Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q.Can you give me some examples of microaggressions? I asked my dad at dinner and he started to respond, but my stepmom stopped him by saying, “Nothing good comes of talking about that.” The tension got so high that I excused myself from the table. I don’t understand. I’m curious about life and the things I observe at school. My family is mostly made up of people of color, and my stepbrother is autistic. I think talking about this is healthy. We live in the world, and, as teens, we need to learn how to navigate it. Thanks.

15-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Avoiding conversations about challenging topics isn’t new. Confrontation can be uncomfortable. I believe communication is a key to awareness and understanding. The more we talk about tough subjects, the more we are prepared to make change. You do live in the world, and you are worthy. You can also make the world a kinder place.

The word microaggression was first used by psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in the ‘70s. Columbia professor and psychologist Dr. Derald Sue later popularized the term to refer to “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” The term has evolved to include any marginalized group of people.

Critics of the concept point to its subjectivity (who determines what is aggression?), and the creation of a culture of victimhood, where young people are taught to look for harm. To me, the idea is more basic. I believe each person is a person of worth. Using worthiness as my guide, I think we should encourage a culture where respect is the standard. My papa told me to think before I spoke; his wisdom echoes in my mind 20-plus years after his death. Perhaps we should consider empathy before we interact with others, and be aware of the music behind our words as well as our intent. Words matter and can hurt.

Our peer educator theme during 2015-2016 was Smash the Stereotypes. We looked at the way we treat people who appear different from us, and explored bias toward ability, age, class, faith, gender, race and sex. Part of our education that year was a Smash the Stereotypes Project. Our peer educators stood before a white background and held small white boards. Each person who wanted to participate wrote a real statement they’d been told that they felt was a microaggression. We then processed their feelings, their responses (or non-responses) and how behavior can lead to isolation and even bullying. We ended the school year with our annual youth conference. Our Real Talk Performers created and presented the original educational drama Fifty Shades of Social Justice. It looked at confrontation, bias, and ways to communicate.

I won’t reveal the pictures from our project, but I am able to list some of the words written on the white boards, without connecting them to any person.

  • Which color are you? Choose one.
  • You don’t look Jewish.
  • You have such a pretty face for a fat girl.
  • You smile so much, are you sure you’re depressed?
  • You’re going to go to community college? Well, then, good for you. I guess it’s better than nothing.
  • What do you mean you have an eating disorder? You can never be too thin. I like you this way.
  • You’re not that black.
  • You’re lucky you’re pretty, because you’re really not smart.
  • You don’t act gay. Are you sure you are?
  • Awww, you have an idea. Maybe you should wait until you’ve lived long enough to know what’s up before you share it.

Young people who used wheelchairs or lived with disability shared that people often talked down to them or shouted, as if their physical disability made them unable to hear or understand. They also discussed feeling invisible, as if it was easier to ignore someone with a disability than to treat the person with respect.

Ultimately, our peer educators discovered empathy for one another. They learned to respect. They finished the project thinking about their own words and their intentions. These young people are now in college, the military, or the work force. I know they’re modeling respect wherever they go. Thinking about others can make each of us a better person.

Good luck navigating life. Join us at the Common Ground Teen Center at 92 N. Main St. in Washington – open Monday through Friday from 3 to 7 p.m. for 13- to 18-year-olds. We model respect every day. #EachPersonIsAPersonofWorth.

Peer educator alumni response: Our Smash the Stereotypes Project was very enlightening. We explored the “isms” – the bias people bring to their everyday lives. We discovered not all microaggressions are intentional, although many are. Education can help. We’d like to invite you to be a peer educator – we think you’ve got the right stuff!

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