TITLE: Microaggressions in Ministry: Confronting the Hidden Violence of Everyday Church
AUTHOR: Cody J. Sanders and Angela Yarber
PUBLISHER: Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015, (172 pages).
Have you ever been to a place where people seemed to welcome you on the outside but leave you feeling left out on the inside? Whether you are ethnically different from the community, the only girl in a male-dominated office, or come from a religiously or sexually different background, there are small hints that one is not as welcomed as one hoped to be. Feeling welcome and yet feeling left out is a sign of some forms of microaggression at play. The authors call them "microaggressions" or violence in a hidden way. Cody Sanders is a Pastor-Theologian who serves as a pastor at Old Cambridge Baptist Church in Harvard Square. Calling himself a "queer," Sanders has previously written books such as "Queer Lessons for Churches on the Straight and Narrow" and "Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth." The reason for writing this book stems from his self-awareness of being a man, white, cisgender, able-bodied, and fully conscious of being privileged in some way through these. He desires to empathize from the other side. Angela Yarber is a scholar, dancer, artist, and is currently serving as a consultant with local churches and denominational bodies. Active in the arts and LGBTQ inclusiveness events, she has teamed up with Sanders to write this book both from them convictions as well as their personal experiences to challenge the threats of microaggressions. Calling herself a "queer woman," she protests against discriminations and bigotry by aligning herself with churches that are "progressive," "open-minded," and those that boldly "affirm women." Her desire to write this book was inspired by a chapter of Derald Wing Sue's "Microaggressions in Everyday Life."
What are microaggressions? Putting it simply, it is about "racism, sexism, and heterosexism" that were thought to have been eradicated but are still very much alive in the various corners of the world, especially the world of non-profit ministries. Referring mainly to the female gender, the ethnic minorities, and the LGBTQ groups of people serving in churches, seminaries, and other denominations, this book seeks to highlight the many minor "aggressions" or discriminations against these people. It occurs everywhere, some very obvious, but many others subtle. Both authors are keenly aware of such happenings. Even in places that claim to welcome everybody, microaggressions make minorities uncomfortable. In places where equal opportunity is officially stated, in reality, inner decision making circles hide the discriminations under some general excuse. Writing with a sense of urgency for places of ministry, the authors point out the areas of microaggressions through "language, symbols, metaphors, and narratives." Languages the denigrate. Words hurt. Dualistic thinking divides.
This book is written in three parts. In Part One, readers are introduced to the topic of microaggressions, what it means, who are the targets, and where they are commonly found. The authors see "microaggressions" as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership." It is generally present in three distinct forms: "insult, invalidation, and assault." All of these are because of a target's race, gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. Microinsults can be things like rudeness, demeaning statements, or some condescending cues. Microinvalidations come across through negations, or suggestive actions that exclude persons from fully participating as equals. Microassaults are the most direct and aggressive of them all and typically affects people of minority races, and in the light of a post-911 era, those with Middle Eastern origins. When probed, perpetrators often feign denials. After describing some of the ways in which microaggressions are practiced, there is a chapter that works constructively to show us how NOT to perpetrate such deeds.
Part Two expands on microaggressions in the areas of race, gender, and sexual orientation, three of the largest discriminations happening in many societies. On race, we learn about racism not merely on the disadvantage suffered by minorities, but also the privileges gained by the majority. For instance, the assumed whiteness of society is in itself already an unfair starting point for minorities. The way forward to counter this is to begin with awareness; proceed with an honest assessment of one's ministry; and to act on how to build communities to counter such microaggressions. On gender, whether it is an inconsistent use of titles, of sexual innuendos, or subtle hints at the minority difference, there are at least nine themes with regard to sexually based microaggressions. Themes such as sexual objectification, second-class citizenship, sexist language, assumption of inferiority, restriction on roles, theological interpretations, and so on, the key is to learn to be aware, to assess, and to take action.
Part Three looks at the areas of ministerial practice. In preaching, microaggressions can be as subtle as the seating arrangements, or as blatant when people are surprised by the "exceptional" ability of the affected gender. For example, just a statement, "Wow! You're quite a good female preacher." can be a form of condescension. The key is to treat everybody consistently. There are some constructive tools that can be used. Be aware of political correct words so that people do not unnecessarily be offended. At the same time, be generous with all in terms of expanding the circle of learning. The authors share a touching story about a Pastor James whose humble acknowledgement of his insensitive use of an illustration led to an even greater openness in class sharing about their struggles. Even in communities that welcome gays and lesbians, microaggressions can exist when the bisexuals, transgenders or queer groups of people are excluded in any way.
I was quite excited initially about the need to expose microaggressions in ministry practice. There are lots of valid observations about race, gender, and sexual orientations. Sometimes, it has been used so much that people tend to see it as a norm. For those of us in the majority group, we tend to be overly presumptive of the privileges extended to us. We fail to see from the point of view of the marginalized and the minorities. We take for granted what seems to be the norm. Seen in this manner, it is easy to belittle this book as some kind of an over-sensitive treatment of the ordinary way of society. What this book has helped is to enable the majority to see from the other side, that when one is in the less privileged group, the feeling is lousy. In a male dominated environment, it is important to see from the female perspective, to offer them the respect and consistency of treatment. In a place dominated by a certain race, it is also important to use language, words, and cultural nuances in a manner that help the other races to be a part of the community. Likewise, for any community, especially those who openly espouses equal treatment of people regardless of sexual orientation, their words need to be supported by actions. From the perspective of the majority, this book will be an opportunity to understand from the point of view of the minority. Hopefully, it will help to reduce both intentional and unintentionable forms of microaggression.
At some point, I find that microaggressions may become overemphasized. It makes ministry and administrative matters extremely inefficient. For example, must one spell out all categories explicitly all the time? Must one print out bulletins in 25 different languages when there are 25 different languages spoken by the congregation? Is the minority overly sensitive in detecting a slightly different treatment? What about the term "Ladies First?" Will gentlemen then complain? How do we know that the action against microaggressions has gotten too far? Indeed, this is my main criticism of this topic. We cannot swing to the other extreme of paranoia about offending every single minority group. There is a financial and practical considerations with regard to efficient use of resources. I have seen some public offices that try to cater to every single language in their brochures. The English often runs out faster than the rest of the other 20 languages. In the meantime, many of the other language pamphlets remain untouched. When sensitivity about microaggressions exceeds the common wisdom approach, the whole of society will be affected. From the point of view of the minority, perhaps, this book helps to verbalize or make public the many hidden inequities in society.
Nevertheless, this book presents a much needed voice from the perspective of the minority and the marginalized. A fine balance is needed not to overemphasize either the majority or minority view. Perhaps, one way to improve this book is to have respondents from both points of views.
Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.
This book is provided to me courtesy of Westminster John Knox Press and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. All opinions offered above are mine unless otherwise stated or implied.