“Sam, when you say, ‘May the best man win,’ you imply in a small way that the best person in whatever situation will automatically be a man.”
With this gentle instruction, my big sister became the first person to point out a microaggression to me. I was sixteen, and on that day, I began my lifelong habit of working to identify and counteract the subtleties that shift our beliefs and feelings without our knowledge.
What exactly is a microaggression?
Dr. Chester Pierce, a Psychology professor from Harvard Medical School, first coined the term in the 1970s. Pierce defined microaggressions as “brief and often subtle everyday events that denigrate individuals because they’re members of particular groups.”[i] Microaggressions differ from ordinary aggressive acts in that they do not intend harm. Pierce’s usage of the term pertained to racism. Dr. Mary Rowe, an economist from MIT, expanded Pierce’s work to include a focus on sex and gender discrimination.[ii]
Microaggressions are subtle messages, hidden within our daily words and actions, that imply to a group of people that they are inferior, that they should act a certain way, or that their value depends on a certain set of behaviors. Microaggressions affect every woman and man in every area of our lives. Little by little, they shape our attitudes without our consent or awareness.
We find them in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, ministry curriculum, textbooks, and our casual expressions. We are daily bombarded with little reinforcements of harmful gender dynamics.
–A male pastor encourages his male congregants to sharpen their minds and prepare themselves for leadership, but encourages his female congregants to seek purity and embody love.
–A friend shared a story about a recent trip to the doctor, and without asking about the doctor’s sex, my classmate asked, “Did he know what was making you sick?”
–While chatting with young adults, we tend to ask women about their love life while asking men about their careers.
–While discussing a group project, a woman is repeatedly interrupted by her male group mates.
–The ESV translation of the Bible translates a gender-inclusive Greek word into an exclusively male English word. (See Rebecca Card-Hyatt’s stellar explanation here.)
I witness these dynamics every day,[iii] even from women and men who fight passionately for gender equality. Oftentimes, microaggressions go unnoticed, even by those they most harm. If the people damaged by a microagression do not even notice it, then what’s the big deal?
The trouble with microaggressions is that our attitudes and behaviors are slowly molded by subtleties. A hundred small things compound into one big thing: internalized sexism. Microaggressions sneak into our brains within the Trojan horse of innocent expressions. They whisper stereotypes that our conscious minds work hard to overcome. If we let these subtleties go unexamined, they will amass and skew our perceptions of women and men.
How can we counteract something this pervasive and subtle? If microaggressions are largely unconscious, we must heighten our awareness.
1. We can actively identify microaggressions. Mentally label them when you find them, and be willing to identify them in your own speech. Whether you are walking into the classroom, the living room, the boardroom, or the Upper Room, carry with you an open mind and a discerning ear. When we focus on labeling microaggressions, we shift them from subconscious to conscious, and we counteract their influence.
2. We can use microaffirmations. Dr. Mary Rowe also introduced microaffirmations, which seek to counteract the subconscious damage done by microaggressions.
–Remind yourself throughout the day to keep a close eye on the words you choose. Are you using maleness as a compliment, or femaleness as an insult? (“Don’t be such a girl; man up!”) Are you saying ‘mankind’ instead of ‘humanity’?
–Cite Biblical translations that do not wrongfully exclude women from the text.
–Actively seek the input of women in discussions about the church (or anything else, for that matter).
I believe that God cares about microaggressions because they hurt people. God is in the business of ending oppression, and labeling microaggressions is an important step towards ending the inequality they quietly perpetuate. I echo the Psalmist in prayer for a mouth that does not speak oppression and a heart that does not tolerate it:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalm 19:14, NRSV)
Yes, micro means ‘small,’ but these concepts are huge in their importance. By shaping the culture we occupy, microaggressions work against equality in the church. When we label microaggressions and build one another up with microaffirmations, we start to reclaim our brains from patriarchal ideas we never meant to spread.
Your Turn: What are some microaggressions you have observed in your own life? What are some microaffirmations you would like to see more frequently?
[i] Pierce, C. M., Carew, J. V., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Wills, D. (1977). An experiment in racism: TV commercials. Education & Urban Society, 10(1), 61-87.
[ii] Rowe, M. (2008). Micro-affirmations & micro-inequities. Journal Of The International Ombudsman Association, 1(1), 45-48. Dr. Rowe’s splendid and brief explanation of microaffirmations (among other ideas) is available on MIT’s website here http://web.mit.edu/ombud/publications/micro-affirm-ineq.pdf.
