Can microaggressions be teachable moments?


Recently, much attention has been paid to words and actions that are described as microaggressions. These are subtle actions or statements that indirectly or unintentionally make someone from a marginalized group feel that they are being attacked, insulted or discriminated against. For example, a white person asking someone dark-skinned where they are from is an example of racial variety microaggression. To counter microaggressions, some colleges, universities, and businesses have adopted policies that restrict what people can say. Campus speech codes prohibit language deemed “offensive”, “degrading” or “intolerant”. In this societal discussion, microaggressions are, by definition, directed against people from marginalized groups. Here are some examples:

  1. Assuming someone’s race, gender, or sexual orientation.
  2. Confusing the names of people who are part of the same minority group.
  3. Suggesting that someone got lost or trespassed because of their race.
  4. Confusing someone in a store, hotel or restaurant with a service worker.
  5. Hold your belongings very tightly when someone approaches you.
  6. Mimic a person’s accent or way of speaking.
  7. Expect someone to represent the views of an entire minority group.

The societal discussion of microaggressions focuses on the effect they have on members of marginalized groups. However, microaggressions continuously occur in all of our daily interactions, not just those involving people from marginalized groups. People are triggered by certain words that could imply wrongdoing; by being interrupted; or when they feel that the other person is not listening to them or disrespecting them. These microaggressions can lead to relationship breakdowns. Most of the time they are not discussed. When cumulative, they can lead to distance, seemingly inexplicable hostility, and even violence. In couples and in friendships, these unspoken microaggressions lead to problems that can eventually end the relationship.

Source: Khadka/Unsplash

There is a growing literature highlighting the importance of microaggressions that occur in psychotherapy. Here is an example:

Patient: I haven’t called my clients for over a month and now I risk losing them. It’s all my fault and now I’m going to pay the price. But on the other hand, I needed to change the day my housekeeper comes and I texted her and said, “If you don’t mind too much, I’d like you to come Saturday to the place tomorrow. But if you can’t do it, that’s okay and forget about it. It’s ridiculous. I should have just said what I needed.

Analyst: It seems like opposite ways of dealing with people. It’s like a seesaw and you go from being irresponsible to being over caring.

Patient: (silent)

Analyst: Did I hurt your feelings?

Patient: Calling me “irresponsible” isn’t very helpful.

The patient was triggered by the word “irresponsible”. He experienced it as a criticism, a micro-aggression.

Analyst: I thought I was just putting a word on what you were saying yourself.

Pt.: It’s not just a word, it’s a criticism.

Analyst: I’m sorry, I thought you were criticizing yourself. You were telling me that you knew that neglecting to call your customers could cost you the account.

Pt.: I know. But I’m not ready to call it “irresponsible”.

My use of the word “irresponsible” caused a rift in our relationship. But we have been working together for a long time, which made it possible to quickly identify the trigger and fix it. This is usually not possible outside the treatment room. Ideally, in psychotherapy, there is the potential for optimal responsiveness because the therapist is aware of the importance of repairing breaks in empathic attunement. Would it have been better if I hadn’t used the word “irresponsible”? I do not think so. I think the process of mending breakups in psychotherapy promotes trust and resilience.

Can this model be applied outside of the treatment room, perhaps in colleges? Instead of forbidding the use of certain words and punishing people who use them unintentionally, is it possible to create an environment in which trigger events are worked on? With the proper training, it is possible for colleges to train faculty to facilitate working on a triggering experience rather than setting rules to try to prevent it (which is impossible) or punishing the person who unintentionally triggers it. someone.


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