Going Deeper: Microaggressions & White Privilege
by Rev. Seth Carrier-Ladd published Sept 25, 2014 UU Church of Muncie, IN
In this past Sunday’s sermon I shared the experience of the adopted son of a friend of mine:
He came home in tears after the following interaction: A white woman asked him, “where are you from?” My friend’s son answered, “the west side of Chicago.” The white woman didn’t stop there, she asked again, “no, where are you from?” Second response,
“well, I used to live in Seattle.” This white woman kept at it, asking, “no, where are you REALLY from?” My friend’s son finally said, “uhh… I was born in South Korea.” The white woman’s response? “Wow, your English is excellent.” Later, at home, son reported to mom, through tears, “It’s like she was saying I don’t belong here. And she’s right, I don’t. I don’t really belong anywhere. I know she didn’t mean to be mean, but she’s right.” The part that was most challenging for my friend’s son was he had just walked out of a class he was taking with this woman, where they had watched a video about racism, and she had really seemed to get it. It was clear at the very least, that she thought she was pretty racially savvy, and that she was trying to be friendly to this young man with her questions. She didn’t get how harmful her questions actually were – the injustice she had created was hidden from her own self, despite her professions to the contrary.
After the service, I had conversations with several of you about whether the white woman in this example had actually done anything wrong or not – the point was made that she was trying to be respectful in her approach. It’s a good point, and it’s a terrific example of the need to pay attention to the “Intent vs. Impact” principle in situations that involve privilege. Often when discussing situations such as these, folks who are sitting in the more privileged positions – whether that privilege be race, gender, economic, sexual orientation or otherwise – will say, “well I didn’t mean to be offensive, I was really just curious. Isn’t trying to learn more about someone who is different than me a good thing?” There is no doubting these folks’ good intent, and I include myself in these folks, because I’ve made my fair share of mistakes on this front. The challenge though is that we’re also responsible for the impact of what we say when it’s part of a broader pattern of systemic harm. Generally, I do believe that we’re responsible for our own reactions and feelings in response to individual situations – if you gently tease me, it’s my responsibility not to take it personally. When certain situations are repeated over and over, though, and people with privilege end up systematically undermining those with less privilege, those of us with privilege need to be mindful of the impact of our words.
Because sadly, this was not the first, nor the second time my friend’s son had had this kind of conversation. It wasn’t the third, fourth or fifth time either. White folks had had this conversation with him numerous times, and it’s this repeated effect for which those of us with privilege are responsible. Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined the word microaggression in 1970 to describe this. Pierce’s work at the time focused specifically on racism, but the term has evolved to cover microaggressions more broadly, with psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue more recently defining microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Microaggressions, much more subtle than more explicit aggressions such as a direct racial epithet, build up over time, and can inflict great harm on the recipients. To learn more about microagressions, check out the links at the end of this article, or buy Derald Wing Sue’s book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation.
The privilege part of the conversation, that white folks may be less aware of, is that no one ever asks them a second time where they are from, at least not because of color of their skin. If a white person answers, “I’m from Chicago,” a follow up question might be “where are you from originally?” But a white person will almost never be asked, “No, REALLY, where are you from?” because the assumption is that all white people in our country are Americans. It’s a hidden injustice, because most white folks aren’t aware that they don’t have to deal with this particular microaggression, and may in fact be perpetrating it, since they never experience it themselves. There are countless other examples. I mentioned in Sunday’s sermon the freedom most white folks have not to be followed around in department stores by suspicious employees who think you’re going to steal something just because of the color of your skin. Peggy McIntosh lists 26 other examples of white privilege in an essay entitled “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Backpack” (available for free online, just Google it) if you’d like to learn more. The lack of awareness this well-meaning white woman had about the effect of her questions on my friend’s son is an example of white privilege. She had good intent, but wasn’t aware of the negative impact.
I’m grateful for the people who approached me with this question, because it means there is a high degree of trust in our congregation, and a willingness to engage in these sometimes difficult conversations. I also hope that creating opportunities to have these kinds of deeper conversations, both casually and in a more structured manner through programming, is a value and practice that becomes more ingrained in the culture and life of our church. Someone mentioned at the Exploring Your Theology class on Sunday afternoon that “it was really great to have the kind of conversations we just had and go deeper – we don’t usually get to do that in casual conversations during coffee hour.” Whether those deeper conversations are about systemic oppression or simply sharing the stories of our lives, it will require of us trust, commitment to listening, direct communication, and a willingness to stick with the difficult conversations when they arise. I have faith that we can do it, and I’m excited to be on this journey with all of you, because I see examples everyday of how amazing you are.
Optional Microaggression links: