SITE UPGRADE COMING SOON: On or around December 1st, 2021, I'll be moving Mindful Teachers to a new, more mobile-friendly platform.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Case Studies in Microaggression, Empathy, and Mindful Speech

updated 10/8/20

from Sign Duo
(on 9/29/20 Sign Duo posted a follow-up video with a positive experience. 
I've added that to the end of this post.)

by Catharine Hannay

Like many of you, I've been inspired by the protests for social justice to learn as much as I can about marginalized groups and how to be an effective ally.

Since my background is in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), I've also been thinking about the experiences of my international and immigrant students over the years.

Meanwhile, I took advantage of some free time during quarantine to begin studying sign language and learning about Deaf culture and experiences of deafness. It's been quite eye-opening to see the level of discrimination against deaf individuals, and how this parallels discrimination of other marginalized groups.

A big part of my mission here at Mindful Teachers is to make it easier for teachers to find quality resources for mindfulness classes and values-based teaching. This includes practicing empathy and mindful speech with people who may have backgrounds and perspectives that are quite different from ours.

According to Pamela Hays' ADDRESSING framework, cultural influences are a combination of:

  • A: Age, 
  • DD: Developmental and acquired Disabilities*, 
  • R: Religion, 
  • E: Ethnicity, 
  • S: Socioeconomic status, 
  • S: Sexual orientation, 
  • I: Indigenous heritage, 
  • N: National origin, and 
  • G: Gender.
  •  *I've started thinking of the two D's as Deafness and/or Disability, since members of the Deaf community (which does not represent all deaf individuals) don't consider themselves disabled.]

Unfortunately, anyone who isn't part of the dominant group is likely to face microaggressions and discrimination. 

In this post, I've gathered together accounts of microaggression and negative stereotypes, as well as examples of people defending themselves and asking for respectful treatment. 

I've included a variety of thought-provoking perspectives, as well as a few suggested questions you might like to use for discussion prompts or reflective writing. As always, please use your own best judgment about which examples and questions are most appropriate for your particular context. 

Melissa Sutor was the first African-American in the graduate program for computer science and engineering at Notre Dame University.
Because I'm black and tall, people would assume that I was at Notre Dame on an athletic scholarship to play basketball. If they saw me in the engineering building, they would ask, 'Are you looking for the gym? Are you lost?'
from 'Charting her Own Path,' interview in Mindful magazine

Deborah L. Wolter describes what happened when she took her baby to an urgent care clinic. After explaining that she's deaf and can lipread, the doctor examined the baby and made his diagnosis.
Then Dr. Thomas pulled a prescription pad from his white coat pocket, made a few scribbles, turned to me, and with exaggerated enunciation announced, 'Your... baby... will... be... okay!' [...]
I looked down at the prescription and startled Dr. Thomas by reading it aloud: 'Bactrim.' Then I said, 'But Keane is allergic to sulfa-based drugs. The last time he took it, he turned blue, and I rushed him to the hospital.' [...] 
He guided me out of the examining room, patting my hand: 'He will be okay!' [...] When I arrived at the checkout desk, I fell into helpless tears. As I tried to explain to the clerk that Dr. Thomas prescribed a medication that Keane was allergic too, she rolled her eyes and told me not to worry: 'The doctor knows what he is doing.' [...]  
Fortunately, the pharmacist listened, checked the database, and called the urgent care clinic for a different prescription. Needless to say, I never went back to that urgent care clinic again. 
from Ears, Eyes, and Hands: Reflections on Language, Literacy, and Linguistics, p. 74

In the novel With the Fire on High. 17-year-old Emoni is a gifted cook who’s working hard to balance school, a part-time job, and complex relationships with the father of her baby and with her own absentee father. In this scene, Emoni has just picked up her beloved toddler from daycare.

I haul Babygirl onto the bus and let her sing to me.

“She’s such an adorable child,” an older white woman says to me across the aisle. “Your sister?”

I smile at Babygirl. “No, ma’am. My daughter.”

The smile fades from her face but mine stays right where it is. I’ve met this kind of woman before... The kind that gets sour-faced at learning Babygirl is my daughter, but who would have sympathy if I was of a paler complexion... She looks like the kind of woman who will break a stereotype down the middle and hold one half up for white kids and one up for black kids. 

