Microaggressions: We all make mistakes…

I would like to share a microaggression in which I was a guilty party.  This story speaks to the whole cycle of misunderstanding that can occur when we view the world solely through our lens.  The names have been changed to protect the innocent.

This series of independent but interconnected microaggressions occurred over a period of time.  The microaggressions covered the gamut from microinvalidation to microinsult.  The events happened at work, the administrative offices of a State Preschool program.  I will attempt to present a reasonably balanced picture of the “low-lights”.

I believe it started with microinvalidations that occurred at a staff meeting.  Most of my colleagues are Christian.  As far as I know, I was the only atheist present at an administrative meeting during which we were looking at coming to some agreements over holiday procedures.  At the meeting, I was guilty of not appreciating how much certain holidays, such as Christmas, meant to my colleagues even when it extended to the school program.  My colleagues, on the other hand, were not able to fully appreciate that atheism is not merely the absence of faith, but a value system as well.  When this lack of understanding occurred, it prevented us from moving forward.

Subsequently, a series of other microaggressions occurred.  For example, I am particularly results-focused.  Having had some traumatic experiences with Head Start where our entire agency was shuttered, costing more than 100 people their jobs – I stress the bureaucracy.  Sometimes I have a sort of tunnel vision when it comes to funding terms and conditions.  In this way, the anxiety that a Christmas tree in a classroom might result in an issue with the Department of Education over-rode any concerns that I might have had over how teachers and families felt about it.  My pragmatic, black and white sort of thinking was not the usual for the culture of the agency which tends to be very humanistic.   And because agencies have culture, and I was new to the agency at the time, this cultural dissonance derived, in part from microaggressions, fueled some discomfort.

This was compounded by misunderstandings related to verbal and non-verbal communication styles.  My style is straightforward.  I rarely preface my requests with the more human “How are you today?” pleasantries.  As a result, I can seem demanding and impatient.  Making matters worse, was my cultural tendencies towards large personal space, low touch, and averted eye contact.  My tendencies, particularly in stressful situations, are to look into the distance or over the shoulder of the person I am speaking with.  I may assume a stance that places me to the side, rather than in front of the person I am communicating with.

This speaks to my privilege.  As a man with management experience, leadership experience, and formal education, I assume that others in the agency must share my priorities – meet the funding terms and conditions first and foremost, be efficient with your time, prioritize work over other things (sadly, another Japanese-American cultural imperative with some real merit beneath the stereotype).

I also value customer service.  This means that when I am in customer service mode, I switch value systems (a sort of temporary situational culture).  The microaggression challenge came to a head because when others received my behavior as inappropriate or less than supportive or caring – their natural response is often to mirror my perceived behavior through their own cultural lens.  What a mess!  One day, in frustration, I kicked open the door, let loose some rather less-than-professional language and went home.

My supervisors called for a meeting.  Some of my colleagues explained how they received my behavior.  I got the “catch more flies with honey” lecture… again.  However, after I explained my cultural lens, underlying concerns and personal history (I’m trying to keep the agency lights on) to them, we all reassessed the intended messages rather than the received messages.

Today, we get along much better.  I make a point to engage in morning pleasantries and to preface requests with words of appreciation.  I am trying to remember that it is important to deliver a message, not in the way that you would hear it best, but in the way the intended recipient would hear it best. 

While I traveled the microaggression path from microinvalidation to outright hostility – fortunately, our team did the work necessary to move forward consciously more appreciative of diversity.

At the end of the day, however, culture is a powerful force and I still find myself baffled by the culture of the agency.  And sadly, but truthfully, microinsults escape.  These are not microinsults related to race, religion, orientation, etc – they are related to the more subtle organizational manifestations of culture.  For example, although our agency brochure says we open at 8:00 am, staff don’t arrive in the Main Office until 8:30-ish, although our Enrollment Office across the parking lot does open before 8:00 am thanks to a dedicated enrollment staff.  We regularly go for days without our top administrative staff being at the office.  While it makes me absolutely crazy, the agency has excelled for 30 years (I’ve only been here a year).  And while it seems clear to me that I need to be the one to adapt to the agency culture, an occasional, “How do you guys work like this?” will come out of my mouth – a microinsult (at least) against the agency culture.

I also took one of Project Implicit online tests.  Whew, I am biased!  I took the gender and science demonstration and totally showed my bias that I associate science with maleness.  At least I have the wisdom to acknowledge my biases.

I suppose we all are most comfortable in situations where our cultural dissonance is at a minimum.  In ECE, the gender homogeneity of the profession, coupled with a rather unified personality type as measured by the Myers and Briggs assessment (ISFPs, ISFJs and ESFJs), means that I often the other, in a constant state of dis-ease.  Imagine what a family feels, coming to you for services for their beloved child.  Imagine how they must be taking in all the messages, intended or not, about our program, our values, our attitudes, practices and beliefs.  Do they at ease or dis-ease?  And then, think about what it must be like to be six weeks old, 12 months, 2 years or 4… imagine now what a child feels!


Melton, Marliss.  N.d.  Possible careers for Myers-Briggs and Kiersey personality types.  www.marlissmelton.com

The Myers & Briggs Foundation.  n.d.  Preferences.  www.myersbriggs.org

Project Implicit.  n.d.  Take a demo testhttp://implicit.harvard.edu

Sanderson, Emily.  n.d.  Myers-Briggs test assists professionals in making career choiceshttp://vocational-careers.toptenreviews.com

Sue, Derald Wing, Capodilupo, Christina M., Torino, Gina C., Bucceri, Jennifer M., Holder, Aisha M.B., Nadal, Kevin L., Esquilin, Marta.  2007.  Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice.  American Psychologist 62:4 271-286.



2 thoughts on “Microaggressions: We all make mistakes…

  1. eceastewart says:

    You mentioned Myers Briggs and it made me think about a staff retreat that we just had at our agency. Has your entire agency gone through something like this together? A few of my colleagues that have been with the agency for several years know each other very well but we still found it rewarding to learn together about our strengths and how they can become our greatest attributes or our pitfalls if we overuse them. We went beyond the training and wrote our top five strengths from Strength Finders and wrote them all on cards. We hung these in our offices or cubicles as a reminder when we are talking with others where we are coming from. Just as understanding our own biases will help us squelch forms of discrimination, I think that understanding ones strengths will help you understand why some think the way they do. My top strength is woo. I want to talk to everyone in the morning to greet them and make them feel a part of the team (I also feel a bit obligated some days as a member of management). I am sure that some co-workers view this as procrastination or lazy whose top strength may be very different than mine.

    Thanks for helping me think about microaggressions as they are related to our strengths – a new way to look at them.

    • gregory uba says:

      I have seen it done in large groups. At a former workplace, a child care resource and referral agency, we did it with about 40 staff with Jacqueline Nason of JagTag. Her training featured colors and animals (Lion, Hawk, Turtle, Rabbit I think) Like you, we placed the information learned at our work stations – sort of as a reminder to our colleagues, how we work best. We did a similar experience as a department of 12 with Betsy Haas (Esteemed Human Development) and her “animals” (Elephant, Monkey, Dolphin, Lion) . I’ve also experienced it in a huge group (maybe 200) at a statewide child care resource and referral conference (this time the colors – gold, red, green, blue).

      It is always a popular staff development opportunity.

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