she has extended Creighton’s embrace into minority communities in North and South Omaha to the point where the Douglas County Health Department recently entrusted her with $500,000 in grants to promote COVID-19 virus awareness and vaccines.

Kosoko-Lasaki says trust is hard won and easily lost, and microaggressions can take forms other than personal slights. Sometimes, she says, they can be systemic and institutional, even though unintentional.

Need for ‘Uncomfortable Conversations’

Chidi Ezeokoli, a third-year student at the Creighton School of Dentistry and a native of Nigeria, says she long ignored such microaggressions as complimenting her excellent English (English is the official language of Nigeria), being described as aggressive and angry for expressing contrary opinions, being referred to as a “homegirl,” and being described as a “doppelgänger” for other Black students.

“For a long time, I used to let them roll off my back because I didn’t want to be labeled as the ‘aggressive’ or ‘angry’ Black woman,” she said. “However, I realized that by failing to address these acts of racism (microaggressions), I was protecting my non-Black counterparts that either did not care to see how this was impacting me or were simply clueless.

“I was the one hurting, suffering in silence, and repeatedly blaming myself for not speaking up. By choosing to address the microaggressions, I chose to be an advocate for myself and my Black brothers and sisters. There is a long road ahead in combating racism, but I think one of those steps involves having those ‘uncomfortable conversations’ about racism so that white people can learn their roles in the situation and for people of color to feel heard and seen.”

These fears are real, says Patrick Saint-Jean, SJ, a native of Haiti and a Jesuit scholastic who is currently teaching at Creighton. Saint-Jean is the author of a book The Crucible of Racism in America, soon to be published by Orbis Books.

He says microaggressions reflect the assumptions of majority culture and are often dismissed by that culture as minor transgressions that should be forgiven. But the recipients of the microaggressions are not similarly complacent.

“The victim is already the victim,” Saint-Jean says. “It is not for us to tell victims how they should feel when they are suffering. Mercy is also about accountability, so sometimes the aggressor needs to be held accountable. We are all in this together, and we are all called to take care of each other as one community of love, mercy and compassion.”

Like Thousands of Paper Cuts

The essential problem with microaggressions, Kirby says, is their frequency.

Among her favorite analogies is the paper cut.

“There is a tendency to minimize microaggressions because they don’t seem like that big of a deal,” she says. “But the problem is that if the person on the receiving end has had four other microaggressions that day they stack up on each other. I really like the metaphor of thousands of paper cuts. One microaggression stings, but they add up until you can’t stand the pain anymore.”

The unintentional nature of most microaggressions, as with the totem pole remark, is part of the problem, Kirby says. People deliberately insulting others on the basis of race or some other group characteristic is easily countered. But other offenses occur under the radar and that, Kirby says, is where the education needs to take place.

Kirby has conducted workshops on microaggressions for the Creighton College of Arts and Sciences Diversity Project; for the Anti-Defamation League, where she serves as senior facilitator for the Great Plains chapter; and for The Minnesota Humanities Center, where she is a facilitator.

A list of transgressions outlined during those workshops makes for useful reading. Professors might, for example, want to avoid assuming that students are expertly knowledgeable about their ethnic cultures; or expecting students to endorse views and opinions commonly attributed to their identity groups; or being insensitive to religious holidays when making assignments; or drawing attention to particular students when discussing issues related to their social identities. Complimenting Latinx Americans born in the United States on the quality of their English or invasively inquiring about the ethnicity of racially ambiguous people are other common missteps, Kirby says.

And it doesn’t stop there.

“Clearly, in 2021, we tend to go automatically to race, but I do think that microaggressions occur on many levels and in everyday life,” Kirby says. “If I overhear somebody saying, ‘Oh, I’m so OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) today’ and I really have OCD, then that’s not cool. We throw around things like that, especially relating to mental health issues. But I think it’s getting better. I think the generation below me is getting better about not saying things like that.”

Ignatian Spirituality Offers a Way Forward

It is important, Kirby says, to note that microaggressions can and do happen not only in relation to race but also in relation to other social identities, such as ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, social class, national origin, religion, age, etc., and that groups with a targeted identity in one area can still commit microaggressions against other groups, and so we all have work to do. It is a human problem, she says, and one that could use an injection of Ignatian spirituality with its call for contrition and grace.

“One of the core presumptions of Ignatian spirituality is the assumption of good intent,” Kirby says. “When someone is confronted that they have committed a microaggression, I think we need to have space to allow people to circle back, to give grace, and to say, ‘I’m going to do better.’ Do we want one thing that someone says to totally frame the rest of their life if they want to do better?

“My mantra is that I am your friend until you show me that I shouldn’t be your friend.”

Kosoko-Lasaki refers to the dictionary definition of microaggression as “a statement, action or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.” These are often unintentional, she says, but lack of intent does not mean that damage is not done.

“Most people who commit microaggressions mean no harm,” she says. “It’s just that their lack of knowledge permits insensitivity and can cause bad blood. It could be race, it could be gender, it could be religion. It could be whatever. You have to put yourself in the shoes of those experiencing your action to really appreciate what’s going on.”

She cited an example in which a person compliments another on attaining a high level of education despite the “disadvantage” of growing up in a poor country. To a person of mature years such a slight on one’s native land and culture can be soothed by calling out the offender.

“But if you say that to a young student, they internalize it and they tend to think less of themselves,” Kosoko-Lasaki says. “This is why we must be very careful.”

Discernment … Awareness … Benefit of the Doubt

Saint-Jean believes Ignatian spirituality, which underlies everything at Creighton University, shows the way forward.

“Ignatian spirituality gives us three points to work with,” he says. “Number one is discernment, number two is awareness, and number three is the benefit of the doubt. Speaking as a Jesuit, and holding respect for all the other spiritualities that are out there, Ignatian spirituality is the most substantial and important tool at this moment because it gives us what we need to engage in the struggle.”

Discernment, he said, helps identify the best way forward for both the aggrieved person and the aggressor. It involves humility, reconciliation and an understanding that how one says something is as important as what one says.

Awareness involves understanding on the part of members of majority culture that they occupy a position of power and privilege and that it is not their place to decide what members of marginalized communities should think and feel, Saint-Jean says.

“We need grace and mercy,” he says. “But we must be aware that our position of power and privilege can betray us into thinking too little of microaggressions. We can counter that with a certain measure of kindness and humbleness.”

Finally, Saint-Jean says, the benefit of the doubt should be granted to the aggrieved person.

“You do not dismiss the experience of the victim,” he says. “Give the mistreated the benefit of the doubt. Before we confer mercy and grace, let us give the benefit of the doubt to the person who feels aggrieved.”