Monthly Archives: June 2014

Micro-aggression: Subtle but Searing

When I was in the sixth grade a classmate called me a “stupid Jew Bitch.” I slinked away from the playground and never told a soul what she’d said or how it made me feel. Bullying was not a word we used then and adults seldom dealt with unnamed and often invisible blows even when they were reported.

Today we have begun to recognize the horrific impact bullying can have on children. But we have yet to understand “micro-aggression” and its effect on adults.

Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. Researchers have also identified micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations as disturbing behaviors that pack a punch.

Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as racial epithets. Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey insensitivity or demean someone’s heritage or identity, while micro-invalidation communicates subtle messages of exclusion that nullify the thoughts or feelings of others, particularly people of color.

The Microaggressions Project website has a slew of real examples: “Are you sure you have the right room number? This is the ‘honors’ section.” “How much money would you put on the Boston bombers being Muslim?” How about this one? “My chemistry teacher was in shock when I got 100 percent on an exam. However, she wasn’t shocked when two white kids did well. That was kind of hurtful.”

Then there was the black doctor waiting his turn to check into a hotel. He’d been flown into town for an appearance on a TV station and delivered to his hotel in a chauffeur-driven limo. But when he moved to speak with the hotel clerk, a white man marched in front of him. “Do you think I’m waiting for a bus?” the outraged doctor asked. The man claimed he hadn’t noticed him.

I could relate. Traveling abroad some years ago I had a layover at the Emirates Airlines hotel in Dubai. There were three check-in lines; mine was the middle one. I soon noticed that whenever it was my turn to approach the counter a man on my left, then my right jumped ahead of me. Finally, I pushed one of them out of the way, pulled myself up to my full height, and declared, “I’m next!” I was marginalized by gender frequently on that trip, in hotels, airplanes, shops and restaurants. I can say firsthand it’s not a pleasant experience.

The American Psychological Association blog reveals a piece by writer Tori DeAngelis called “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro-aggressions.” It cites a group of Columbia University psychologists who began studying and classifying the phenomenon some years ago to help people of color understand what was happening and to educate white people about their biased words and actions, intentional or not.

“It was a monumental task to get white people to realize that they were delivering micro-aggressions,” one of the psychologists said. “It’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other people].”

The effects of micro-aggression are now well-documented. They include negatively impacting people’s mental health, job performance and social experiences, often leaving deep scars. One study found that African-Americans and women performed worse on academic tests when subjected to stereotypes about race or gender. This was especially noticeable with respect to women’s math performance. Intelligence scores for blacks also plunged after subjects were exposed to stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.

Dr. Gerald Wing Sue, an Asian-American psychologist, focuses his work on micro-insults and micro-invalidations because of their less obvious nature. “While a person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why,” he explains. “This puts them in a psychological bind while the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything happened because he is not aware he has been offensive. The person of color is caught in a Catch-22 because if they confront the perpetrator, he will deny it. That leaves the person of color questioning what actually happened, resulting in confusion, anger, and ultimately, sapped energy.”

Sue’s research with African-Americans revealed them feeling they did not belong or were untrustworthy in certain situations. Respondents reported feeling “watched” in stores or being overly cautious about their body language when they were near white women “so not to frighten them.” Others said they were “vigilant at work” so that mistakes wouldn’t reflect badly on their race. Asian-American described different ways in which they have been made to feel “alien,” like being told they speak good English. Women in this group revealed that white men often expected them to be subservient.

“These incidents may appear small or trivial but they assail the mental health of recipients,” Dr. Sue says.

I didn’t need an expert to tell me that. My time in Dubai nearly drove me crazy and I’m white. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be subjected to invisible aggression in your own country because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes.

Telling Birth Stories Workshop

Telling Birth Stories

An Online Writing Workshop with Award-winning author & journalist

Elayne Clift

How do you write a good birth story? What makes any story compelling? How can we tell our own birth stories, as remembrance and as a gift to other women?

In Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman-supported Birth in America (Praeclarus Press, 2014), Christine Morton and Elayne Clift include stories by women for whom a doula was present at their birth. These beautifully crafted first-persons narratives give voice to the extraordinary experience of giving birth. Join the growing chorus of women whose voices, and birth stories, are being heard!

