“While I do believe that there is good in the world, I also believe that our world and society are plagued by oppressive forces; where civility is increasingly uncommon; where targets are blamed for their victimization; and where aggressors’ uncivil, antagonistic, and hostile behaviors go unchecked and unchallenged in some instances and are applauded and rewarded in others. Many of us learn early on not to challenge others (even when they are wrong). We are taught messages that on the surface sound great but that have the potential to silence us and rob us of our humanity and dignity.” Charisse Levchak, PhD
This post today has come about after reading Charisse C. Levchak’s book with the title: Microaggressions and Modern racism: Endurance and Evolution (2018, Palgrave Macmillan). The main topic of the book has to do with racial aggression, micro-aggressions in particular. Initially, I was looking for something on micro-aggressions in general; however, most of the material I found was related to racism (*both in this post and in the book race is used as a sociopolitical construct and not a biological one). The book is based on Levchak’s PhD dissertation and it contains qualitative and quantitative research, and also, reflects her own experience as a black woman. Her main focus is on microaggressions in academia, the workplace and the media, but she also refers to microaggressions in public spaces, and shops. Actually, one of the research prompts is about been watched or followed in public places as if one was a threat or dangerous. She writes: “while this prompt likely evokes unpleasant memories of being followed around stores (particularly for Black and Brown folk), it is even more wounding when employees of color are followed around their job or watched as though they are a threat or dangerous.” She also talks about aggressions in and around “homespaces”. When aggressions occur in protective spaces like homes or dorms, and other places people take refuge in, then people experience a reduced sense of safety that often results in emotional stress and trauma.
She employs the Critical Theory Framework to compliment her qualitative work and the Oppression Dynamics Conceptual Framework, which outlines three concepts: vertical, horizontal and internalized racism and provides a comprehensive understanding of how oppressive systems are maintained due to a variety of dynamics both among and within advantaged and targeted social groups. So, the book could be read as an analysis of systemic oppression and practices of societal micro-aggressions more generally even though its focus is on racism in the USA. She writes that microaggressions, which were originally conceptualized by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in his work Offensive Mechanisms (1970), could be defined as covert forms of racial aggression. Pierce described these actions in the following quote: “Most offensive actions are not gross and crippling. They are subtle and stunning. The enormity of the complications they cause can be appreciated only when one considers that these subtle blows are delivered incessantly… the cumulative effect to the victim and to the victimizer is of an unimaginable magnitude.” Covert oppression or aggression maybe subtle but it is insidious, it constructs barriers; and it is elusive and difficult to define and challenge. It is embedded in our daily relationships and it promotes I – It encounters, which happen when we relate to another person as an object instead of relating to each other as authentic human beings without judgment and objectification.
On deciding to research microaggressions Levchak writes: “When I casually compared the narratives and experiences of people I knew, many did not involve experiences of blatant and overt racism (although those occurred too). Instead, most of the racist incidents that I learned about were covert in nature: the friend who was subtly sabotaged and pushed out of a predominantly White graduate program, the family member whose authority over her non-Black subordinates had constantly been undermined, and the Black mentor who had been unfairly castigated.” By focusing on prominent parts of society, such as academia she demonstrates that racist microaggressions and macroaggressions in schools impede scholarly pursuits and academic success and block upward mobility. She also suggests that while we need to focus on all levels of education, higher education deserves special attention because it has served as a road to upward mobility for disadvantaged groups. Her work examines microaggressions in the workplace, as well, where they adversely impact productivity and group solidarity, cause distractions and conflict, obstruct professional aspirations, cause health issues and lead to job instability and loss of employment. She also examines how in the media and popular culture sexist and racist stereotypes, beliefs and ideologies can be reinforced.
Levchak refers to Derald Wing Sue’s contributions to microaggression theory and discusses Sue et al.’s three forms of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. However, she expands this theory because she believes it lacks an in-depth explanation on the relationship between the aggressors and the targets by introducing and explaining the following types of aggressors: intimate, acquaintance and unknown. She also makes reference to the culture of silence and its consequences and the importance of telling and owning our narratives so that healing and change may come about. Moreover, she explores how frequent microaggressions have many cumulative effects in people’s lives and impact mental and physical health. She notes how being on the receiving end of frequent aggression and injustices causes fear, despair, anger, which can be internalized or acted out, and also leads to chronic stress. As mentioned in the book chronic stress kills people slowly, making existing illnesses worse. She quotes Chester Pierce (1970) who writes “The vehicle for these characteristics is the cumulative effect of offensive mechanisms…”
Levchak claims that obstructive racism creates barriers and blocks progress of targeted people or groups and it ranges from blocking promotion to graduation to legislation. She briefly refers to forms of discrimination and aggression like ‘birtherism’ (D’Antonio, 2016) and sexism. Through reading the book it is easy to see that the tactics and strategies that comprise racist microaggressions are not very different from aggressions committed against any individual or group of people where colour or ‘race’ is not necessarily a variable. Apart from the examples of micro-aggressions and lack of civility mentioned above, other actions mentioned in the research findings include liquid racism, profiling, name calling, opinions discounted in educational or employment settings, being constantly mistaken for someone else in the workplace, called by another’s name or identified as someone else’s sister or brother and gaslighting. Gaslighting is commonly used as a tactic to make targets question their own sanity and perception of an event or experience and also keep quiet.
