“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.