We Are All Oppressors

Discrimination Diversity 02 - We Are All Oppressors
Photo by Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center.

The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group. (Sue, 2010, p. 3)

“Of course, I don’t mean you. You’re just like us,” my friend says. I feel my chest tighten as I hold my breath. Yet again, an unintentionally hurtful comment heavy with microaggression has come my way. Yet again, I am faced with that dilemma: speak up and risk creating a rupture in my friendship or stay silent and attempt to turn a blind eye while knowing that a little piece of my integrity has just died.

As I looked around the room at the recent Saybrook Residential Conference before the start of the Honoring Voices seminar, I felt a familiar sense of resignation. The majority of the faces that I saw were the faces of the minority. “Typical,” I thought, “the ones that need the diversity training aren’t here.” As if they knew all there was to know about the subject. My resignation and indignation stemmed from years of feeling as though the only ones talking about the need to address the issue of diversity were those of us that were in the minority.

But something transformational happened when the seminar began and continued throughout the four days. When Theopia Jackson talked about the importance of having an ally to keep the issues alive during those times when we in the minority feel burned out, I started to feel hopeful. It became apparent that the seminar came about through a collaborative effort and was championed by someone who was not a minority figure. Here was real action, not just the usual placating words I tend to hear that are followed by silence and nothingness. Here was real dialogue.

Particularly powerful was Nathaniel Granger Jr.’s seminar on microaggression and the impact of slavery. As a group, we had committed to engaging with the difficult dialogues that are often missed or kept at a distance. In that space, we allowed those voices to be heard from both those who had felt oppressed and those that did not know they were oppressors. What hit home for me was the fact that I am both of those—sometimes simultaneously. While I am eager to engage with the dialogue, it is painful, it hurts, and I get angry. Now, I realize how my anger and indignation becomes part of the process that hinders the dialogue that is needed, creating a sense of “us” and “them.” I appreciated the willingness that everyone held throughout the process. I was profoundly moved when someone acknowledged that for the first time she realized that as a white, heterosexual woman, she was able to “turn off and tune out” from the effort that is required by many in the minority to keep the dialogue going and that she was now committed to staying tuned in at all times as best she could.

Microaggressions are often, though not always, delivered out of our awareness and without intentional malice. Prejudice is inevitable. That is, in the sense that we all carry our own assumptions, biases, opinions, and beliefs. We are ALL prejudicial in our own ways. We hold on to what we “know” and distance ourselves from the “unknown.” We witnessed this moment by moment during the seminar as participants began to take risks and speak about their experiences of unintentional microaggressions—both as aggressors and receivers.

As the dialogue unfolded, I was reminded of Staemmler’s (2006) attitude of holding a willingness to be uncertain. Perhaps if we begin with the awareness that in order to truly meet the other, we need to see prejudice as a point of departure for our attempts at understanding our differences, then we might be able to facilitate these dialogues further. It is at the point of acknowledging our uncertainties about each other that the journey towards the other begins. By reframing our prejudices as a first draft to be handled with reservation and uncertainty, we can begin to broaden the narrow horizon from whence we start. If we can harness the willingness to engage in the type of dialogue that was evident during the seminar, perhaps we might be more willing to stay in the discomfort of uncertainty and grapple with the complexities of integrating the other’s difference with our own phenomenology. We may also begin experiencing the possibility and potential of going beyond ourselves through change and understanding—a true I-Thou encounter where connection is made and neither party remains the same. This is, after all, part of the foundation of existential psychology.

Sue, D.W. (Ed.) (2010) Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact. Manawah, NH: John Wiley & Sons Inc.

Staemmler, F.-M. (2006). The willingness to be uncertain: Preliminary thoughts about interpretation and understanding in gestalt therapy. International Gestalt Journal 29(2), 11-42.

— Veronica Lac

Today’s guest contributor, Veronica Lac, MA, LPC, is studying for her PhD in psychology (Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal specialization) at Saybrook University. She is a British Chinese Gestalt psychotherapist currently living in Columbus, OH, and working as an equine-assisted therapist with clients suffering from eating disorders.

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