Why microaggressions matter
Editor's note: What follows is the first in a new series of monthly columns written by members of Lake Oswego's Respond to Racism group. The goal is to shed light on issues related to diversity — or lack thereof — in Lake Oswego and spark dialogue about how racism affects people.
An African American woman and long-time resident of Lake Oswego is out enjoying the beautiful spring day in downtown LO when she wanders into a shop.
She browses the store and notices the shopkeeper, who was behind the counter when she entered, now following close behind, straightening up merchandise that is already neat and orderly. He doesn't asks if she needs help. She sees a colorful collection of silk scarves and turns to ask the shopkeeper a question, but suddenly he is too busy re-arranging a display to respond. Determined, the woman waits until the shopkeeper finally turns and stares almost accusingly, waiting for her to speak.
With a bright smile she asks, "Can you please tell me the price of this scarf?" The shopkeeper, without even glancing, says, "Oh, those are VERY expensive."
This is a microaggression. Microaggressions take many forms. Research says that they create chasms and divides in society for marginalized groups, contributing to daily psychological stress and distress. Because most microaggressions go unseen and are perceived as normal behavior, marginalized people often feel "damned if they do, damned if they don't" when responding. Whether the woman from above gives up and leaves the store without purchasing anything or calls the shopkeeper out for his microaggressions, the shopkeeper will view her as a troublemaker and use their encounter to reinforce his biases.
None of us are free from accepting and inheriting the racial, gender and sexual orientation biases handed down to us from our ancestors and society. In order to change society, we must be honest with ourselves and be willing to own up to our personal biases, fears and stereotypes. We are all victims of the social conditioning process, but the first step to overcoming microaggressions is to become aware and interrupt them immediately when they happen. You may not be initially to blame for your prejudices, but you are responsible for your reaction once you do become aware.
It is important for the general public and especially those in employment, government and education to realize the detrimental consequences of microaggressions. As people from marginalized groups will testify, microaggressions are exhausting. They chip away little by little at a person's confidence, dignity, happiness and simple need to feel accepted and appreciated as a valued member of society.
Privilege and power makes it difficult to see the perspectives of those who experience discrimination and prejudice in their daily lives. That doesn't mean these issues don't exist, and automatically invalidating or discounting a marginalized person's experiences is a major microaggression in itself.
Accept that your worldview is cultural. Be willing to entertain the notion that the everyday experiences of insults, invalidations and challenges that people face based on their race, gender or sexual orientation is an accurate perception of their daily reality. Instead of denying their stories, try to understand their perspective.
When called out for inflicting a microaggression on another, resist the strong temptation to be defensive and blame the victim. Be the adult; understand the anger and frustration while being open to discussing, exploring and clarifying what you said, how you said it and why you said it. Treating everyone with patience, dignity and respect goes a long way towards interrupting biases and prejudices while engendering trust between people and building good, strong relationships throughout society.
Respond to Racism's next meeting is Monday, May 6 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the Lake Oswego United Church of Christ. Learn more about Respond to Racism at respondtoracism.org.
Ian Egan is a freelance cartoonist and writer, and a resident of Lake Oswego. See more of his work at http://www.IanEgan.com.
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