Microaggression, Bullies, and Microkindnesses

Microaggression

Those of you who know the Wheaton community will know that Rodney Sisco, the Director of Multicultural Development at Wheaton College, was lost to cancer well before retirement age. He was a big person for racial diversity, a big person in the sense of being a moral giant, and a big person who left literal and figurative size 17EEE boots to fill.

I hope people will not find this comparison excessive or scandalous, but one of the comments C.S. Lewis made was that people object to the idea of God dealing with hundreds of millions of people praying all at once was based on a misconception of an eternal God, and an eternal God has just as much attention for you as if you were the only person that existed. Rodney may not have been able to pay attention to millions of people at once, but I have interacted with him at length, as have many others, and he really did treat you, whoever you might or might not be, whites included, as if you were the only other person God created. Again, he left huge Size 17EEE boots to fill.

There was recently a ceremony honoring him, with an open mic at an event streamed to Sisco family members, for people to tell their “Rodney stories.” I told a story, but even among the white minority at the microphones I did not try overall to challenge the standard framing of U.S. race relations, but instead talked about a time when Rodney took a moment I dropped off a gift to extend a full hospitable visit, and although his wife was not there, his sons also met me with great hospitality. (I did not think to say, in full candor, that they made me feel like family.) One of the sons had expressed considerable interest in being an author, and I said for him that I had given one of my books in the care of a Student Development employee to deliver to Rodney’s immediate family and especially the interested son. And this might be technically called “race relations” in the sense of three black males and one white male interacting peacably and quite amicably and enjoyably, and Rodney seeing a side of me that he hadn’t seen before in that I related as a loving elder to his children, lovingly and fatherly (something that is part of my social behavior but had never come up in my relating to him as one of my own quite loving elders), but it did not fit the framing of interracial relations as the narrative normally flows in America today.

But the whole tone and tenor was dictated with how classic diversity and race relationships are understood, and I would like to take one example of what went on that unnerved me.

There was one young woman who spoke of a “microaggression” with great hurt, and explained how someone who “happened to be a white male” dismissed an idea that she found important that cut her from the heart.

She talked about how she was physically small (I had not noticed until it was pointed out, and admittedly I am significantly taller than her, but she was still something like a foot taller than Christ), “brown” (I had mistaken her for non-Hispanic white, but she clearly conveyed that she identifies as brown), and soft-spoken (me too, even if Toastmasters is changing that). I will mention that once she started speaking, I picked up on the accent of someone who knows at least two languages well.

The idea that she articulated, and was so hurt to have dismissed, was that God cannot be limited to the ideas of a particular time and place. On that point, if I had an appropriate invitation, I might have commented that St. (Pseudo-)Dionysius did a masterful job of engaging that concern, and chapter 5 closes his work The Mystical Theology:

CHAPTER FIVE
That the supreme Cause of every conceptual thing is not itself conceptual.

Again, as we climb higher we say this. It [the Divine Nature, meaning God] is not soul or mind, nor does it possess imagination, conviction, speech, or understanding. Nor is it speech per se, understanding per se. It cannot be spoken of and it cannot be grasped by understanding. It is not number or order, greatness or smallness, equality or inequality, similarity or dissimilarity. It is not immovable, moving, or at rest. It has no power, it is not power, nor is it light. It does not live nor is it life. It is not a substance, nor is it eternity or time. It cannot be grasped by the understanding since it is neither knowledge nor truth. It is not kingship. It is not wisdom. It is neither one nor oneness, divinity nor goodness. Nor is it a spirit, in the sense in which we understand that term. It is not sonship or fatherhood and it is nothing known to us or to any other being. It falls neither within the predicate of nonbeing nor of being. Existing beings do not know it as it actually is and it does not know them as they are. There is no speaking of it, nor name nor knowledge of it. Darkness and light, error and truth—it is none of these. It is beyond assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion and denial. We make assertions and denials of what is next to it, but never of it, for it is both beyond every assertion, being the perfect and unique cause of all things, and, by virtue of its preeminently simple and absolute nature, free of every limitation, beyond every limitation; it is also beyond every denial.

If someone I knew who trusted me raised that concern, that is probably what I would offer to see and raise the other person. (St. Dionysius made so much more an interesting version of de-mythologizing than Rudolf Bultmann.) And I might point out that what she put her finger on has the corollary that the God Who Is Justice is not the hostage of any human conception of justice or equity, including those that are feminist or derive from any other human political ideology or identity politics. And possibly I might suggest that this point needs to be counterbalanced by a recognition that the illimitable God is the one and the same God who became incarnate in a particular time and place, and (as Orthodox understand) continues to become incarnate in Christ’s Body, the Church, at particular times, in a particular way, in sacred history.

And as to the interlocutor who “happened to be a white male,” he might have genuinely not been seeking to slap her down because of her skin color. (I honestly mistook her for a non-Hispanic white.) Admittedly, it is not the best manners to instantly dismiss something that is close to someone else’s heart, but the behavior sounds pretty much as believable to me as something a white male would have said to another white male. Admittedly this person might not have been showing the best social skills, but there is a live possibility in my thoughts that the bloke was being dismissive of an idea as such and not of a person as such or a demographic as such. There is a very live possibility that he was, in an immature way, treating her as an equal. He might have been equally forceful and dismissive in responding to a white male saying the same things, and simply didn’t think, “Female. Short. Soft-spoken. Not a native English speaker; accent suggests brown. Therefore, I need to give a very different answer from what I would normally say to someone else.” She felt self-conscious as an outsider; it is possible that his reply was not shaped by raising the question about whether she was an outsider. Now in addition his reply was also apparently overly rambunctious, rude, and quite unfortunate, and hurt her needlessly. However, the fact that he was not walking on eggshells (apologies for the microaggression against vegans) may have been because he saw her as a fellow student and community member, and treated her like he treated his peeps and homeboys.

It may in fact not have been the case that he thought “I need to be careful in criticizing her ideas because she will think that criticisms of ideas that she values include a negative verdict about her demographic.”

As far as microaggressions go, I would (again, assuming I had an appropriate friendship to be challenging her) invite her to read The Seraphinians: “Blessed Seraphim Rose” and His Axe-Wielding Western Converts. That’s a medium-sized slice of the microaggressions I’ve faced in my own life, and I’ve sent five C&D letters after a repeated “No” was not being respected. Not all of the harassment is from white males; some of it is from at white females, and I honestly do not know or care what racial consituents were in the conversation with Fr. Seraphim’s admirers.

Bullies

The topic that I most strikingly remember about Daniel Goleman’s Emotional Intelligence was what it said about schoolyard bullies. The assumption I held, and that many people hold, is that bullies believe they are king of the hill and are fully entitled to engage in unprovoked aggression against other children.

What Goleman claimed at least, was that nothing of the sort was going on. Bullies by contrast believe they are victims in a hostile and malicious environment and they need to defend themselves as best they can. So when someone bumps into them in the hallway, this is no accident, but deliberate, intended, hostile, and malicious. And when a bully physically strikes hard against a person that bumps him, intending hurt, that falls entirely under the heading of the bullies’ strict self-defense and is if anything not nearly as forceful as it should be.

The training or therapy endorsed for bullying was to stop being so quick to find microaggressions. In a junior high, children are growing, their bodies are changing, and the children aren’t completely used to the changes. This makes them clumsy, enough so that a crowded junior high hallway is a place where people will bump into each other frequently. Come to think of it, I tend to bump into people when I move through a space crowded with other people, and I’m an adult (but, I am admittedly clumsy). And the unravelling of bullying comes when children stop interpreting things primarily as microaggressions, and recognize that a clumsy bump in a crowded hall is most often meaningless. (Something like this went into a bitter and geeky, “Never attribute to malice what can adequately be explained by gross stupidity.”) And bullies are to be taught to not be so quickly find microaggressions in a situation where boring clumsiness, lack of empathy, being distracted, and so on. Not that there is never genuine hostility, but a great deal of hurts are caused by clumsiness and other equally boo-ooring factors.

I am reminded in one book, talking about sensitivity, that a long-term employee heard a remark from an executive that affected him enough so that he thought the executive apparently wanted him to resign from the company. When he plucked up his courage to ask clarification, the surprised executive was taken aback and said that the remark he made was a throwaway remark, and he did not have the slightest desire for a truly valued employee to resign. He hadn’t been thinking about, or wanted, the employee to resign. He had just been perhaps insensitive and not aware that what are intended as transparent throwaway remarks by someone who is higher socially are not always treated as the mere throwaway remarks they are intended to be, and are considered to transparently be throwaway remarks for the person who is socially higher. (Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by gross stupidity!)

And here’s the core point that Goleman does not make: if you run the process in reverse of helping bullies not find hostility at all times and everywhere, and run it backwards, there is a standard term for this reverse process.

That reverse process is “consciousness raising.” Consciousness raising is a process of teaching people to use a pair of X-ray goggles to spot microaggressions in more and more places.

There may be room for a legitimate consciousness raising in general, for majorities to recognize that some people they consider to obviously be community insiders consider themselves to be outsiders, and for people in a position of power to recognize that what are intended to be obviously throwaway remarks and not authoritative statements, are less likely to be such. I needed to adjust in listening to this woman and recognize that she saw herself as an outsider to the Wheaton community, because while she communicated very effectively how marginalized she considered herself to be, I regarded her as an insider before she opened her mouth, or rather more an insider to the Wheaton community than I was, because she was an active student, under the Community Covenant, not to mention wearing the full regalia of Wheaton’s Gospel Choir, and I was only an alumnus coming in to visit. Admittedly this was a visit where I was entirely welcome and alumni had been explicitly invited to participate, but still, I was visiting. (Other people are welcome to disagree with this perspective.) This did not change when she opened her mouth and I heard the speech of someone who speaks two or more languages well, and communicates quite powerfully in English.

Microaggressions, and for that part larger-scale aggressions exist, but seeing things in terms of frequent microaggressions is a path to hurt and alienation.

Microkindnesses

I would like to mention two moments that I have been thanked for and been caught completely off guard, having barely registered in my mind as something I had done.

The first was to wander up to a young woman, give my name and shook her hand, and then wandered off; I believe the interaction lasted something like fifteen seconds. The other was with a young woman who had suffered the creepiest tale of sexual violence I’ve heard yet, and I deliberately related to her distantly, but told her very briefly, “I’m praying for you.”

In both cases the women came to me afterwards and gave what was clearly a five minute thank-you they had thought out. In the first case, I was the one other person of several people standing around nearby, and what had registered was that I had just acknowledged her as human, and that was something no one else had done; everybody else had treated her like furniture. In the other woman’s case, I cannot repeat details beyond saying that she was very appreciative of a gesture I would offer to almost everybody, even people who were hurting me. And in both cases it took me a minute to remember what it was that had been so striking.

Perhaps instead of, or perhaps in addition to, looking to avoid microaggressions, we should keep our eyes open to do at least just a little more microkindnesses, like acknowledging another person as human. I thought of my interaction with the first woman to be socially shallow, but I gave her my name, asked her name, and gave her the salute of a handshake, all three of which recognized her as human. The woman was right that this was in fact not a socially shallow interaction, and I had, in fact, given her something no one else of over a dozen people had offered.

In another setting at church, I had begun to offer my arm for stabilization for a white-haired senior as he stepped down for receiving communion. I had been wondering if he thought of it as unnecessary (and he could well enough have gotten by without my help). This self-questioning ended when he thanked me for something that was “so respectful.” What seemed like a very minor offering to me, and dubiously necessary to me, was to him neither a minor offering nor needless.

Let’s opt for microkindnesses, whether or not we think we are touching anyone’s life at all!

Author: C.J.S. Hayward

C.J.S. Hayward is an Eastern Orthodox author who was formed by reading great English-language apologists, such as C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, and Peter Kreeft. He offers masterful writing that delivers such majesty as Orthodox Christianity has to offer.