Apr 04 2012

March 2012 Theme: Brokenness

Published by at 9:24 pm under Minister's Musings

The Theater of Microaggressions

by Rev. Nancy Palmer Jones

  At a signal from the teacher, my friend steps into the center of the circle. “Welcome to the Theater of Microaggressions,” Professor Mark Hicks announces. A rustle ripples through the sanctuary; the title makes us squirm. “What are you doing?” I telegraph to my friend by widening my eyes at her. Isn’t she putting herself in danger?

Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders have gathered at All Souls Church in Washington, D.C. to learn about leading vital multicultural congregations. We have just watched sociologist Derald Wing Sue’s video about microaggressions—those unconscious insults and small putdowns that folks in marginalized groups receive day after day. Usually these words or gestures come from good folks who have no intention of doing harm. 

Two examples (notice: does any of this sound familiar?): (1) An academic adviser concludes a session with a graduate student with what is meant to be a compliment: “Your English is excellent!” But the Asian-American grad student winces. Born in the United States, he speaks English as his first language. (2) At a board meeting, men freely exchange ideas with each other. Their body language blocks out the only woman at the table. When she finally gets the chair’s attention and begins to offer her suggestions, no one looks her way. The man next to her reads something on his phone as she speaks.

At the conference, the video stirs our discomfort. But next we listen to a recording of a gay men’s chorale and a black Baptist choir from Dallas singing Labi Siffre’s affirming “Something Inside So Strong.” My friend—herself a lesbian of color—stands taller, and we all breathe easier.

Finally our teacher Mark sets up the “Theater of Microaggressions”: My friend will play the role of the only person in her family who has no gift for math. Her parents and siblings are all famous mathematicians. With her aptitude for literature and the arts, she is the “different” one.

A group of volunteer actors circles her. As they pass by, they look her in the eyes and deliver their assigned lines: “Why aren’t you good at math?” “You must be so proud of your brother.” “Say, are you adopted?” and so on. Inevitably my friend’s posture slumps; she looks down, her eyes glistening. The circling group moves faster and faster. They no longer meet her eyes; they sound almost apologetic as they repeat their lines over and over. The tension in the sanctuary rises. When will this game stop? Should we intervene? What should we do?

Just when we can stand it no longer, Mark breaks up the improvisation, says “thank you” to his actors, and pulls my friend to him in a hug. “You are smart and you are beautiful,” he reminds her. All of us take a deep breath.

“Microaggressions,” Derald Wing Sue teaches, “are unconscious manifestations of a worldview of inclusion and exclusion, of superiority and inferiority.” Microaggressions often target people of color, women, lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender people, or people with disabilities, although (as the exercise showed) any kind of difference can prompt these signals that it’s not OK to be just who we are. The perpetrator doesn’t mean to be, doesn’t want to be, prejudiced or condescending, but no one has ever helped this person to examine what lies beneath her or his unconscious actions. “If we are to become a fair, just, and humane society,” Wing Sue suggests—if we are to heal this brokenness in our lives—then we’ve got to “make the invisible visible.”

Through this exercise, we conference attendees feel in our bones just how damaging a lifetime’s worth of such words or gestures might be, even for folks with “something so strong inside.” We testify about our own experiences of microaggressions. We recognize the times when we have used such words or gestures. Our empathy deepens. We wonder how to change these patterns in our congregations. We wonder how to teach our children to be strong. How can we teach them how to respond when they receive one of those daily slights or when they see someone else receiving one?

“Every negative experience takes seven positive experiences to turn around,” Mark tells us. Seven positive experiences to knit together the broken places in our spirits and to remind us that beneath and beyond and through it all, we are whole. We have work to do!

So come then, my good people, join us this month as we “make the invisible visible” and take the next steps on our journey toward wholeness!

 

P.S. You can watch Derald Wing Sue’s video about microaggressions and learn more about what each of us can do to stop them at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJL2P0JsAS4. And you can listen to Labi Siffre sing “Something Inside So Strong” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=otuwNwsqHmQ.   

 

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