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Microaggressions: The big impact of little things

By María J. Cabrera-Álvarez

Sometimes there is more to conferences than the
official talks. Last January, I had the opportunity to travel to New Orleans
to attend the annual meeting of the Society for Integrative and Comparative
Biology (SICB). Apart from presenting my results, enjoying amazing talks, and
discussing interesting research with poster presenters, I had the chance to participate in an interesting workshop called “Microaggressions: The big
impact of little things”. The purpose of the workshop was to raise
awareness of this problem in academia, as well as to hear the voices of those
that had experienced microaggression in order to prevent these situations from
happening again in our closed environments. The workshop started with a
presentation that introduced the term and its consequences, and continued with
a nice discussion in which the participants shared experiences and how they
dealt with microaggressive acts.

For those unfamiliar with the term, microaggressions
are brief and subtle everyday comments or actions that send denigrating
messages to an individual of a marginalized group. Microaggressions are often
carried out by people of the dominant culture and, in most cases, without that
person being aware of the damaging effects of their comments or actions. In a
video showed during the presentation, the impact of microaggressions on a
person’s life were compared to mosquito bites. While we can agree that being
bitten once by a mosquito, although annoying, is bearable, getting several
mosquito bites a day, everyday, represents a burden that might be
difficult to deal with. Many members of our scientific community are actually targeted
daily by these microaggressions and while some of them grow up learning to
ignore them, microaggressions have very damaging effects for others. Such
effects might range from lowering their performance at work to even creating serious
psychological pathologies. An important message conveyed by this workshop was
that microaggressions did not only damage individuals, but also our
institutions and even the advancement of science in general, because it
contributes to a steady loss of scientists from different backgrounds that could
otherwise have brought different valuable viewpoints to their discipline.

It therefore becomes important to raise awareness
about microaggressions, to learn to identify them, correct them and prevent
them from happening. The main take-home message was not to let microaggressions
happen without the person carrying it out being aware of it and its
consequences. As such, it was brought forward that the best way of addressing
microaggressions is to initiate a friendly discussion about it with the
‘microaggressor’ when it happens, for they would otherwise not be aware of it.

During the Q&A session of the workshop, several
people shared their experience and suggested other ways of responding to
microaggressions, and we thus developed a better understanding of how annoying
and damaging these situations were. For example, one participant explained that
after a colleague made an inappropriate joke, instead of ignoring it, he would
politely ask his colleague to explain the joke to him, because ‘he couldn’t
understand it’. This strategy puts ‘microaggressors’ in an embarrassing
situation that forces them to realize how inappropriate these jokes are. Another
interesting contribution was one of a transgender participant who had
experienced microaggressions as a woman as well as as a transgender man. He namely
shared how he felt when, while being a woman, he was being patronized by
colleagues, and how this problem stopped once he switched gender. He also told
us about a shocking experience, when, as part of a group of men, he found
himself in a conversation in which the group made (and laughed at) despicable
jokes about women. He raised awareness of the importance of the dominant
culture to stop bigotry, and to speak for those that are being mocked and
discriminated. He explained the difficulty of addressing these issues and
concluded that, even though it is difficult to speak up, the purpose is worth
the effort.

This workshop was useful for me in many ways. It
made me aware of the difficulties that many of our colleagues experience in
their daily life, as well as the ways by which I can prevent and deal with
microaggressions, whether they are directed to me or to fellow scientists. However,
I found it a bit disappointing that the dominant culture, i.e., the people that
are more prone to unintentionally commit the microaggressions, were really
underrepresented in the workshop. Most of the audience belonged to minorities
and marginalized groups. While the workshop was definitely useful for them and
their allies to learn to act upon microaggressions, I would have loved a bigger
participation of the dominant culture, just for the sake of seeing the problem
being addressed from the top-down, rather than from the bottom-up. The take-home message is, when
you know about these issues and are part of the dominant culture, it’s even more important to speak up for these people when you observe such

María J.
Cabrera-Álvarez is a PhD student at McGill University. After finishing her
bachelor degree in Universidad de Granada (Spain) and her Master degree at
Utrecht University (the Netherlands) she joined Simon Reader’s laboratory at
the Biology Department of McGill. She studies the neural mechanisms of social
behaviour in teleost fish.

Post date: December 12, 2017


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