Micro-aggressions in the Mosaic
Rev. Douglas Taylor
January 19, 2014


It was roughly mid-way through my seminary years that my soul caught fire with the life and writings of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I had learned about him and had heard his words before, in school and in church, but this was my first encounter of reading more than a quote or hearing about what he had said and done. His use of language stirred my heart and the content of his writings struck my conscience.

I was working on an assignment to build a modern lectionary – what are the contemporary writings that would fit as Unitarian Universalist scripture. I am not the first to suggest that the writings of Dr. King could serve as scripture for modern liberal religion. I don’t mean scripture as ‘divine word of God, inerrant and perfect, the root of all sound creed and belief.’ Instead I mean scripture as ‘life-giving writings that wrestle with the deep questions of truth and meaning.’ I imagine the writings of King could fit alongside the letters of Paul, the prose of Lao Tzu, or the words of the Hebrew prophets

Obviously I am thinking about many of his speeches, the “I have a Dream” speech in particular as we just heard. But the work I really dug into for that assignment in seminary was his “Letter from the Birmingham Jail.” It was written in 1963 while King was imprisoned for civil disobedience. He outlines the method and reasoning for non-violent direct action. It is a response to a public letter of concern and caution from eight white southern clergy. They cautioned King to wait, to give more time for the political system to respond. King replied:

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have never yet engaged in a direct-action movement that was “well timed” according to the timetable of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word “wait.” It rings in the ear of every Negro with a piercing familiarity. This “wait” has almost always meant “never.” … We must come to see with the distinguished jurist of yesterday that “justice too long delayed is justice denied.”

I MUST … confess that over the last few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the White Citizens Councillor or the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says, “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by the myth of time; and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

This then is my focus for today. Each year it is my commitment to bring a resonant message on the Sunday closest to the national celebration of Dr. King. I have preached about The Dream, about racism or Beloved Community; I have preached about democracy or the kindred values between King’s message and Unitarian Universalism. Today I focus on racism, but something far more insidious than blatant racism and outright bigotry. Today I ask you to focus with me on the impact of lukewarm acceptance, the difficulties of shallow understanding from people of good will.

We in this congregation, I know this to be true, are people of good will. I am a person of good will. So what I am poking at today is for my ears and the ears of all of us: a sermon for people of good will. And what King offered in that letter over 50 years ago is that being a person of good will is important but not sufficient.

It also is good and worth noting that we are a people of tolerance and plurality. As a faith tradition Unitarian Universalism recognizes the mosaic of multiculturalism. We honor our differences, for that is where the richness of interaction and engagement resides. We know that welcoming differences can often be messy. Misunderstandings can occur, often do occur. We bump up against each other with our differing opinions, expressions, experiences. The Beloved Community is not a perfect paradise. There are cracks and chips in the mosaic most of the time.

This word in the title of my sermon “Microaggressions in the Mosaic” refers to the cracks and chips in the mosaic. It was a new term to me a few summers ago and it kept popping up in my awareness as a way to talk about this: microaggressions. I avoided it for a while because it has the feel of a pop-psychology buzzword. But today I want to throw it under a microscope for a few minutes to see if there really is anything to this word.

The term “microaggression” was coined back in the 70’s by psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce. The term has come back into use through the work of a Columbia professor named Derald Sue. Sue defines microaggressions as small indignities. Of course as a collage professor what he really defines it as is, “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

This seems almost like a new dressing on the same old experience of racial slurs and insults. The unique piece is that microaggressions are often unintentional and seemingly insignificant. We’re talking about throw-away phrases rather than ‘hate-speech.’

In an article from Psychology Today, Derald Sue writes,

The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group. These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as “small slights,” but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.

Professor Sue was looking at a pattern of experience in his research and naming it. Here are some examples of the experiences Sue was seeing. When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black man approaches, it sends the message: You and your group are criminals. When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English,” (or perhaps for speaking English well,) the message is intended as a compliment but it also says: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.

Of course the targets of microaggressions are not just people of color. Sue’s research began with the experiences of people of color, but he soon saw that this was a universal experience for anyone of a minority identity: women, LGBTQ persons, religious minorities, people with disabilities and so on. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the message may not have been intentional but it is there: Women are less capable than men. Or consider the example of a gay couple asked “Which of you is the husband and which is the wife?” Certainly there are gay couples who consider their relationship in that way, but the message is: a same-sex relationship is abnormal and you can pretend to fit if you try. Or the way people raise their voice when speaking to a blind person. The subtle message is that a person with a disability is somehow inferior in all aspects of physical and mental functioning.

One website  I stumbled upon shows examples of Racial Microaggressions by having people write down common statements they hear. A young woman of Asian descent holds a sign saying “No, where are really from?” A Black teen holds a sign that reads “You don’t act like a normal black person, ya know.”

Some of these examples may be about thoughtlessness more than good intentions. And they are small and easy to brush off, but they add up. Part of what we can notice is what I spoke about this fall in my Forgiveness sermon: Our intention behind our words and the impact of our words do not always line up, but both are true. Even when we are thoughtful and have the intention of complimenting or connecting with someone, our impact may be otherwise.

Many years back, before I moved to Binghamton, I was officiating a memorial service for a Japanese American WW II veteran. The deceased had not been a member of the congregation and I did not know him before being asked to do the service. During the service an older man spoke at the open remembrances time, he was a neighbor and friend of the deceased if I remember right. It was clear this neighbor and friend thought very highly of the deceased and the man was choked up at times while sharing. He concluded his remarks with, what I am sure he believed was, a sincere complement. He said his friend was a ‘credit to his race.’

“Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (MLK) The problem with calling someone a ‘credit to his race’ is in the way people of a minority identity group are often called upon to represent all people of that minority identity group. Perhaps you are thinking, ‘That’s not so bad.’ And if that is what you’re thinking, you’re right – it’s not so bad …which is my point. These microaggressions are small and trivial. Each alone is hardly worth mentioning. It is the daily accumulation that weighs people down. Sue’s research shows how the daily accumulation of these ‘small slights’ weigh on a person.

During that memorial service I responded to this comment about race with what I hope was both compassion and truth. I waited until the open remembrance time was complete and I closed it saying something like this, “One of the people sharing offered the compliment that this man was a credit to his race. I am sometimes not exactly sure what that means, but I will take it a step more to suggest he was a credit to humanity.”

I hemmed and hawed about saying anything during the service. My goal was not to chastise the speaker because what he offered was offered as a sign of respect and with the intent to honor. But neither could I just let it go. I wanted a balance and I am not sure that I got it or that it was even possible; which brings me to another point well worth mentioning.

We don’t need to speak perfectly. I know – this whole sermon so far has been all about how we must be careful with our words. I will shift that slightly and say: we can be more aware of our words. But part of being in a diverse and dynamic community is that we will experience it as messy, we will bump into each other, we will say things that have an impact that does not match our intention.

So here is the next big piece to add to the conversation: how to move forward when a person of good will, a friend, says something that sounds like a microaggression.  There is a fabulous video from 5 or 6 years ago by Jay Smooth  called “How to tell someone they sound racist.” The basic premise is to avoid the ‘what they are’ conversation and focus on the ‘what they said or did’ conversation. If you say to someone “You are a racist,” then the conversation gets warped into an argument about the motives and intention of that person. But if you say instead, “What you just said sounds racist,” then the conversation says in the realm of the event in question and the impact of the action.

I have had this kind of conversation with people. I’ve been on both sides of this conversation at different times – recently. If someone says to me, “Douglas, you are a racist,” I am not open to that conversation because I know I am not a racist. Yes, I participate in this racist society and I benefit from white privilege, but I will contend that that is not the same thing as being a racist. I am aware that some people hold the definition that any white person in American is ipso facto racist. There are religious definitions that say any human being is ipso facto a sinner. I disagree with this ‘depravity-based dogma’ whether it is religious dogma or social dogma. I agree with Jay Smooth on this – avoid the ‘what you are’ conversation in favor of the ‘what you said or did’ conversation.

When someone says to me, “Douglas, that thing you just said sounded racist,” I am open to listening to that because I care about how I sound – it matters to me that my words be inclusive of the differences in our community and in the Beloved Community we are striving to build.

I’m not looking at the skinheads and neo-Nazis as the great hindrance in our work to build the Beloved Community, to face racism in our society, to deal with differences with dignity. The hindrance is all too often the simple, thoughtless things you and I say to each other across our differences.

And consider: if these small microaggressions can wear people down, the opposite of that is likely true as well: micro-blessings that can build us up. Let us commit to building up the world we long to have, let us offer little actions, small kindnesses borne of simple awareness for each other. But mostly let us not remain silent in the face of even these small microaggressions, these little slights that are not in line with how we long to be with each other. Dr. King said, “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Let us learn to speak up with compassion.

In a world without end
May it be so.