Leaders Discuss the Nature of Microagressions

By John Thomas, Associate Editor
May 5, 2015

ThinkstockPhotos-514775873Microagressions, a relatively new word describing subtle forms of discrimination and bigotry often expressed unwittingly, have taken on added importance as the leadership of state and national psychological associations has become more diverse, delegates to the annual State Leadership Conference were told in March.

An example given by Norman B. Anderson, Ph.D., was when a well-meaning member of the APA Council of Representation congratulated him when he was named as the chief executive officer of the APA several years ago.

“He shook my hand and told me the reason I was selected was because I was black,” Anderson recalled during a panel discussion on microagressions, a term coined by Chester M. Pierce, Ph.D., of Harvard; Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., of Columbia and others to describe social exchanges in which a dominant group, usually accidentally, belittles a member of a marginalized group.

For Felicia Smith, Ph.D., of Louisville, an African-American woman who once was president of the Kentucky Psychological Association, the aggression happened at a national park facility where the executive board was meeting. While her white dinner companions were eating fried chicken, Smith kept waiting to be served.

When the wait staff began serving seconds, Smith finally told them that she had not yet been served her first helping.

“The wait staff was all very apologetic and I quickly had my meal served,” Smith recalled. “I don’t think it was deliberate on their part. I think they just didn’t see me. To them, I was invisible because of their biases and cultural identifications.”

Smith also told of many white-knuckled driving trips to the remote state parks where land lines were few and her mobile phone soon lost connection when she left Louisville. She would see confederate flags flying in front of many houses and men walking around in camos and holding rifles.

“I wondered what would happen if my car broke down. What would I do,” she said. She finally decided to carpool whenever her duties required her to enter Kentucky’s interior.
Anderson said he didn’t respond when the Council of Representatives member suggested his race was a big factor in his being named chief executive officer of the APA. “He was proud of himself for being part of an organization that would hire a black man to the highest office,” Anderson said.

And when he received a letter criticizing him that used the word “tar baby,” he knew the writer was making reference to a sticky situation, but that to anyone reared in the segregated south the use of the word was derogatory.

Anderson said as psychologists work their way through leadership in state associations, they will be more likely to receive criticism. “You should read some of my emails,” he said.

Other panelists included Sandra Shullman, Ph.D., of Columbus, Ohio, who recalled how as a young psychologists she was hassled at an all-male club. She was granted permission to enter only after she agreed to hide her woman’s raincoat under a man’s raincoat. When it came time to take a tour of the facility, Shullman, was told to wait in the wives’ waiting room.

Eleanor Gil-Kashiwabara, Psy.D., a Latina and Portland State University faculty member, said that during graduate school, a well-meaning professor recommended her for an internship by writing that she was “one of best students in his class regardless of being a minority.”

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