This 4-week online workshop guides participants – moms, dads, midwives, nurses, doulas, docs – through the elements of good storytelling as they relate their personal experience while giving or assisting birth. Weekly prompts will serve as a guide to setting the scene, involving characters, using dialogue, making wise word choices, and more. Work will be shared each week among participants who will respond to each other. Elayne will offer in-depth feedback and suggestions for each piece and facilitate dialogue among participants.

If you’re interested in painting a word portrait that carries your audience with you as you tell your birth tale, please register by July 15. Register by July 4 for one of two chances to receive a signed first edition of Birth Ambassadors! Space is limited to 8 participants!
WHEN: The first online workshop will begin August 1 and conclude Aug. 25.

COST: $95/pp

QUESTIONS: eclift@vermontel.net       802-869-2686

Are We Really the Greatest Country on Earth?

Often politicians and others like to glorify American democracy, history, principles and actions. They wallow in soliloquies espousing the United States as the best, brightest and most innovative country in the world. They beg the question, why would anyone want to live elsewhere?

Well, besides our inability to stop gun violence, our treatment of the poor (many of whom are children), our crumbling infrastructure and inadequate cell phone service, our denial of climate change, the Koch brothers’ political power, our shameful maternal and infant mortality rates, our damaged educational system, and institutionalized racism, here are three reasons: capital punishment, torture, and now the betrayal of veterans.

State-sanctioned execution is legal in many states. While a 1972 Supreme Court ruling suspended capital punishment between 1972 and 1976, once it resumed in 1976 more than a thousand people were executed by 37 states where capital punishment was legal at the time. We are among the few countries that currently allow the death penalty, including China, Iran, North Korea and Yemen. More than 140 countries have abolished capital punishment in law or practice. Together the U.S. and the four countries cited here constitute more than 90 percent of the total capital punishment executions in the world.

In a recent blog post on The National Interest Paul Pillar noted that “the United States is distinctly in a minority in regularly using death as a criminal punishment.” Texas proudly takes the lead in executions. Pillar quotes a Houston lawyer on the state’s efficiency: “I think Texas does it as well as Iran.”
To quote Amnesty International, “A wealth of mounting evidence proves that capital punishment does not work.” The death penalty here as elsewhere, the organization says, is discriminatory and used disproportionately against the poor, minorities and members of racial, ethnic and religious communities. And the risk of executing innocent people has been dramatically highlighted by DNA testing and the release of wrongfully incarcerated individuals. We also know that the death penalty disregards mental illness even though international law prohibits executing “the insane.”

A recent botched execution in Oklahoma and the Missouri case of a stayed execution because the accused man suffered from a medical anomaly that would have meant an excruciating death by lethal injection have again raised the issue of capital punishment as an immoral act. A recent editorial in The New York Times pointed out that death by lethal injection became the standard method because hanging, firing squads and the electric chair were deemed too “barbaric,” not because the state was taking a human life.

The reality is that state executions take place in shameful settings, at night, behind closed doors. If Americans actually saw what happens they would be horrified. As the Times editorial said, “There are no clean executions.”
Capital punishment is not the only torture sanctioned and carried out by the U.S. Amnesty International and others have made clear that “in the years since 9/11, our government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment in the name of fighting terrorism.”

The UN Convention Against Torture defines torture as “…the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain or suffering for purposes such as obtaining information or a confession, or punishing, intimidating or coercing someone.” Torture is always illegal. “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.”

Cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment (CID) is also illegal under international and U.S. law. It includes any harsh or neglectful treatment that could damage a detainee’s physical or mental health or any punishment intended to cause physical or mental pain or suffering, or to humiliate or degrade the person being punished. Yet in the years since 9/11, the U.S. government has repeatedly violated both international and domestic prohibitions on torture and CID in the name of fighting terrorism.

An argument can be made that the appalling lack of care for veterans by the Veterans Administration’s also constitutes CID. Recent news reports suggest that things are worse than we yet know. John Dickerson of CBS News said it best: “What makes the VA scandal different is not only that it affected people at their most desperate moment of need–and continues to affect them at subpar facilities. It’s also a failure of one of the most basic transactions government is supposed to perform: keeping a promise to those who were asked to protect our very form of government. The growing scandal points out more than just incompetence,” he wrote in Slate, referring to lies told by administrators.

