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Building Allies at AHP

group of people smiling wearing rainbow gear“We have all been trained and acculturated in a white, patriarchal, cisgender, homophobic, class-based, marginalizing society.” Nancy Arvold began her workshop with this provocation, challenging AHP staff to see themselves as part of a system that rewards discrimination.

Arvold, an expert in the field of transformational learning as well as anti-racism, invited staff to explore the ways in which we all, often unintentionally, perpetrate microaggressions that may undermine our professional and personal relationships with people whose identities are at least partially determined by their membership in a marginalized group. But if microagressions are inevitable, Arvold helped us see that ally-ship, its antidote, is available. And although it is extremely difficult to change societal institutions, such as governmental, legal, educational, and religious systems, people, according to Arvold, can monitor and change themselves.

Microaggressions commonly occur when someone unwittingly expresses a comment that reflects racism, sexism, or any other “ism”. Arvold elicited examples of microaggressions from the group. One staff person spoke about being told they are “well spoken,” another that they “don’t sound like they are an immigrant,” another about someone assuming they were Mexican when they are Nicaraguan. At one point Arvold corrected her own language after referring to our mixed-gendered staff as “you guys,” correcting herself by acknowledging that some women and trans people might be offended by being perceived as “one of the guys.” The fact that these examples seem relatively tame in the context of discriminatory acts explains why they are characterized as “micro”; the fact that they still elicit harm and shame explains why they deserve to be called “aggressions.” And the fact that something that can be characterized as “micro” could be so hurtful begs the question of whether “microaggressions” adequately captures this particularly difficult display of unconscious bias.

Often microaggressive comments arise within the context of privilege, the experience of belonging to or being influenced by a dominant social group, or in a position of power or dominance. However, since most people have intersecting identities, an individual may be in a privileged role in some contexts, and a marginalized role in another. For example, an African American woman who is the CEO of a company, or a white disabled man who is gay. Some aspects of intersecting identities confer privilege and power, some confer vulnerability, and no one is immune to committing or feeling the sting of unintentional microaggressions.

It takes courage and compassion for both parties in a microaggression dynamic to address the incident directly. The transformational learning process, however, offers a path to both expressing the pain of a microaggression, communicating sorrow and humility, and responding with forgiveness.

How does it work? Transformational learning theory works by addressing “cognitive dissonance”: that uncomfortable feeling that arises when something a person believes is inconsistent with other information they are receiving. For example, a person might experience dissonance when they learn that what they just said is based on a stereotype. In such cases, a person’s psyche may seek to resolve the schism between belief and experience by obscuring it with denial, guilt, or other defenses. Cognitive dissonance can shut down effective, compassionate, empathetic responses, replacing them with rationalizations or self-justifications. Such experiences present each of us with a choice: to humbly address our behavior—the damage wrought by the stereotype, the microaggression—or to become defensive. Arvold suggests the former. She counsels: pause; pay attention; and notice how the comment has affected the other person. Be explicit and courageous, ask the other person if you have hurt them. If a person can’t discuss the comment in the moment, it’s not too late to return to the conversation the next day or the next week.

Compassion, acceptance and most of all, humility are the tools Arvold suggests not only for addressing unconscious bias and microaggressions, but also for becoming an ally. Her transformational learning model can help us all negotiate the richness of a society in which communicating across differences is the norm. It certainly is crucial for AHP staff.