[iii] Microaggressions can perpetuate unfair ideas about men, too. As an example, open any “For Him” gifts catalog. You will find pages and pages of NFL merchandise and action movies. This is somewhat invalidating for those of us men who would rather receive a scarf and a season of Veronica Mars on DVD.
Thank you Thank you Thank you.
This is so well-expressed.
Lately, I’ve been realizing (and this seems so late) that almost everything said to me as a woman is about how I’m perceived by others (oh, that’s attractive (sarcastic), or compliments about my appearance or personality as they would apply to my suitability as a partner or friend).
I’ll be thinking about this for a while, and trying to find counters to the micro-aggressions I hear (and say and think).
this happened to me today in a meeting where seven people were discussing a job description and a position we will hire for and one person kept saying, and assuming, the position will be filled by a male . . . in my mind I’m like, holy smokes people, it’s 2013!!!
This is so great! One microaggression that really bothers me is when people say “man the table/booth/event.” I try to throw in a correction (like “person the table”) when I hear others use the phrase, but my suggestion is generally met with an eye-roll. I’ll be looking for more opportunities to stop using microaggressions and start using more microaffirmations. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Sam.
Interesting. I agree with a lot of this . . . Until it becomes “PC.” Political correctness drives me nuts! I did bust up laughing when I read your bio though. The last line indicates that all tall people should be good at basketball. Hmmm, speaking of micro. . .
Sam, I love this! I’m a woman and an egalitarian and find myself using microagressions at times–telling someone to “man up” as if it’s only men that are able to display courage. Thanks for this very effective word.
Oh my word, I LOVE this! Thank you for articulating this SO well. This is something I have been trying to be more aware of in my own speech, and it’s crazy how often I catch myself using gender exclusive language. I’ve actually started saying “ya’ll” a lot more in an effort to not say “guys,” you’d think I was from the south. And when I do misspeak, I correct myself. This often elicits a quizzical expression from others, apparently it seems an odd thing to correct, but I think it’s valuable as you’ve stated above. Seriously, so well articulated. Thank you!
.. just my two cents from a linguistic point of view.
I fully agree with what you say, and the examples in the article are spot on.
May I just point out a micro-problem? 😉 There is the danger of overshooting the mark. In some cases the word “man” is what is called a linguistically unmarked category, meaning it does not exclude one sex. When you say “until the cows come home” you probably don’t mean the female cows only but also the bulls. When we speak about cats we usually mean both male and female cats (unmarked category). If you want to specify the gender of a male cat, you probably say tomcat (marked category). Neither of the unmarked terms is derogatory or exclusive per se.
I know that language is changing and the term “man” is often seen as a marked category (excluding women) instead of the unmarked category (including women) that it formerly was. Since I am not a mothertongue speaker of English, I can’t say if the expression in the introduction possibly is (was?) an unmarked category – i.e. not just refering to men.
Maybe the problem is not so much that “man” excludes women, just as “adam” in Hebrew can be translated as gender specific or gender neutral, and so also adelphos in Greek, but that a word we formerly thought was appropriate as a gender inclusive term is inappropriate now as it subtly prioritises man in defining humanity.
more and more that is the case, but figures of speech will probably be the last to change.
Though they may be linguistically unmarked, the terms ‘man’ and ‘he’ still carry male biases which inherently makes them exclusive. For example, in the sentences below, sentences (1) and (2)are being used as gender-neutral terms to refer to an entire population.
1. “When a student comes into the room, he should pick up a handout.”
2. “Man is a primate.”
Semantically, sentences (1) and (2) make sense in reference to masculine and/or feminine referents. In the examples to follow, the use of these words will prove that this is not always true.
3. “Man has two sexes; some men are female.”
4. “Man breastfeeds his young.”
5. “Ask the candidate about his husband or wife.”
In these examples (3-5), it is evident that “man” and “his” are not all-encompassing terms. They hit a semantic speed bump because they carry a male-connotation and don’t completely make sense in a setting in which gender specificity is used in another part of the sentence. This proves that using “he” and “man” in fact carries biases towards males. Because it contains a bias in certain situations, this means that it cannot be completely neutral.
Your examples are proofing exactly what I was trying to say – there are two different uses for these terms (actually there are more than two), and *sometimes* they are not biased toward male. but more and more often they are, due to language change.