This Quarter I'm teaching Interpersonal Dynamics (aka Touchy Feely) at Stanford, and it never fails to surprise me how much I learn when I'm ostensibly the teacher. Today's class was on social identity, and a core component of the curriculum was Chester Pierce's concept of "microaggressions"--inadvertent actions by members of a dominant group that alienate or insult members of other groups, often by dismissing or failing to acknowledge the lived experience of the latter.
A central theme in my remarks was that the topics of social identity, stereotype threat, and microaggressions inevitably stir up strong emotions because they involve status differences and membership in distinct social groups, which increase the likelihood of a threat response. These emotions make such conversations hard to navigate, so we tend not to have them--which means that when we're compelled to have them we're unprepared, and then they often go badly. So we avoid them in the future, and a vicious cycle repeats itself.
Pierce's work on microaggressions in the 1970s occurred in a cultural context when the nature of racism was changing from explicit discrimination, such as JIm Crow laws, to more subtle and less obvious expressions of implicit bias and prejudice. A new conceptual framework was needed to explain the continued experience of social identities being highlighted in ways that put certain groups at a disadvantage, even in the absence of overt or intentional prejudice. Thus, microaggressions.
Something to that effect is what I intended to say in a brief aside in class. But I was more anxious than usual--in part because of the very nature of the topic, as my thesis would predict--and what came out at one point was, "Overt racism is largely gone." Now that's certainly not what I meant--but that's what I said, and that's what my students heard, and that right there is a textbook definition of a microaggression.
My mind raced for a minute, and I went on autopilot as I decided what to do. I've been an experiential educator for long enough to know that embarrassing missteps like this are moments when I can walk my talk--I can own up to the misstep and confess my embarrassment (which is what I preach to my students and clients)--or I can keep my mouth shut and quietly back away, knowing that I'm well-insulated by many different forms of status and an active set of defense routines that make it unlikely that anyone will call me out.
I continued on with my remarks until I reached the point where I was about to send the class off to conduct an exercise in their breakout rooms. And I said something like this (I'm paraphrasing, but it's pretty close):
As one of my colleagues has reminded me, the beauty of teaching this class is that when we screw up we get to be transparent about it. If I wind the clock back ten minutes, I'm aware that I said something like "Overt racism is gone," and that's not what I meant to say. I'm a little nervous speaking on this topic, and it's the first time that I've given this lecturette, and I misspoke. I know that the nature of racism has changed over the years in many ways, and at the same time I know that as an old white guy a lot of things happen to other people that don't happen to me. There are a lot of things that I don't see, but I'm well aware that racism still exists.
It didn't feel good to say it, but there were no "feel-good" options at that moment, just "feel-bad" or "feel-less-bad." And it felt less bad to own up to committing a microaggression while teaching a class on microaggressions. And I feel a duty to be even more public about it here, in part because I hope some good may come of it.
A few further thoughts that occurred to me over the course of this evening: Not only was my statement a classic microaggression, at that moment I was in the grip of a classic stereotype threat as described by Steele. I'm an old white guy lecturing on social identity and talking about racism, and boy am I anxious about making a misstep that inadvertently highlights my own social identity or reveals my own implicit bias--and that anxiety becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, undermining my trust in myself and diminishing my ability to navigate this emotionally charged topic.
I'm also anxious about confirming stereotypes about old white guys (particularly those who are presumptuous enough to lecture on stereotype threat), and yet, of course, I am stereotyped as an old white guy all the time and usually it's to my benefit. So it's all the more distressing when I'm suddenly confronted with a negative stereotype about my social identity triggered by my own actions.
Finally, it's worth noting that I'm capable of making a misstatement like that only because my social identity shields me from the endless manifestations of implicit and explicit bias that so many people I care about must face daily, but which typically occur outside my immediate awareness--sometimes because my presence prevents them from happening, and sometimes because I'm just blind to them.
We know that talking about feelings makes them easier to manage, and I experienced a version of that in class today--and I'm confident that the energy I have to write about this topic now (at a time when I've had very little energy for writing at all) is in part a way to continue working through the emotions that this stirred up in me. Feeling all the feels.
If you're interested in learning more on this topic, here are the readings on my syllabus for today's class:
Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do About It, Claude Steele (Chapters 5 and 7)
Why Critics of the "Microaggressions" Framework Are Skeptical, Conor Friedersdorf, The Atlantic
Microaggressions Matter, Simba Runyowa, The Atlantic
(The Atlantic articles are companion pieces that should be read together.)
The Power of Talk: Who Gets Heard and Why, Deborah Tannen, Harvard Business Review
Why Your Customers' Social Identities Matter, Guy Champniss, Hugh Wilson and Emma Macdonald, Harvard Business Review
Managing Multicultural Teams, Jeanne Brett, Kristin Behfar and Mary Kern, Harvard Business Review
Photo by Igor Spasic. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.