the bruise that never heals.

21 Feb

a sermon, delivered at First Unitarian Church, Louisville, KY
on February 7, 2016

 

Derby City Roller Girls

Bruises are a part of roller derby. A celebrated part. So much so that it’s not uncommon for players to take pictures of their biggest, most colorful, most interestingly shaped bruises and post them online for the admiration of other players (really – look it up!). Bruises on your shins from where another player’s skate smashed into you. Wheel-shaped bruises on your thigh where you sat down on a pair of skates. Bruises on your hips and shoulders where you were hit or blocked by players on the opposing side. These are bruises that go deep into your tissue, and come out in amazing blues, purples, and blacks that eventually fade to greens, browns and yellows.

It is not uncommon to find bruises on top of bruises, especially on a skater’s hips or upper thighs, which get the most abuse in the game. A few of my teammates even had bruises that never went away – they would get worse and worse, becoming super-sensitive, where even just getting dressed hurt because the area had been mangled – not by one big hit, but by the constant barrage of small hits in the same place, over and over. What was strangest is that sometimes, these most sensitive bruises were invisible, lacking the loud color of bruises that would heal – as if the skin itself has resigned itself to injury.

For one of my teammates, this invisible bruise that never went away eventually hardened into a lump. She ignored it for a while, thinking it was just forming a protective barrier that would eventually heal, but when it didn’t go away even after she stopped playing, she got it checked out. It turned out to be cancer. A cancer caused by repeated minor trauma.

When I first heard about the experience of microaggressions, I immediately related them to bruises in roller derby. Derald Wing Sue, who has studied microaggressions for a decade, defines them as:

“the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

A person from any marginalized group can be the target of microaggression from someone from a dominant perspective: people of color experience them from white people, women experience them from men, people who are transgender experience them from cisgender people, people who are differently abled experience them from the able-bodied. You can experience them based on your sexual orientation, your religion, your social class, and more. What is common to all microaggressions is that they contain a hidden message that is experienced as invalidating, dehumanizing, and demeaning.

Some examples:

  • When a white woman clutches her purse as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes her, the hidden message being sent is that the Black or Latino man, and others like him, are criminals.
  • When an Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking “good English”, the hidden message is: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.
  • When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse, the hidden message is that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles, or that women are less capable than men.
  • When a person uses the term “gay” to describe something they didn’t like, the hidden message is that being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.
  • Or when the outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy” the hidden message is that lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.

These are all examples of microaggressions. And there are many, many more. What they have in common is that they say to someone “You do not belong.” And because these are small, everyday things, the effect of their hidden messages is one that builds up over time. Someone who regularly experiences microaggressions becomes more and more aware of them. The bruise gets bigger and bigger, and more sensitive, until even the slightest touch is experienced as excrutiatingly painful. Sue points out that “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.”

Now, I suspect that we would all like to believe that we are too enlightened to engage in this type of harmful behavior. But we do, often without realizing it. Sue shares that it is those of us who are well-intentioned who actually engage in the most harmful of microaggressions. Because of course, those who are not well-intentioned are often fin being experienced as racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic.

When experiencing a microaggression from someone who is well intentioned, the target person is placed into what Sue calls a “’damned if you do and damned if you don’t’ situation. That is, if the person does nothing, [they] may suffer from a sense of low self-esteem, a feeling of not being true to the self, and a loss of self-integrity. Yet, to confront the perpetrator or to raise the issue may result in negative consequences.” Negative consequences like further microaggressions.

Because what often happens when a person confronts the perpetrator of a microaggression is that the perpetrator tries to explain it away, or encourage the target person to “let go” or “get over it.” This results in further microaggressions by giving the message that the target person is off base in their experience, and by indicating that the perpetrator’s intent is more important than the impact it had on the target person.

One can see how this builds up over time. Say I experience a microaggression from someone I care about or work with, I may not say anything. And then it happens again, and maybe again, sometimes from this same person, and maybe sometimes from others as well. And then, because it is weighing on me, finally, I do decide to share my experience. How will I feel if I take this risk, only to be told that it is nothing? Most likely I will feel even worse, more invisible and invalidated.

Personally, I experienced this as a woman in technology prior to entering the ministry. But in truth I got it even worse from other Unitarian Universalists when I had won a sermon award and was constantly introduced as the “young minister” even though I was rapidly approaching 40. Yes, I knew that perhaps I was young compared to the vast majority of people in the room, but if that is what I experienced at nearly 40, what do people who are just out seminary at the age of 25 experience, and how often do we dismiss or overlook “young” ministers? Because that is what it felt like – a dismissal. I got to the point that I would constantly be sharing my age with people to try to prove I wasn’t as young as they thought so that I wouldn’t be so easily dismissed. And they would often laugh it off. It was extremely frustrating.