And maybe I’m stereotyping her, too. Pretending to know what kind of woman she is because of the kind of women who have hated on me, and all the black and brown girls; who have shaken their heads and tsked their teeth, and reminded us we weren’t welcome in their part of the city, on their side of the bus, in their world. 

(With the Fire on High, p. 361-362)

Rosalind Wiseman of Cultures of Dignity describes what happened in a coed class on sexual harassment: 
The girls had just explained how violated they felt when they walked down the hallway and boys tried to put their hands up their shirts. When I asked if there were any boys who had been sexually harassed, a handsome guy raised his hand. He was on the track team and when he was practicing, girls would call out suggestive things to him as he ran by or slap his butt. He didn't like it. 
The same girls who'd complained of harassment moments earlier now screamed with laughter. [...] Some girls and boys don't believe that boys can be sexually harassed because they 'always want to have sex with anyone at any time.' If a boy complains, he's called gay.
from Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World, p. 250-251 (2002 edition)

Dum Dums, Tedashii (featuring Lecrae)

In this music video, Christian rappers defend their beliefs and their decision not to participate in the stereotypical rap lifestyle of overconsumption, drug and alcohol use, and denigration of women.
Go ahead and doubt us, but what you know about us? We ain't gotta follow them, we take another route. [...] But some others say we preachin’, some close-minded teachin’. [...] Like we ain't heard of Marx, Locke, and Nietzsche? Believe me. [...] They don't know about us. They think we Dum Dum."

Dr. Bill Vicars is an expert on teaching American Sign Language and creator of the online program ASL University. He received this question from a hearing person who felt snubbed by a deaf person.

It seems to me (an outsider) that individuals who are Deaf have a huge intolerance for hearing individuals, and seem to have a real prejudice when it comes to accommodating a hearing person's differences. Hearing individuals seem to be almost shunned. Is this a correct perception? It really seems as though there is a strong resistance in the Deaf Community to accommodating a hearing person's  "ASL disability" or "Deaf culture disability."    

Reply from Dr. Bill Vicars:

My comments below may seem sharp, but are meant to be so only in the sense that a surgeon's scalpel is intended to be sharp. The surgeon himself has no desire to cause pain to the patient, but rather to deal with the underlying issue in an efficient, effective manner.
Here are my thoughts on the topic: 
You use loaded words like "intolerance, shunned, and prejudice" to refer to Deaf behavior. You then use mitigating words like "differences" to refer to Hearing behavior. [...] 
How do you react around wasps?   You tend to avoid them because they can (and sometimes do) sting you. [...] 
It is the same for many Deaf people.  We have been stung by hearing con-artists, mechanics, contractors, and medical professionals. And maybe not us personally, but we know of others who have been stung. [...] 
I need to state this very clearly:  It is absurdly easier for a Hearing person to learn to sign than it is for a Deaf person to learn to talk. This fact seems lost on many Hearing people.  
from 'Deaf Culture: Conversation Maintenance'

Meena Srinivasan is the Executive Director of Transformative Educational Leadership (TEL). In this interview on the Character Strong podcast, she shares an experience with one of her students while she was teaching at the American Embassy School in New Delhi.

I was one of the only non-white teachers in my division... I was hiring an assistant [for] our academic support program. [...]. One of the boys in my class [...] said immediately, "Well, I hope it's not an Indian." 
There was a moment in me where I could really just feel my stomach churn and my heart beat fast, and just kind of all the memories of the discrimination that I've experienced growing up, not being part of the dominant culture, and continue to experience as a person of color. But in that moment, I was able to use my mindfulness practice to breathe, calm myself. [...] What I got to uncover is that this little boy had a really difficult time understanding some of the Indian accents, and so we had a conversation about that. 
from 'Creating a Relationship-Focused Classroom'

A Man Named Pearl: Some white people didn't want him to move into their neighborhood because of a negative stereotype that black people don't keep up their lawns. To prove them wrong, Pearl Fryar decided to win the local 'yard of the month' competition. In the years since then, he's built an amazing topiary garden dedicated to peace, love, and goodwill.

