Lynn Mazza | Speaking of religion: On being toxic

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For this essay, I started writing about the oh-so-helpful advice given to people with disabilities or chronic health conditions, about how to "get over it," usually perpetrated by people who think they're being nice. Here are some common examples of "friendly advice" folks with chronic health conditions often hear: "You don't look sick," "I never heard of that. Is it real?" or "Oh, I get that too." Presumably, the speaker is trying to be helpful, but it's easy to see how the person receiving these comments could feel very frustrated, belittled, unheard.

Then I went to see the exhibit "Visible in Vermont" at the Bennington Museum, and saw patterns of intersectionality. The exhibit is about racial microaggressions, which, according to the exhibit, are "subtle behaviors, acts or environmental conditions that either intentionally or unintentionally communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color." It's a simple but powerful display (open until Dec 30) that features photos people of color holding a dry erase board where they have written a racist quote that some presumably well-meaning white person has said to them. One shows a Columbian woman holding a sign with the quote "Are you the nanny?" In another, a woman of color was told to "Go back where you come from" when she was born and raised in Vermont. There is a picture of a beautiful young girl holding a sign that says "You're pretty, for a dark girl." The problem with these kinds of comments is clear; yet we say things like this to each other so often!

In the forum where people of color were talking about their experiences, they said what would have been supportive is if the people around them had listened, believed and validated the stories they shared. When talking about microaggressions that I've encountered as a person with disabilities, I've suggested that people should give less advice and do more active listening.

Regardless of the identity of the person it's directed at, what a microaggression does is assume something about a person based on one observable trait. As we observe traits about a person, we tell ourselves a story about who they are. This shuts down acknowledgement of the rest of the person's experience. This denies them the space to tell their actual story and be who they actually are; thereby limiting and diminishing them. But it's more than just the error of making an assumption based on an incomplete story; microaggressions are so galling because the perpetrator has the certainty that they know what the person's reality is, and the arrogance to say it out loud.

Atonement means being aware of my transgressions, taking responsibility, and trying to put things right, if possible. With microaggressions, all three steps become challenging. How to atone for aggression I didn't even know I committed if I am not aware of the biased stories I tell myself? Part of taking responsibility for my actions is truly understanding, as deeply as possible, how my words or actions impacted the other person. In a close relationship, this is about asking and truly listening to the person who was wronged. But if I say something mindless to a new acquaintance, it's not their responsibility to teach me Cultural Competency 101, and it's selfish and entitled of me to expect them to do so. Apologizing in the moment can be helpful, assuming I realize what I've just said, but often I don't realize what I've said until the meeting is over and I may never see them again. So how to restore a relationship that never even got to start because I had my foot in my mouth?

How can I make up for denying someone their own story? Here are strategies I'm trying to keep from saying toxic things. Approach each individual with the "beginner's mind." Remember that I don't know their whole story, as well as being aware of the story I'm already telling myself. Even if I think I know them well, I need to leave room for them to unfold more. It's about staying humble, about reminding myself that my assumptions are not facts, and that what I think I know is often wrong. Next, don't underestimate the importance of being willing to apologize. And, most important: is to be quiet and listen; I mean truly listen. I can't commit a microaggression if I'm not running my mouth.

Lynn Mazza is a member of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Bennington. She also works at the Vermont Center for Independent Living, a disability rights and advocacy organization.

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