Of course, this type of microaggression did not carry the threat of danger. It was belittling, and it hurt, but it wasn’t scary. This is not the case for many other people who experience these everyday slights, snubs, and insults.

So how did we, as people who want to respect one another in word and in deed, get to the point where it is our good intentions that have inadvertently allowed us to engage in behaviors that “oppress and engage in prejudicial actions that harm others?” Sue says that “The answer seems to reside in a dominant culture that values ways of being, thinking, and acting that reflects the reality of a primarily Eurocentric, masculine, and heterosexual worldview that is imposed upon racial, ethnic, gender and sexual minorities.” And because we are a part of our culture, not separate from it, we have picked up on these same traits. Sue points out that whether intentional or not, “oppressors…[feel that they] do not need to understand the thoughts, beliefs, or feelings of various marginalized groups to survive…therefore it is not surprising to find that those who are most empowered are least likely to have an accurate perception of reality.” Indeed, he says, it is this obliviousness that “allows people to misperceive themselves as superior and other groups as inferior; it allows oppressors to live in a false reality.” A reality that we seldom interrogate as rigorously as we should.

It is clear from the the data that our good intentions often contribute to the experience of microaggressions for those who are in a minority. And the effects are far reaching. Sue has found that the “cumulative nature and continued day-in and day-out experience [of being the target of microaggressions] have been found to…contribute to a hostile and invalidating campus and work climate, devalue social group identities, lower work productivity and educational learning, perpetuate stereotype threat, create physical health problems, and assail mental health by creating emotional turmoil, low self-esteem, and psychological energy depletion.” Those who experience microaggressions suffer biologically, emotionally, cognitively and behaviorally.

This is where the metaphor of derby bruises and microaggressions breaks down, however. Unlike in derby, where the wheel or the floor suffer no damage when causing a bruise, it is not only the targets of microagression who are hurt in the process. The perpetrators are hurt as well. Sue explains that:

“None of us…would consciously and willingly consent to [perpetrating] such heinous actions. In order to assure the continuance of the oppressor-oppressed relationship, and to keep such injustices hidden…it is desirable to perpetuate a ‘culture of silence’ among oppressed groups as well as perpetrators. When the oppressed are not allowed to express their thoughts and outrage, when their concerns are minimized, and when they are punished for expressing ideas at odds with the dominant group, their voices are effectively silenced. [And] This allows perpetrators to hold on to a belief that they are good, moral, and decent human beings.”

Wherever we intersect with the dominant culture, whether it is because we are white, or male, or cisgender, or heterosexual, etc., we silence the oppressed that are not part of that dominant culture, and this allows us to maintain the illusion that we are good, moral, decent, and even superior whether we consciously believe it to be so or not. And there are costs to us when we perpetrate this type of oppression: cognitive costs, emotional costs, behavioral costs and spiritual costs.

The cognitive costs are demonstrated in the form of cognitive distortion and a false sense of reality. When we become aware of our biases, we often experience “debilitating emotional turmoil” and so we begin to deny our behaviors or rationalize them away. We try to “engage in denial and live a false reality that allows [us] to function in good conscious.”

Emotionally, Sue points out that “the harm, damage, and acts of cruelty visited upon marginalized groups can only continue if the person’s humanity is diminished.” This means that “oppressors lose sensitivity to those that are hurt; they become hard, cold and unfeeling to the plight of the oppressed; and they turn off their compassion and empathy for others. To continue being oblivious to one’s own complicity in such acts means objectifying and dehumanizing [marginalized] people.”

As perpetrators, we may also experience guilt – guilt for being in a dominant group and the realization that we are partially responsible for the pain of others. This guilt can cause us to be defensive, and we may try to deny or diminish the experiences of marginalized people when they share their experiences with us, so that we might avoid further awareness and guilt.

As we begin to feel fear and guilt, we may choose to avoid marginalized people or people who are different from us. We don’t want to continue to cause harm and so we choose to stay away. These are the behavioral costs. We may not go somewhere for fear of what we might do or say that harms others, intentionally or inadvertently. When we avoid such situations, growth becomes difficult to impossible, and as Sue indicates, it “deprives oppressors the richness of possible friendships and an expansion of educational experiences that open up life horizons and possibilities.”

Finally, there are spiritual costs as well. When we oppress, whether intentionally or not, we lose our own humanity for the sake of power, wealth and status. This causes us to lose our spiritual connection with others as we try to dehumanize them. Sue writes that “To allow the continued degradation, harm, and cruelty to the oppressed means diminishing one’s humanity, and lessening compassion toward others. People who oppress must, at some level, become callous, cold, hard, and unfeeling toward the plight of the oppressed.”

