How NOT to be an Ally – Part 3 “Spoken-Language Microaggressions”

A few weeks ago, I boarded a flight from Houston to Mexico City excited for a mini-vacation and a visit to Frida Kahlo’s home and museum (see pic). Passengers searched for seats while flight attendants closed baggage bins in preparation for departure. So far so good. As a possibly Latina woman stopped to claim the middle seat of the exit row, the flight attendant, a Black woman, spoke up.

“You can sit up here in this row. You cannot sit there. You have to speak English to sit in the exit row.”

Let’s just stop right there.

  • How would she understand you if she did not speak English? (put that aside for now)
  • Why did you assume this woman could not speak English? Plenty of brown people in the U.S., including Houston, speak English.
  • Why did you fail to ask all of the white people in the exit row if they speak English before they sat down? The standard operating procedure is to ask all of them at the same time and get a verbal “yes,” but you singled this woman out.

The Woman’s Response

“I do speak English,” she said with no detectable accent. Proceeds to sit down in the exit row. The flight attendant offered no forthcoming apology.

Spoken-Language Racial Assumptions as Microaggressions

Did the flight attendant assume all brown people do not speak English, assume the woman was visiting Houston and therefore cannot speak English, assume she is an immigrant and no immigrants speak English? This behavior singled out an individual as different, lacking, and “other.” She put this woman from a marginalized group on the spot in front of everyone. There is, of course, a chance that this exchange did not bother the woman who was attempting to sit down. However, this kind of microaggression could be experienced as embarrassing and perpetuated assumptions based on perceived race because others hear your biased comments.

How could this have gone differently? Ally Recommendations:

Ask everyone:There are ways to get the information you need without singling out the individual. Ask everyone because you have to anyway per federal regulations. Yes, the flight attendant wanted to avoid having the woman sit down, get settled, then having to move her later because of a language barrier, but that is still better than telling her where she can and cannot sit. Alternatively, wait a few minutes, then ask everyone in all the exit rows if they speak English. Then you are meeting the airline and federal regulation needs, but not harming any single person. You could even say “Since we are on an international flight, I usually go ahead and ask if everyone here speaks English.”

Avoid common language-based assumptions: Enjoy this complimentary (free of charge) list of microaggressions to avoid as they perpetuate similar spoken-language racial assumptions:

  • “You speak such exceptional English.” Implied- “you speak exceptional English for an Asian person, and I assumed you were a recent immigrant with a thick accent.” Nope. Just do not say this. You can add to this category anything that sounds like, “Oh, when did you lose your accent?” or “I don’t even notice your accent.”
  • “You don’t speak Spanish?! You are not really Mexican.” This comment often originates from the racial or ethnic in-group. Implied- “you have to know Spanish to be considered Latinx, you are not one of us.” Just stop assuming someone does or does not speak a certain language or shaming them if they do not. Good? Ok, good.
  • “You are so articulate.” Implied- “you are articulate for a black person, but I expected you to speak Ebonics.” I know you want to use the word articulate. But let’s just all agree not to use it to describe how people of color speak. More than likely, that is going to land as an insult rather than a compliment.
  • “Could yoooouuu teeell meee the tiiiiime?” Latinx and Asian individuals unfortunately encounter this quite often. Speaking slowly and loudly to someone means you assume they do not speak English. And you do know that getting louder will not remove the language barrier, right (if a language barrier exists)?

Flex your ally muscles = Controlled Processing: Social cognition research reveals the power of automatic processing to maintain our assumptions based on social identity categories. This split-second unconscious thinking was built on a lifetime of persistent stereotyped messages. We have internalized those messages with no awareness that they show up in our behaviors. Allies must identify assumptions then consistently apply and practice controlled processing to counteract our training within systems of racism and other forms of oppression. After decades of working for sexual minority rights, I failed to use my controlled processing just a few weeks ago. While speaking to a feminist psychologist idol of mine, she mentioned visiting her son and his family. My next words were, “What is your son’s wife’s name?” She responded, “he is married to a man.” Yep, there it is. My automatic processing took over even though I view myself as having spent years decoding my own heterosexist assumptions. My controlled processing skills were out of practice and the assumptions jumped back in to take over. Use it or lose it!! We must stay vigilant to check and actively counteract automatic processing of assumptions.

Make intersectional connections: The event I witnessed involved a Black woman committing the microaggression. Of course, the same comments could have come from a white flight attendant or another person of color, including Latinx. As allies, we must critically reflect on our own experiences with discrimination to draw parallels to how we may enact microaggressions against others. Yes, this was undoubtedly was unintentional and unconscious. All the more reason to work hard to apply intersectional theory to our work and what may seem like insignificant interactions with individuals we perceive as different. I highly recommend viewing the video “Microaggressions in the Classroom” created by Dr. Yolanda Flores Niemann and her students at University of North Texas.