That is perhaps the most frightening piece of the VA scandal and reveals its moral connection to capital punishment and torture. The common denominator is obfuscation, often coupled with contempt, carelessness, incompetence, and a total lack of compassion – all of which add up to cruelty and suggest that this may not be the greatest place on earth to live. At the very least it should give one pause to reflect upon serious flaws in American culture, including its incipient violence, whether by execution, torture or sheer neglect.

It’s Time to End the Epidemic of Sexual Assault

What do city subways, college dorms, and military service have in common? They are all venues for the vulnerable when it comes to sex assaults.

The latest horror stories come from women in New York who’ve been ogled, groped, flashed, harassed, splashed with ejaculate and attacked on subways or in subway stations. One recent account involved a woman who was forced off a train and only managed to escape when she was able to push an alarm button as her assailant dragged her along the platform.

The city, trying to deal with the situation, has proposed a law to upgrade unwanted sexual contact from a misdemeanor to a felony and to turn “sexually motivated touching” into a sex crime with possible jail time.

But one woman blogger says she isn’t convinced it will help much. “The most lamentable aspect of taking public transportation as a woman is enduring the unsavory boys and men who exploit the shared space and put our safety in jeopardy. Women understand that most men don’t engage in this brand of sexual violence. But the number of guys who are doing these things is sizable enough to make most women uneasy during our commutes.”

The seriousness of the sexual assault epidemic on university and college campuses is garnering much needed attention thanks to recently released guidelines promulgated by the White House. Aimed at forcing academic institutions to aggressively combat sexual assaults the recommendations call for anonymous surveys, anti-assault policies, and greater confidentiality for those reporting crimes. The administration wants Congress to pass further measures to enforce the recommendations and levy penalties for failure to comply. It has also proposed a website – NotAlone.gov – to track enforcement and provide victims with information.

“No more turning a blind eye or pretending it doesn’t exist,” Vice President Joe Biden said when the steps were announced. “We need to give victims the support they need and we need to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

For Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger that’s good news, but it’s money-where-mouth-is-time. Raped by a fellow student while at Columbia University, a university official interrogated Sulkowicz about the sex act that occurred, suggesting that it was physically impossible as described. The panel dismissed her accusation, even though there had been other sexual assault complaints against the same man. “Has anything every happened to you that was just so bad you felt like you became a shell of a human being?” Sulkowicz asked a New York Times reporter when sharing her story.

Dana Bolger’s rape occurred when she was at Amherst, where a dean “encouraged me to forgive my assailant and move on,” she recalls. “He advised me to take time off and wait for my rapist to graduate.” Another Amherst student survivor was forced into a psychiatric ward and forbidden to study abroad or write a senior thesis. She ultimately withdrew.

One in five women is sexually assaulted in college according to one survey and 55 prestigious colleges and universities are currently under investigation by the Department of Education for their handling of sexual violence. The White House initiative is “a meaningful first step,” says Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), but more needs to be done. “There is a sense this isn’t really a crime, that there is no harm. Well, it’s a felony and it is harmful.”

Meanwhile, sexual assault in the military continues apace. A new Pentagon report reveals that between June 2012 and June 2013 there were more than 3500 reports of sexual assault – a 43 percent increase in one year. During that year soldiers were fifteen times more likely to be raped by a comrade than killed by an enemy, a statistic that even the Pentagon calls “startling.”

The military seems baffled about how to handle the growing epidemic, despite new oversight and assistance programs. And it is clearly embarrassed by ongoing high level disasters, like the fact that more than thirty Air Force instructors are being investigated for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. New legislation has been proposed that would standardize guidelines for punishment for sexual assault convictions, but it may be too little too late. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has said “the military may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could undermine our ability to effectively carry out [our] mission.”

It’s hard for victims in the military to take things into their own hands but college students and subway riders are fighting back. Emma Sulkowicz and Dana Bolger helped launch a national network of students who have established an educational and advocacy website called Know Your IX – referring to Title IX, the federal law mandating gender equity on campus and the right to an education unimpeded by violence and harassment. And in New York advocates for subway safety formed an organization, New Yorkers for Safe Transit, which support a bill requiring police to collect data on sexual harassment in subways.

What do these groups have in common? The belief that no one should have to “forgive and forget” when sexual violence occurs – anywhere, to anyone.