Dr. Rachel Levy is now an award-winning mathematics professor. When she was younger, her interest in math wasn't always supported, but fortunately she also had allies.
My seventh-grade guidance counselor told me that girls can’t do math and science, but luckily my parents called those comments stupid. [...I had a terrific mentor, Prof. Michael Shearer, who encouraged me and helped me believe that I could become a mathematician. I want to emphasize that both men and women can be fantastic mentors for female students.
from an interview on 'Celebrating the Ordinary Women of STEM'

Dr. Levy is the creator of Grandma Got STEM, a blog celebrating the achievements of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. 

You may also heard the saying “That’s so easy, my grandmother could understand it.”
I would like to counter the implication that grannies (gender + maternity + age) might not easily pick up on technical/theoretical ideas. [...] I’m glad that Grandma Got STEM is helping people reconsider their language and attitudes toward senior women. [...]
The project has sparked new conversations.  Some readers have said, “I think my Mother/Grandmother did something with STEM, but I never really talked with her about it. I’ll get in touch with her and get back to you.” I’ve also heard from a number of enthusiastic grandmothers (STEM-mas) directly.
from 'Why This Blog?

Disability rights activist Emily Ladau of Words I Wheel By responds to a well-intentioned but flawed campaign encouraging people to #JustSayHi to people with disabilities. 
“Just Say Hi” implies that if you see someone who appears to have a disability, you should go up to them and say hello. Although this is trying to convey that you should treat disabled people as you would non-disabled people, the opposite message comes through. [...]
If you swapped out disability for any other appearance-related identifier, how would this campaign go over? #JustSayHi to Asian people. #JustSayHi to people with red hair. #JustSayHi to people who look like they weigh more than you do. 
[...] Instead of just saying hi, I’d say do what’s usual for you. If you’re the type of person to nod or say hello as you pass me on the street, that’s fine. [...] It’s really patronizing, though, when people go out of their way to shove attention at me. [...] If a conversation begins organically, awesome! But if you’re forcing yourself to talk to me because you think it’s your good deed for the day…don’t.
from '#JustActNormally: A Response To Cerebral Palsy Foundation's #JustSayHi Campaign

Emily Ladau also has advice specifically for teachers:
In inclusive classrooms, differences between students of all abilities will be evident from time to time. [...] Please, please do not tokenize students or call them out in front of everyone. I can’t tell you how many times teachers called unwanted attention to my disability in unnecessary ways, all the way from kindergarten through college. 
For instance, teachers would say things like “Everyone stand up, but you don’t have to, Emily.” Everyone knew I use a wheelchair and it was obvious I couldn’t stand up, so why point it out? The best bet is to plan ahead to make an activity work for all of your students so it will run smoothly and you’ll avoid encountering accessibility obstacles.

This is a follow-up to the earlier video showing a negative experience. It's interesting that the actual order didn't take any longer when the cashier made an effort to communicate rather than getting flustered, like in the first video. The full video is 16 minutes, but there are some parts you can skip:
0:00-2:46: Ryan and Ellen explain why they decided to do another drive-thru video, and Ryan explains the importance of accessibility.
(2:47-4:59: promo for their sponsor) 
5:00-8:26: Ryan orders their drinks and explains what the cashier/barista did that was respectful and helped communication.
(8:27-9:50: passing around drinks and interacting with dog.)
9:50-9:55: Ryan and barista sign 'thank you.'
(9:55-12:09: discuss drinks and interacting with dog.)
12:10-14:57: Ryan and Ellen discuss what the barista did well and Ryan gives advice for communicating with deaf customers.

Suggested Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Here are some questions you might want to use or adapt for discussion or reflective writing. Whether you teach adults or kids, please respect your students' preferences about how much they choose to share with the group.
  • Did any of these stories surprise you? Why?
  • Do any of these show someone from a group you belong to but you don't think is an accurate representation of you?
  • In some of these stories, people were well-intentioned but clueless. How could they have responded more helpfully?
  • Have you had, or witnessed, a similar experience to any of these situations? What happened?
  • Did any of these examples help you to see from a different point of view? How has your perspective changed?
  • What can we learn from the two videos showing a deaf man ordering from a drive-thru window? How might this apply in other situations?

About the Author

Catharine Hannay is the founder of and the author of Being You: A Girl’s Guide to Mindfulness, a workbook for teen girls on mindfulness, compassion, and self-acceptance. (Sales of the book help me continue to run with no sponsorship or advertising.)


Related Posts: