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Rethinking Microaggressions

Microaggression image

I just finished listening to the audiobook "Subtle Acts of Exclusion" by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran, which resonated deeply with me, especially through my lens as a blind woman. The authors challenge the conventional understanding of "microaggressions," suggesting that these acts are not truly 'micro' in their impact nor necessarily 'aggressive' in intent. Instead, they offer a nuanced perspective they refer to as subtle forms of exclusion, urging readers to delve deeper into the complex ways individuals can experience marginalization.

The widespread adoption of the term "microaggressions" in recent years has drawn attention to subtle, often unintentional acts of discrimination toward marginalized groups. However, Jana and Baran argue that the term's emphasis on 'micro' belies the significance of these actions and fails to address the broader systemic issues at play. Furthermore, they propose that many of these behaviors stem from ignorance or unconscious bias rather than deliberate aggression.

This reevaluation of terminology prompts a reconsideration of how we perceive and address acts of exclusion. As a disabled woman, I find this perspective deeply relatable. Disability often entails encountering subtle forms of exclusion that may not neatly fit into the framework of 'microaggressions' but are nonetheless pervasive and impactful.

For instance, as a blind woman, navigating certain environments can be laden with subtle acts of exclusion. From assumptions about my abilities, people talking indirectly to me through others rather than directly to me, to patronizing tones in conversation, not to mention statements like “you don’t look blind” meant to be a compliment, but actually are not. These barriers undermine my sense of agency and belonging. These acts don't feel particularly 'micro' to me; they are hurtful and diminish my experiences and abilities, and I recognize they most often arise from a lack of awareness rather than malice, but are nonetheless annoying and even hurtful.

Moreover, social interactions can also be fraught with subtle forms of exclusion for disabled individuals. Mingling, for example, can present challenges due to inaccessible or unfamiliar environments which can lead to isolation (This exact scenario at a party is what inspired me to start my vlog in the first place), illustrating how simple gestures like initiating conversations can mitigate feelings of exclusion. Similarly, in webinars, conferences, or meetings, the oversight of asking if one requires accommodations perpetuates exclusionary dynamics.

In a somewhat ironic twist, my own participation in a course on equity, diversity, and inclusion highlights the importance of proactive accommodation. Despite being invited to participate in the course specifically for my lived experience as a disabled individual, no one asked before the course began if I required accommodations. As the sessions unfolded, I found the chosen technology completely inaccessible to me as a blind person, inadvertently excluding me from full participation. This prompted me to write an email to the organizers saying, "As much as I would love to participate in this cohort on equity, diversity, and inclusion, without accommodations, I won’t be participating because I can’t participate." I am happy to say that they were very receptive to the feedback, apologetic, and are working with me to make the necessary accommodations to ensure my ability to fully participate!

This situation underscores the significance of not only recognizing exclusionary behaviors but actively working to prevent them.

The emphasis on subtlety in "Subtle Acts of Exclusion" underscores the importance of recognizing and addressing these behaviors in everyday life, preferably before they occur. By raising awareness and promoting education on disability rights and inclusion, we can challenge the systemic barriers that perpetuate exclusion and foster environments that are more welcoming and accessible for everyone.

"Subtle Acts of Exclusion" urges us to expand our understanding of exclusion beyond traditional definitions of aggression and to recognize the myriad ways individuals can be marginalized, including through inadvertent oversight of accommodations. By incorporating proactive measures to ensure accessibility and inclusion, we can begin to dismantle barriers and foster environments that facilitate full participation for all individuals, regardless of ability. Additionally, it requires each of us the receiver of the sae, and allies to be interrupters and kindly point out the sae. In essence, the lessons from "Subtle Acts of Exclusion" extend beyond theoretical discussions to practical applications, reminding us of the ongoing work needed to create truly inclusive environments. My own experience serves as a poignant reminder that inclusion requires deliberate actions to accommodate diverse needs, ensuring thateveryone has equal access and opportunities.

-Michelle Friedman

Michelle Friedman is the board chair of Keshet in Chicago, a member of Disability Lead and has been a disability advocate for 40 years. She has written two children’s books and is a frequent speaker for elementary and high school-age students.


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