Microaffection: The Antidote to Microaggression

Thank you, red letter day, note with pen.
Thank you, red letter day, note with pen.

"MICROAGGRESSION: a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype: microaggressions such as 'I don't see you as black.'" -- Dictionary.com

Eight years ago, I experienced a five-month period of unemployment -- my first stint of that unnerving status in my entire adult life. To put it mildly, it was a bracing experience, a cold shower every day. I pumped out my resume continually. I made phone calls that were never answered, sent out e-mails that evaporated in the aether.

People who did promise to call back never did. People who did promise to email back never did. And repeatedly I experienced microagression about my age. "We're looking for someone who can attract young families with kids," I was told by way of rejection for the job of pastor at two churches.

They said it matter-of-factly, apparently without any intention of insulting me or hurting my feelings. Not only was it illegal and unethical, it was untrue. Anyone who knows me well knows that I'm a kid-magnet, a walking jungle-Jim with small people dangling off my arms and legs. Kids don't care how old you are. They care if you pay attention to them and follow their lead in play and conversation. It's a rare day when I get "age-ist" microagression from children -- even now as I'm eight years older and balder.

I am treated very well by others almost all the time. (Surely this has nothing to do with the fact that I'm a white male who grew up in a comfortable middle-class family?) So in the rare moments when that's not the case, I lack practice in responding gracefully. I had to build up new spiritual muscles to deal with disrespect when I was unemployed. If what happened to me was anything like what black and Hispanic people constantly experience as microagression, I can imagine the challenge of managing the emotions these incidents would stir up. Should we be shocked if people who suffer mindless, insulting zingers in everyday conversation don't always respond cheerfully? The cumulative spiritual impact of such incidents adds up to a social problem that is indeed worthy of protest on college campuses and elsewhere.

"MICROAFFECTION: a subtle but endearing or comforting comment or action directed at others that is often unintentional or unconsciously affirms their worth and dignity, without any hint of condescension."
-- JimBurklo.com

Part of the response to microagression is education. We need to be intentional about preventing ourselves from unintentionally demeaning categories of people in ways that can make them feel marginalized. We need to listen to those who are on the receiving end of such encounters, so we'll know not what not to say and not to do.

And another response is the cultivation of microaffection: priming ourselves for moments when, spontaneously, we go out of our way to make others feel like they are dignified, respectable, truly beloved members of society. It takes forethought in order to be able to offer kindness without forethought. It takes spiritual discipline to make it automatic for us to share warmth with people just because they're people.

Microaffection came my way last week. I was riding my beach bike across campus. It's called the OMbulance: I put a sign on the front of the basket, surrounded by the symbols of the world's religions. In a spiritual emergency at USC, who ya gonna call? As I was riding, one of my shoelaces got spun around in the pedal. There I was, trapped on my bike at an obscure corner of the campus, unable even to dismount it to fix the problem. A gentleman came along with a big smile on his face and asked if I needed help. "Oh yes!" I answered, and before I could say more, he untangled my shoelace from the pedal and walked away, wishing me well. He helped me in a way that reduced, rather than increased, my sense of embarrassment in my predicament.

I have work to do, myself, to make kindness and respect so ingrained in my soul that they are automatic responses in moments of emotional challenge. Universities and institutions of all kinds have work to do, also, to create atmospheres that inculcate this kind of mindfulness, to prevent microagression and to encourage microaffection.