Levchak dedicates a chapter on beliefs and biases, often unconscious that we all harbor. Even though we may often have the best intentions, we are still all susceptible to developing implicit biases, attitudes and stereotypes that we hold unconsciously and that impact our understanding, behaviours and decisions at any given situation. She refers to Staats’ (2014) review on implicit bias, which reports that implicit biases have been documented in children as young as six; however, research also supports that just like we learn biases and stereotypes, we can unlearn them and replace them with more accurate information. That is why she believes institutions should invest on awareness training, cultural competence training, and on creating spaces for difficult dialogues to take place, which Levchak believes is key to changing our conditioned beliefs and biases.
Part of the book focuses on what to do to build inner resilience in order to live through or create change in the contexts one finds oneself in. As Rick Hanson, PhD, suggests “Resilience is more than bouncing back from adversity. People who are resilient keep pursuing their goals in the face of challenges. Consequently, learning how to regulate your brain’s motivational machinery is a key aspect of resilience.” To increase resilience and protect against microaggressions we need to become aware of what microaggressions are and how they can impact the quality and trajectory of one’s life. We also need to acquire cultural awareness and competence, to become more informed of the bigger picture and container within which aggressions occur. We also need to be mindful of our environments and underlying dynamics. And we need to teach this to our children. Of her own experience she writes: “My mother taught me awareness at an early age because awareness is a survival strategy. “Pay attention to your surroundings” is a phrase that my mom constantly told me throughout my childhood.” Levchak says that oppression thrives in silence, so we need to change our current workplace culture so that targets and bystanders are encouraged to come forth, seek assistance, and speak out when bullying occurs. However, sometimes, survival strategies in school or the workplace may require our keeping quiet if supportive structures are not in place and there is lack of support or / and mentoring. Cautious speaking, covering tracks and documenting one’s work or decisions might be advisable. Frequent microaggressions can be traumatic and disruptive and can lead to social exclusion, and therefore, it is important to seek support and mentoring if possible because daily covert microaggressions accumulate over time and contribute to the overall stress load of individuals, and also, harm one’s sense of self, confidence and interactions with others.
In his book RESILIENT (2018) Rick Hanson believes that mental resources like determination, self-worth, and kindness are what make us more resilient and able to cope with adversity and push through challenges in the pursuit of our goals and opportunities. He writes that “While resilience helps us recover from loss and trauma, it offers much more than that. True resilience fosters well-being, an underlying sense of happiness, love, and peace. Remarkably, as you internalize experiences of well-being, that builds inner strengths which in turn make you more resilient. Well-being and resilience promote each other in an upward spiral.” In relation to adversity and hardship he says that adversity can be an opportunity to develop resilience, stress-hardiness, and even post-traumatic growth, but for a person to grow through adversity there must also be responsive resources present such as determination and sense of purpose. He writes: “Adversity is to be faced and learned from, but I think people sometimes overrate its value. On the whole, Reactive experiences make us more brittle and fragile over time, while Responsive experiences tend to make us more resilient. The Reactive mode evolved to be a brief solution to immediate threats to survival— not a way of life.” Unfortunately, frequent stresses and prolonged stress keep pushing us into the red zone as he calls it, which is hard to move out of due to the brain’s negativity bias.
Finally, anger is an integral part of this process both for the aggressor and the victim, and has both a positive and adaptive function, as well as, a destructive quality. Anger can be motivating and can help us spotlight injustice and mistreatment at a personal and systemic level, but it can also, be destructive and the generator of much suffering. Anger can reflect appropriate indignation and motivate us to act, but it also aids oppressive forces that muzzle and suppress. Similarly to other emotions, anger can be the presenting emotion masking experiences of fear, despair, helplessness and lack of agency. It can often be seductive because it draws on dopamine and norepinephrine, and thus, feels rewarding. Making room to feel our anger and discern the wisdom or message it is bringing us, can make us more resilient, able to set boundaries and less afraid of our own and others’ anger. Through feeling our anger we are less likely to project it on others or act out on it, and more likely to tap into our agency, protect ourselves, act appropriately and maybe sublimate it into artistic expression or artivism and activism. Through understanding where others’ anger is coming from we are more able to see the bigger picture, separate our self from their anger, protect ourselves, fight for what we consider of value, and be more clear headed, as well as, compassionate.