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Managing Microaggressions

Those of us whom they affect must find ways to soothe the uncomfortable feelings they elicit, writes Stephen J. Aguilar, who offers some suggestions for how to do so.

July 31, 2019
 
 
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A senior scholar and former colleague recently congratulated me for publishing in a high-impact journal as first author. The peculiar part of the congratulatory note, however, was that I never received it. I was only made aware of it when my co-authors forwarded me the email. As it turns out, my would-be congratulator accidentally confused me with a fellow junior scholar.

Normally such mistakes are innocuous, perhaps the result of autocorrect in the email program. When I read the email, however, I noticed that my peer was referred to by name throughout the congratulatory note. Again, such a mistake wouldn’t be worth mentioning if my peer and I had related research interests -- or even similar-sounding names.

We do not.

The only thing we have in common is that we are both Mexican American scholars on the tenure track. The evidence at hand suggests that my would-be congratulator attended to my ethnicity more than my scholarship -- a typical example of a microaggression suffered by scholars underrepresented in the academy.

Microaggressions are the poison ivy of living life as a person of color. They’re irritants, and those of us whom they affect must find ways to soothe the uncomfortable feelings they elicit. In this article, I’ll reflect on how I dealt with the situation in hopes that others can benefit from my experience.

Balance reactions with consequences. My philosophy is that every action I take as a professional has corresponding consequences on my career that must be weighed. This way of thinking has helped me navigate tricky situations. My first reaction to the microaggression was to forcefully correct the mistake by sending the following email to my would-be congratulator:

Dear Pseudonym:

I’ve been made aware that you enjoyed our article. Unfortunately, I’m afraid that you sent congratulations to the wrong Mexican … quite a feat seeing as my name happens to be printed first -- as you note -- on the actual article.

I could have been more temperate in my response, perhaps positing some innocuous reason for the mistake or lightly correcting the error without naming it. There is often a tendency for those of us on the receiving end of a microaggression to talk around the core issue in hopes of quickly resolving it.

I thought about leaving it alone, but in the end, I didn’t. I am one of the few first-generation Mexican Americans on the tenure track at an elite R-1 institution. I am privileged in this position, and I see it as my responsibility to take a few risks when pushing back on problematic behaviors. I thus chose to be direct and name the absurdity of the mistake. After all, how is it possible to wax poetic about how interesting an article is while simultaneously misattributing it to someone who didn’t actually write it?

That said, everyone who experiences microaggressions must calculate the upsides and downsides of directly addressing those culpable of making their day a little (or a lot) worse. I would not have responded in this way if I were on the job market, because there simply wouldn’t have been an upside to it.

Reach out to your support network. My second reaction was to tell my wife and to reach out to other scholars of color to share my experience; I wanted to calibrate my experience against theirs. Was I correct in my interpretation? Was my response warranted or, at least, understandable? How much should I actually care about my would-be congratulator’s mistake?

Afterward, I listened to their similar experiences and knew that I wasn’t alone. It is important to have friends and colleagues who can help you contextualize your experiences. Paradoxically, I received the most sincere apologies from other scholars of color -- even though they literally had nothing to apologize for.

Nearly every person of color has a similar story to tell. For my part, it’s a strange feeling knowing that I am potentially filed under “Mexican person” in someone’s memory before I’m filed under “Stephen.”

Acknowledge the role of allies. This may have been a nonevent had the initial email not been forwarded to me. While some might argue that it would have been better that way, I disagree. Such thoughts reek of inappropriate paternalism that takes power away from those adversely affected by microaggressions. That is why I thanked the person who forwarded me the email -- it gave me the opportunity to address the person who sent it.

At fault? Own it. The tricky part about microaggressions is that they are often the result of well-intentioned mistakes, as is the case with my experience. If you happen to make such a mistake, the best thing you can do is just own it and apologize.

Never, and I mean never, start an apology with, “Don’t be offended,” because doing so is either indicative of a cavalier attitude toward making mistakes, or it is an attempt to assert your perspective as the correct one. Neither of those possibilities is an actual apology and won’t be interpreted as such.

Relatedly, an explanation isn’t required. To illustrate this point, imagine going to a friend’s house and breaking a plate while attempting to get it out of a cabinet. I imagine your apology wouldn’t be, “I wasn’t trying to break the plate. I was trying to get it from the cabinet. I didn’t do anything wrong -- my heart was in the right place.” Or worse yet, “Well, these plates are just so damn breakable when they fall -- buy better plates.” I hope we all agree that the best response is “I broke your plate. I’m very sorry about that, and I’ll be more careful next time.”

The same goes for owning a microaggression. Just apologize and make an honest effort to do better in the future. In the end that’s all we want: a sincere effort to learn from your mistakes. We 100 percent have no interest in hearing an epic tale about how the microaggression manifested through a confluence of unlikely events, thus absolving you of any responsibility.

After a few false starts, my would-be congratulator did manage to sincerely apologize for the mistake. I accepted the apology, and we both moved on.

Bio

Stephen J. Aguilar is assistant professor of education at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. He leads the Learning Analytics and Psychology in Education Lab. You can follow him on Twitter @stephenaguilar.

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