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.