Kim A. Case, Ph.D. founded and leads the Lightning Bug Center in its mission to advance educator development as intersectional allies for social justice. She serves as a national/international speaker and consultant on diversity, equity, and inclusive practices and policies in higher education, K-12 settings, organizations, and workplace settings.

For resources related to ally behavior, teaching and learning, social justice, privilege awareness, intersectionality, and more of her work, visit  www.drkimcase.com and www.facebook.com/drcasepedagogy.

Follow her on twitter @drkimcase. Her teach.learn.grow. blog can be found at www.drkimcase.com/category/blog.

How NOT to be an Ally – Part 2 “He-peat, Re-white, and Amplification”

Scenario: We walk into the monthly faculty meeting expecting announcements, Dean reports, and lively discussion about academic policies. In our attempts to articulate potential consequences of a proposed course schedule change, I shared my concerns that the change would disproportionately harm our low-income students as well as those with full-time jobs, family responsibilities, drive commutes of up to an hour each way to attend class, and several other marginalized groups. No one responded to my comment. Three comments later, a white male faculty member voiced his observation that the change would introduce obstacles for working students and those with children. His plea that we should attend to the needs of these students is met with widespread agreement and follow-up commentary from the broader group.

What just happened? Could you sum up my experience in one word? Until recently, we did not have a succinct way of naming this very common phenomenon. But now we do. What happened to me in that meeting is known as the “he-peat.” The standard he-peat occurs when a man repeats a woman’s idea without citing her as the original source and no one in the room acknowledges her as the idea generator. Not only is the woman and her intellectual contribution rendered invisible, the man’s he-peat is rewarded with positive reinforcement and accolades for the supposed insight. This behavior may also come from an unexpected source: women “she-peat” women. Often, this takes the form of white women she-peating women of color. The she-peat persists because we are all soaking in a tub of the same culture that renders women’s contributions invisible. Women are not immune to implicit and unconscious bias against women.

These seemingly small slights are more accurately recognized as microaggressions that cause psychological harm and emotional stress. When your colleagues act as if you never spoke, ignore your contributions, then praise another for the same ideas, there is a swift impact and clear message. Clearly, the comment does not carry weight until a privileged person provides the perceived legitimacy. In other words, power renders the comment worthy. The he-peat erases you from existence through social isolation and withholding of proper credit. When this occurs, we are telling the target(s) they are invisible, dispensable, devalued, illegitimate, and lacking professional credibility. It is no wonder so many of us struggle with imposter syndrome.

New Terms for Ally Action

Given the topic of this blog focuses on taking credit for the ideas of others, I want to model ally behavior and name the original creative minds behind our new terms. In 2017, Nicole Gugliucci tweeted (@noisyastronomer) that her friends coined the term “he-peat” in response to these all too common experiences. Within that same thread, a tweeter named Spice (@masterq_) added the term “re-white” as a common parallel experience faced by people of color whose ideas are overlooked, then repeated by White colleagues. Speaking to intersections, I suppose we need a term for use by women of color referring to the multiplicative effects of re-whites and he-peats.

By naming the behavior, we label the harm done AND can plan for ally action. New terms help us become more aware of invisible phenomena and create a shared understanding that can be built into a cultural shift (if enough people use the new terms). Back in the 1970s and 1980s, women experiencing sexual comments and persistent degradation at work did not have access to the term “sexual harassment.” After the term took hold, women could literally name their experiences and identify the behavior of male supervisors and colleagues as illegal (note that harassment can be same-sex and women harassing men). We need allies across and within marginalized groups to help spread the use and understanding of the terms: re-white, he-peat, she-peat.

Action by Privileged (aspiring) Allies

First, stop being a person that subconsciously repeats another’s idea as if it is your own. You must work at truly SEEING all of the people in the room as full and whole credible contributors to the discussion. As Peggy McIntosh notes, we face the challenge of not seeing what we were taught not to see. So your role is to look for these harmful instances of s/he-peat and re-white theft. This is the plagiarism of conversation, but somehow socially acceptable in academia where failure to properly cite your source is comparable to outright theft. STOP doing it. If you do and then you realize someone else had said it first, go back and publicly give them credit.

What we need from the privileged is for you/us to use your cultural capital, social capital, institutionalized privilege, and assumed credibility to call attention to s/he-peat and re-white situations. Ally actions do not have to be disruptive or challenging, but can have an impact on awareness and raising positive visibility and inclusion. Speak up. Add to the conversation and call back to the original speaker. Sometimes I will contribute for the sole purpose of reminding people who initially came up with this great idea. For example, “I agree with Matt’s last comment. It sounds like he is in agreement with Sharon’s original idea about incorporating student voices into policy decisions. And I want to thank Sharon for bringing this up so that we could have this productive conversation.” The women staffers in the Obama White House called this ally behavior “amplification.” The more we engage in amplification, the more we can credit the work of marginalized colleagues, increasing their visibility as crucial contributors, and hopefully deepening their own sense of belonging.

