2 Oct
  • The off-hand comment that a student was granted admission or a colleague was hired “for diversity”
  • The scheduling of homework or tests over Rosh Hashanah
  • Sending home a “parent” permission slip

These are all examples of what Professor Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues would term microaggressions, the “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges, which are put-downs” (2007). Their research suggests that we express our biases every day in ways that are loud and clear, and yet at the same time, subtle and hard to prove. After all, there is an initiative for greater diversity (so I’m just sayin’); students do get Rosh Hashanah “off” (and there are so many schools days missed in the fall!) and most children live with their parents, not other relatives or guardians (don’t they?)

The common theme in these incidences of microaggression is being singled out, intentionally or not, on the basis of identity–to be more precise, non-majority identity–and experiencing being less than an equal member of your community.

You know you’ve experienced a microaggression when you feel invalidated by someone else, based solely on some aspect of your identity. For example, when I was not married, and someone would assume I was, I’d correct them, and they would often rush to reassure me, “Oh, that’s OK.” (Yes, I know, I would think.) But it’s hard to prove a microaggression: these very same women could ask why I was being so defensive when all they were saying is that’s it perfectly fine to be unmarried. But what happened was aggressive–at the very least, to me. And apparently, there’s a whole body of research to suggest I’m not crazy. Microaggressions are a real, common and pervasive phenomenon.

Commonplace though microaggressions may be, Sue and his colleagues warn, “It’s a monumental task to get… people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other] people” (2007).

And they do harm, not just other people, but the microaggressor her/himself: microaggressions tend to reinforce themselves by facilitating negative engagement with other people (who, because it doesn’t feel good to be on the receiving end of a microaggression, tend to reciprocate the sentiment). In this way, microaggressions permit our negative biases about others to become habit and experiential truth (i.e. single women are unfortunate and should get married so they won’t be so touchy).

But I think there’s hope: rather than focusing on stopping microaggressions, I vote that we invest in leveraging microprivileges. (Note: I made this concept up, based on Sue et al.’s work, figuring that’s what research is for… creative application.)

Go back to the example of sending home a parent permission slip. Kids who have parents get an everyday unearned privilege: the people they love and go home to get validated as a real family. What if we extended that privilege to all kids? What if we sent home “relative/guardian” permission slips? Or “loved ones permission slips”? Maybe the language needs some work, but the point is, we could validate all sorts of family and home arrangements just by shifting our norm from the expectation that all kids have (two) parents to what is hopefully a known common denominator: that all kids have someone who helps to raise them. Because that’s what’s under the language: a belief (aka bias) about what’s normal.

Now let’s make this personal: I try to be a nice person, and I like to think I treat people fairly. But the truth of the matter is that I show my “positive” biases every day in small ways, whether through friendly banter (with some people but not with others), withheld criticism (that I would readily unleash on someone else for the exact same behavior) or extra consideration (offering a seat on BART to a pregnant commuter). Quite honestly, I don’t feel bad about these inequities. I don’t want to stop being generous, considerate or friendly. In fact, I want to be even more biased, at least in this sense. I want to spread microprivilege and ask someone I don’t usually chat with, “How are you?” in the couple of minutes before a meeting starts, or offer that free seat to a teenager who looks perfectly able and comfortable standing.

What I’m proposing is a low-investment strategy to create more connection, good karma and positive associations with diverse others. The microprivileges I’m already inclined to extend to some people are easy, well-practiced and user-approved ways to share the love with others.

So I invite you to notice: what are the subtle ways you express favoritism or positive bias for some people? And whom else can you microprivilege today?

One Response to “Microprivileges”

  1. Harry Underwood October 15, 2014 at 2:51 pm #

    Reblogged this on World of Values and commented:
    An idea on microprivilege. I might contribute my own ideas later.

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