Juneteenth to July 4th

An opportunity to reflect on Freedom and Racial Injustice

K - Kindness

Kindness: Micro-affirmations, an antidote to microaggressions

The end of legal institution of slavery - by no means - ended the system of racial oppression that is horrifyingly alive and well in our nation today. Underlying any system of oppression are complex belief systems whereby one group is deemed superior to the other. Some of these beliefs rely on explicit judgments of superiority and inferiority and others are implicit beliefs of bias. In the U.S., white supremacy prevails and in important ways - implicit racial bias - fuels the systems of racial inequity that render profound inequality between White Americans and Black Americans and other people of color.

Today’s content explores: how a prevalent force of implicit bias -- namely, microaggressions promote divisive belief systems about less privileged groups; how we can understand this implicit bias -- that we all have to some degree; and, how we can combat this divisive bias in order to promote meaningful social change. Let’s start with a working definition of microaggressions.

A microaggression is a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group, such as a racial or ethnic minority.

Here are some examples of microaggressions, tied to race, color, ethnicity and nationality, along with the divisive messages they convey:

  • “Where are you from?” “Where were you born?” or “You speak good English” directed at a “non-white” person reveals the assumption the person is presumptively less intelligent, somehow “less American” or a “less entitled” foreigner

  • “You are so articulate” directed at a non-white person reveals the presumption of inferior intelligence of non-white people

  • Assuming an Asian person is gifted at science or math assumes a that a large group is a monolith

  • Mistaking a professional person of color for a less respected service worker implies that people of color are servants to whites and they couldn’t possibly occupy high-status positions.

  • “I am not a racist. I have Black friends” and “I am a white woman so I know how bad it is for Black people” suggests that mere associations and experience with discrimination is a license to ignore the oppression faced by another.

  • Confusing a person of a certain race or ethnicity with another person of the same identity conveys that all people of that group are the same and less memorable individually.

  • “Everyone can succeed in this world if they just work hard enough” ignores the pervasive systems of inequity that have denied the underprivileged from fair opportunities for generations.

  • A white man or woman clutching their purse or checking their wallet as a Black or Latino person approaches assumes an inherent criminality of certain minority groups.

Microaggressions are tied not only to race, color, ethnicity and nationality, but to sexual orientation, gender, gender expression, gender identity, disability, age, socioeconomic status, religion and a host of other traits and characteristics. Examples of some of this are:

  • Not using someone’s preferred pronouns

  • Failing to learn the proper way to pronounce a person’s name, especially hey have corrected you.

  • sing outdated and offensive terminology, such as, “That’s so gay” “That’s retarded” “You people” “You got gypped” “I jewed him down” “Indian giver”

  • Engaging more - in discussion and with eye-contact with males while talking to a group of both males and females.

Microaggressions not only fuel systems of oppression. They cause profound suffering for marginalized people. Professor Kevin Nadal states emphatically, “To be clear, the ‘micro’ in microaggression doesn't mean that these acts can't have big, life-changing impacts.” In fact, the negative effects on the recipient can be stress, depression and anxiety, PTSD, chronic health conditions, substance use and even suicidal thoughts.

So, once we identify these microaggressions that we all may commit, how can we combat them? Professor Mary Rowe has developed a strategy drawn from her research on the matter.

Rowe recommends “micro-affirmations” or “small acts, … often ephemeral and hard-to-see, events that are public and private, often unconscious but very effective, which occur wherever people wish to help others to succeed”

Examples of micro-affirmations are:

  • Asking others for their opinions

  • Recognizing the achievements of others

  • Using friendly facial expressions and gestures

  • Taking a genuine, professional interest in someone’s personal life

In other words, everyday acts of kindness may be the answer. Bravely workplace consultants offer a helpful approach for people serious about developing their micro-affirmation skill set. The recommendations are geared for the workplace, but these three guideposts are valuable in a variety of settings.

Three things to think about as you start to get intentional about micro-affirmations:

1. Monitor your feelings. Spend time noticing what words and actions make you feel seen and valued, as well as what makes you feel disrespected and overlooked, no matter how insignificant they may seem. Chances are, your colleagues react similarly to the same types of words and actions. (And people in under-represented groups more frequently experience the “disrespected/overlooked” words and actions.) By labeling for yourself the ways you do and don’t want to be treated, you can start to apply them to how you engage with others.

Try it today: As you go about your day, write down specific three things said or done to you that you found affirming. Think about how you can pass that feeling on to someone else—particularly someone outside your typical circle at work.

2. Act natural. Using micro-affirmations may take a little extra thought, but they should still feel authentic to both the giver and the recipient. Two techniques that make this easier are appreciative inquiry—using open-ended, positively-framed questions to show interest and respect—and being specific in your positive feedback.

Try it today: Practice appreciative inquiry by trying to go a whole day without asking a yes-or-no question. Keep questions open-ended, and be ready to hear responses you might not have expected.

3. Leave room to be wrong. Contrary to some writing on the topic, it is possible to commit a microaggression in an attempt to micro-affirm (eg, sounding surprised when giving positive feedback or recognition). It’s okay to say, “Please let me know if I’m making a mistake” when discussing a sensitive issue. And if you catch yourself microaggressing? Resist the urge to get defensive, and apologize.

Try it today: If there’s a discussion you’ve been avoiding because the fear of saying something wrong seems insurmountable, it might be time to role-play that conversation with someone you trust.

Calls to Action

  1. We encourage everyone to listen to the stories being told here very intentionally and compassionately. https://www.metrowestdailynews.com/story/news/2021/06/24/hopkinton-massachusetts-mikayla-miller-death-race-reckoning-diversity/7686632002/

  2. We also encourage everyone to follow the bipocathopkinton Instagram account, which anonymously shares stories of racial bias and discrimination within Hopkinton as experienced by staff, students, and alumni.

  3. Participate in Marathon Love Letters Project and make your submission today! We are creating a 3 minute film using videos and photographs of the people of Hopkinton sending greetings to the runners. Let's Show Some Love from Hopkinton.

Please reach out to info@hopkintonfreedomteam.org or Hopkinton Youth and Family Services if you need support processing these incidents of discrimination.