Previous How NOT to Be an Ally blog posts available at www.drkimcase.com/blog

How NOT to be an Ally – Part 1 “Centering the Privileged”

Students, faculty, and community members often approach me seeking advice on their quest to understand interracial encounters. For example, white women and white men tend to ask me to explain misunderstandings they have encountered with people of color. “Melissa, my colleague at work who is Mexican American, told me about a racist incident she experienced with another co-worker. I tried to explain that her encounter was probably just about Stan being rude, which he is to everyone, rather than racism. But she did not seem to get what I was saying. So how do I effectively explain in a way that Melissa understands me?”

When sharing this scenario with me, the white woman we will call Penny, engaged in unconscious privileged group behavior that results in further marginalization and microaggressions against her colleague Melissa. To be clear, Penny sees herself as a good person and as an ally to people of color. Let’s break down this response and analyze how her expectations missed the ally mark and prevented her from being a supportive colleague.

Ally Mistake 1: Centering the Privileged Perspective

First, Penny focused on her own perspective and emotions. As a white woman, she cannot directly experience systemic racism because her racial group has the most collective power and control within systems and institutions. This lack of experience and the discomfort that results from hearing Melissa’s story, and therefore Melissa’s pain, (unconsciously) motivates Penny to explain away the racism. Within, social psychology, we call this motivated reasoning. Rather than analyze the instance of workplace racism, she looks for various ways to attribute the encounter to some other source, such as Stan being an equal opportunity rude co-worker. White fragility can be a strong motivator in these moments. As allies, we must consciously and consistently work to resist white fragility that leads to centering our own needs.

Ally Mistake 2: Invalidating the Marginalized Experience

Second, Penny invalidated a woman of color’s experience. In graduate school, a close friend and classmate of mine, an African American woman, came to my office and shared that one of our faculty members had confused her with another African American student. The white faculty member called my friend by the wrong name. Even though I am white, my friend felt I would understand because she knew I studied white privilege and anti-racist activism. In that moment, I asked her if she thought maybe this white male faculty member usually confused all of the students. In other words, I implied maybe his naming mix up was not about race. Within a short moment, I corrected my own dismissive statement, and we got back on track processing the microaggression she experienced. Although this happened about 18 years ago, I still think about that day as a time when I invalidated her lived experience of hurt with my own white lens interpretation. My dismissal was likely due to my own discomfort in that moment (see above mistake about centering the privileged).

Ally Mistake 3: Searching for Miss-Education

Third, Penny sought my help in “fixing” the supposed miscommunication between herself and the beleaguered woman of color with the goal of having Melissa understand her “it’s not racism” logic. Though I appreciated her efforts to seek guidance from White anti-racism scholars to better educate herself, she began with the wrong assumptions and the wrong question. Seeking education on how to get Melissa to listen to her explain away racism misses the mark. Hence the label “Miss-Education.” As a white woman, Penny does need education. She needs advice on how to listen deeply, sit with her own discomfort, and avoid placing her own needs at the center of the conversation when a person of color bravely shares her upsetting encounter with racism. The appropriate question would be, “How do I learn to attend to Melissa’s needs, not expect her to educate me, and make her feel seen and heard in those moments?”

Ally Advice

My first instinct for this section is to say, “Don’t be a Penny!” However, this requires a bit more nuance. Ally work is never complete. Even the most dedicated to analyzing privilege and working to dismantle oppression can fail to respond as effective allies in these moments. If you truly aim to behave as an ally to Melissa, take a deep breath, recognize your own internal emotional response, put your own needs aside to process later (not with a person of color), LISTEN, ask her what SHE needs from you in that moment, validate her feelings, believe her. Think about a time when you were not heard and what you wish you had received. Then do that.

Please note this post focuses on white allies, but applies across various forms of oppression and privilege. Stayed tuned for future “How NOT to be an Ally” posts covering all too common ally mistakes as well as behaviors associated with “intersectional ally” behavior.

by Kim A. Case, Ph.D.

For resources related to ally behavior, teaching and learning, social justice, privilege awareness, intersectionality, and more of Dr. Kim Case’s work, visit www.drkimcase.com and www.facebook.com/drcasepedagogy. Follow her on twitter @drkimcase. Dr. Case’s teach.learn.grow. blog can be found at www.drkimcase.com/category/blog. She regularly serves as a national/international speaker and consultant on diversity, equity, and inclusive practices and policies in higher education, K-12 settings, organizations, and workplace settings.