Story 1: Several years ago, my wife and I were one of the first people at a site of a horrific accident where a young child had died. Without going into the gruesome details, this accident involved a pad-mounted transformer located in a residential area.
Story 2: When my youngest daughter was a toddler, she used to hang on a particular spindle on the staircase in the house, treating it as if it was a playground structure. She would do this daily, sometimes multiple times a day, despite my continued warning that it will break. And one day, it did.
What do these two unrelated stories involving a stair spindle and a pad-mounted transformer – both of which I had to look up the official terms for, by the way – have to do with teaching students about racial microaggressions?
As a faculty member who studies and teaches about racial microaggressions at a Christian university, I often wrestle with how I might effectively frame this complex and nuanced topic for my students, especially from the perspective of how we as a body of Christ are to come alongside those among us who are suffering. By learning about the racial microaggressions experienced by their classmates, I want my students to deeply recognize the truth that God is “close to the brokenhearted” (Psalms 34:18); that we are called to “mourn with those who mourn” (Romans 12:15); and that we must “carry each other’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2). For all students who step into my classroom, I desire for them to learn to show Christ-like love to their peers who are wounded by racial microaggressions, by expressing support for them and validating their pain. This is what I aspire to when I teach about racial microaggressions.
However, I find that reality often falls short of my aspirations. There are times when some of my (I assume) well-intentioned students have trouble fully understanding the experiences of racial microaggressions of their peers. Two questions that my students tend to raise, in response to hearing examples of racial microaggressions, are along the lines of “Why is that a microaggression? It seems like such a harmless or even a positive message/act”; and “I get it – that behavior was rude. But what is the big deal? Can’t the person just brush it off?” The first response doubts if racial microaggression are actually a source of pain in the first place; the latter response concedes that microaggressions are annoying and unfortunate, but minimizes the gravity of the pain and presumes it is surely not worth weeping with their peers about.
The first response is the invalidation of one’s experiences of racism. The latter is minimization. And both responses can be distressing for students of color to hear.
So, back to the pad-mounted transformer and spindle. In my search for pedagogical tools to teach about microaggressions more effectively, the two stories at the beginning of this piece that God has placed in my life have been helpful in encouraging students to counter the urge to invalidate and minimize their peers’ experiences of microaggressions.
My story about the pad-mounted transformer helps me to illustrate that the experience of racism is subjective. What is harmless to many people, perhaps most, might be a significant source of trauma for few. To this day, after many years since the accident, whenever my wife and I walk by a pad-mounted transformer (a common occurrence in residential areas), our bodies remember and react: Our hearts beat faster, we become hypervigilant, and we tense up. For someone who does not share in our experience, however, the pad-mounted transformer is just a big green electric box, and they will not think twice about walking by it. Racial microaggressions operate similarly; what is a significant emotional trigger to someone might be a completely benign or even a positive act to most others. Those who know about the trauma that my wife and I experienced with the “green electric box” understand our knee jerk response. To those who don’t know our story, however, witnessing our reaction might cause genuine befuddlement. Using this story as an example, whenever they are tempted to invalidate a classmate’s experience of racial microaggression, I encourage my students to counter this urge by asking themselves, “Could this be their electric box?”
And the stair spindle story helps me teach that racism’s effect is cumulative. Often, it is not the single act of racial microaggression that results in injury, just like the stair spindle that was largely fine after the first time, or maybe even after the first few times, my daughter hung on it. Instead, it is the accumulation of racial microaggressions over one’s lifetime – some have referred to this as “death by a thousand cuts”1– that contributes to the deleterious impact of racial microaggressions on one’s well-being. So, I encourage my students that when the gut reaction to hearing about a classmate’s experience of racial microaggression is one of minimization, to counter with a healing response that recognizes the likely series of events over the course of one’s life that might have led up to the current level of distress. To ask themselves, “Could this be their stair spindle moment?”
Of course, these two stories/examples can also be applied to understanding other types of trauma, not just racial ones. But I hope that these quick examples can inspire fellow educators teaching in Christian higher education to reflect on the stories that God has placed in your life, stories that can help meaningfully teach about the intricacies of contemporary forms of racism.
- Hahna Yoon, “How to Respond to Microaggressions.” New York Times, March 3, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/03/smarter-living/how-to-respond-to-microaggressions.html