I know this is not how I want to live, and I would wager that you don’t either. So what can we do about it? How can we change, and become part of the solution instead of part of the problem? Sue13 indicates that there are seven things that we can work towards that will help create conditions that make change possible. He says that each of these are required – none of them are sufficient on their own:

First, and foremost we must have regular, prolonged “contact with people who differ from us in race, culture, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation.” We can seek out friendships with those who are different. This doesn’t mean choosing someone as a friend just because they are different, but finding someone with whom we can bond, one of whose characteristics is that they are different in some key way.

Second, we can work together “a cooperative rather than a competitive environment” understanding that when we combine our resources rather than compete for them, there is plenty for everyone.

Third, we can “share mutual goals as opposed to individual ones.” This is a shift in thinking from what I need to what WE need.

Fourth, it is important that learn “accurate information rather than stereotypes or misinformation” – this means questioning, interrogating, things that are presented as true even though they aren’t. For instance, the majority of people who receive food stamps are white, but if you watch the media you will often see a black person pictured when there is a story on the subject. We need to confront such stereotypes and misinformation in search for accurate information.

Fifth, we can work towards “sharing an equal status relationship with other groups instead of an unequal or imbalanced one.” Marginalized people are just that – shoved to the margins, where there is not much strength or power. I am reminded of a school that showcases boys sports, even though the girls teams are winning championships. The microaggressions that the girls experience when constantly seeing the boys teams on the front page of the paper or website can be addressed when leadership understands how this perpetuates inequality and they can work forwards a more equal, balanced status.

Which leads to the sixth characteristic for promoting change, we can choose leadership that is supportive of group harmony and group welfare. At the ballot box, but also in other areas of our lives, we can demand and support leadership that understands these mechanisms of power.

And finally, we can work on feeling a sense of unity, a sense of interconnectedness with all humanity. Even, especially, with those who might seem so different from us.

For more information on what these all look like, I recommend reading Sue’s book “Microaggressions in Everyday Life” or one of the many internet articles he has authored.

In roller derby, the bruise that builds up over time can become cancerous, eating away at the victim and causing them harm. Microagressions are like these derby bruises, building up, causing a person harm, impacting their physical, emotional and spiritual health over time. But unlike in derby, the perpetrators of microagressions also suffer harm, cognitively, behaviorally, emotionally and spiritually.

If we believe in the inherent worth and dignity of each person, and

If we believe in the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part

Then we must put in the effort to face our own failings. It means learning about how we may cause harm to people, even unintentionally, and then working to make it right. It means using techniques such as “oops” and “ouch” when we have erred. It means recognizing that the impact of our words on others matters more than our intent. It means listening to the stories of others with humility and an open mind and heart. This requires constant effort, and does not come easy. And with so much other work of this nature, we will break each others hearts and fail over and over again. But, if we let it, this is what will allow us to grow. May we choose to face the difficult truth that we are each sometimes unwitting perpetrators that cause pain to another, and may humility, love, and understanding allow us to be a part of the healing process whenever possible. Blessed be.


FYI, My teammate with cancer has since recovered.

Footnotes removed, but quotes are from the following sources:

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions: More than Just Race, Psychology Today, November 17, 2010.

Sue, Derald Wing. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley, 2010.

3 Responses to “the bruise that never heals.”

  1. Judy Welles February 22, 2016 at 4:09 pm #

    Brilliant, as always! Who knew that roller derby would offer you such a rich resource in metaphors?

    I remember (and unfortunately it wasn’t that long ago) mistaking a physician for a nurse. When she corrected me, I immediately apologized, and I felt mortified. I am a feminist! I wanted to be a doctor myself when I was in 8th grade, and my mother said to me “You can’t be a doctor; you’re a girl.” Truth. So I should know better, but in that case, I didn’t.

    This is a really good sermon.

    I miss seeing you more often. I loved our long conversation at G.A. last summer, but I doubt I’ll be attending G.A. again unless someone else is paying for it or it’s in my home city again. I love being on your mailing list and keeping in touch with your ministry that way.

    Here’s what I’ve been up to recently. By now there’s a lot more going on, but this gives you a sense of how it all got started: https://berryandmayasmom.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/how-i-became-a-climate-activist/ This is keeping me very busy!

    Love, Judy

    P.S. I’ve also done one mentor training that was pretty good, and I have another one coming up on March 12 which will be even better. 😉

    >

  2. ou812 May 6, 2016 at 8:55 am #

    Do you consider it “microaggression” when politically conservative UUs are subjected to snide remarks from the pulpit and during coffee hour?

    • Rev. Dawn May 6, 2016 at 9:50 am #

      That seems more like it could be outright aggression.

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