Microaggression: Not My Intent


I’ve done it again. And I hate to admit it. But since my intent is to at least do no harm, even do my part to improve things—to live/model/teach a better way and finally to connect with and empower others to do the same—I must tell this uncomfortable story.

As part of the equity team at my elementary school, I was invited to hear Zaretta Hammond speak about culturally responsive education and the brain. The event had been slated for the first anniversary of Trump’s inauguration and scheduled long before the women’s marches became public. So while others were walking in downtown Seattle on Saturday, my butt was seated in Renton. My mind was actively involved in a relevant and related activity—a workshop about taking fairness into our schools through excellent teaching. I was fortunate to be present with several from my school and almost fifty others from my district.

Plus lunch was provided. Always a bonus.

As engaging as the material was, linked to the anti-institutional-racism work I am drawn to, my greatest learning started during lunch. Zaretta had encouraged us to visit with someone new over the meal.

I saw an open chair beside a younger-than-me and browner-than-me woman who appeared to be on her own. She encouraged me to join her and we began trading questions and comments and getting to know each other. She was friendly. Interesting too because while we are both educators we work in different roles and settings, me as a counselor in a public school and she as an administrator in an independent school.

I was curious.

Then I said it, not “Where are you froooom?”—God, I know better than that!—but, “Were you born in the U.S.?” Right away, I noticed that she, without skipping a beat, ignored my question. I wish I knew better! In this immigrant-phobic country we now live in, I had asked something that came close to questioning her status. None of my business. I teach people not to ask that, for God’s sake. Regardless of my intent to connect, satisfying my curiosity and anticipating appreciating more of her, she felt hurt, perhaps angered. I knew because she folded her arms across her body and while we talked more, I didn’t feel closer. We exchanged cards though, ever the professionals.

Thus during the afternoon session when we dug into characteristics of our dominant-white culture, I was able, from across the room, to acknowledge my microaggression in an email. I hoped she would forgive me.

Instead she, my newest instructor, replied and explained that what I had asked was a question she had heard frequently in various forms. She had decided long ago to be very intentional about who she told this part of her story. And it wasn’t me! (She actually didn’t say or write this exactly but I remembered her decision not to share because of her crossed arms.) Sitting alone at home as I read her email, I felt an ache in my gut. Here I was yet again, contributing to this insidious racism because I live in it, as we all do.

My colleague also sent this link, a column by Omid Safi complete with a YouTube illustration by Ken Tanaka. She encouraged me to share it. I highly recommend you watch it too.

The hardest part is recognizing that I am the kind of person who does this. I am a white woman in this white-dominant culture. Racism goes deep and is ubiquitous, sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious. And bless pat, I meet “perfect strangers” who, while it is exhausting, will be “professional” in the face of it. Then when I notice and ask forgiveness, albeit indirectly, will tell it like it is. She responded honestly for herself as an individual and also more broadly for people of color in general. Not only that but she offered me a clear way to tell others who are like me about her experience and that of others like her. As uncomfortable as the topic is, I am grateful for her brief, effective candor.

And I am sad and sometimes despondent, recognizing what a giant piece of work we have ahead of us. Finally I am taking on some of the burden. My friends who have black and brown skin do this every day. They don’t know where the next unconscious slight—a microaggression—is coming from. Lucky me, I get to rest when I want or need to. I can hide behind my pale face, knowing what I know, later to come out again and ask, “Sorry, did that hurt? Not my intent,” realizing my friend still hurts regardless of my conscious objective.

The least I can do is admit it. After all, I am a white person who dares to write about bridging. Yet here I am again. In this culture of ever-present white dominance and privilege, I too contribute.

I commit to noticing, then asking, then listening to stories and sharing mine. My intention is to speak with heart from my side of the street and learn to live a better way on our collective long road to healing.

4 thoughts on “Microaggression: Not My Intent

  1. Penny, thank you for sharing. I have lately been thinking about whether or not growing up and learning how to and then choosing to be a capitalist is in some way an active and continuous major insult or aggression to those individuals who have many types of diversity (ethnicity, spirituality, gender, race, etc.) but possibly do not have the privilege I do based largely on the fact that I have pale skin and am a male. In a capitalist society I have far fewer chances of experiencing the likelihood of food insecurity, tainted drinking water, lack of adequate medical care, ability to roam the country as I please without fear of aggression from those in authority, etc. This inequity is just that. I will likely continue to have advantages that are in many ways undeserved. I don’t think people who are diverse in one way or another want my white man guilt nor do I think they want me to feel sorry for them. What is the correct thing to do minute to minute is not always abundantly clear to me, but I’d imagine that putting words to such issues creates some sort of visibility. I believe things can get better if I try to listen, to hear, to understand and act in partnership with as opposed to a “doing for.”


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