The Unseen Harm of Microaggressions

Committing to Awareness, Change, and Inclusivity

Dan Berry  •  October 3, 2023

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that frustrated you because you didn’t feel like you were on the same page? Those conversations produce nothing but angst. They never lead to any kind of understanding or resolution. They never strengthen a relationship.

Most conversations about race fall into this category, because there is very little understanding of the terminology that is required for effective discourse.

In our curriculum What Lies Between Us, one of the first things we do is provide each student with a list of 43 different terms and their definitions. It is amazing how conversations become relevant and productive when people start speaking the same language.

Over the last few weeks we have been highlighting some of those terms, endeavoring to bring to our readers a clearer understanding of their definitions.

This month I would like to explore the word “Microaggression.”

What is a Microaggression?

Microaggressions are subtle but offensive everyday actions or comments directed at marginalized communities or other non-dominant groups that are often unintentional and/or unconsciously reinforce a stereotype.

As a white male raised in a very patriarchal family, I can’t even imagine how many times I have championed microaggressions without even knowing it. My mode of abuse was usually masked in some form of humor or sarcasm. Getting a laugh at the expense of others was a character flaw in me that for some reason needed to be fed.

Illustration credit: Asya Lyubavina • The Student Life | “The (not so) fine line between curiosity and microaggression” Oct 06, 2022

Learning the Hard Way

A few years ago when I was still pastoring an incredibly diverse family, I made the ultimate transgression.  Our worship leader, who is Black, had been a part of our staff for years, and put on an Easter production that was extravagant.  As you can imagine, on Easter everyone was dressed to the nines.  Something caught my eye about her dress and at the conclusion of the Easter service I appreciated her work, but then decided to poke a little fun at how she was dressed.  I am sad to say that I got a big laugh from the congregation, but not even a smile from her. 

This woman was known for her incredible clothes, but getting a laugh blinded me to how much my comments hurt her.  She even, lightheartedly, told me to stop before she walked off the platform.  I wish the story ended there. But the following week I did it again, got another laugh, and this time she just turned and left the platform.  I had no idea how upset she was, how much my comments had hurt her.  That’s how microaggressions work and why they are so dangerous to the health of any relationship.  It was during this time that others helped me see my aggression for what it was.  I don’t know how she ever forgave me, all I know is that understanding this term helped me see microaggressions for what they are. 

Awareness Leads to Change

Will I ever be guilty again?  Probably.  But at least now I find myself thinking before I speak.  At least now I find myself thinking about how my comments might affect others and about how others might take my comments.

As we begin to understand this term and its impact on others, it’s ok to acknowledge our complicity and make a commitment to do better.  It will all lead towards creating a more inclusive and less harmful environment.

Hope this helps!

Dan Berry is the author of Navigating Diversity In Our Most Segregated Hour, a Certified Instructor for the What LIES Between Us and Confronting Whiteness courses, and advises individuals and organizations on how to take first steps toward racial healing through Bridge Building Solutions.

He has pastored for forty years in Iowa.  After pastoring in predominantly white spaces for several years, he began to realize the need to bring about racial healing in the body of Christ. For the last 30 years he has worked to bridge ethnic and cultural divides, a work that has led him into confronting the churches complicity in upholding systems of racism.

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