The Power & Privilege Dynamics of Microaggressions
In this episode, herdacious host Lorelei chats with Alejandra Mielke about the role power and privilege play in the ability to micro-aggress against others. Microaggressions are everyday verbal, behavioral, or environmental snubs that demean, diminish, or harm members of marginalized groups through belittlement. “Your English is great,” or, “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority,” might not appear harmful, but Alejandra enlightens us as to why such comments incur feelings of invalidation. As a DEI coach who works with underrepresented minorities to overcome workplace biases, Alejandra teaches us that microaggressions are born out of inherent power and privilege differences, which often creates a suppressive atmosphere for marginalized individuals. However, Alejandra assures us that derogatory comments and behaviors can be avoided when those in power become self-aware, and those on the receiving end respond suitably to their own needs. From accepting feedback to acknowledging that experiences are not one-and-the-same, Alejandra underscores that microaggressions can be halted through better awareness. As Alejandra best explains, power is infinite; and empowered people empower people!
Host: Lorelei Gonzalez
Co-host: Alejandra Mielke, PhD
Dr. Alejandra Rodríguez Mielke is a Leadership Coach & Consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in the field of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. Dr. Mielke brings a strong expertise in social justice, equity, and adult learning after working at The University of Texas at Austin as an educational researcher and later as an independent consultant facilitating workshops and professional programs around Unconscious Bias, Power & Privilege, Inclusive Leadership, and Cultural Competency for local and global organizations.
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Lorelei: Welcome to HERdacious, a podcast for audacious women. Welcome to HERdacious, the podcast for audacious women looking to make some moves in their career journeys, and HERdacious is one of the tools to help you make those strong career moves. My name is Lorelei, the happy host of the show, and today we're gonna be talking about the power and privilege dynamics of micro-aggressions. To assist us in this incredible conversation, I have an equity expert with years of experience working with the University of Texas at Austin, a certified leadership coach in the field of DEI, and the founder and CEO of her own DEI consulting and coaching practice, Dr. Alejandra Mielke. Hi.
Alejandra: Thank you for the introduction and I'm happy to be here.
Lorelei: I am so happy to have you here. I'd like to start the conversation by asking you to address these concepts, these huge concepts of power and privilege. Before we jump into discussing microaggressions like, lead us in...
Alejandra: Excellent, thank you. So yes, microagressions are closely related to power and privilege in terms of who has a power to commit these microaggressions and who has a privilege not to endure these microaggressions. So power and privilege, even if we live under ideals of equality that all human beings are created equal, and organizations say they are built on this idea, the truth is that all individuals have different degrees of power and privilege in our society and within our organizations, and these differences create dangerous power imbalances that can affect people's careers, livelihoods, professional opportunities. Power allows some individuals to serve as a gate keeper of resources, knowledge and opportunities to be the decision-makers, and then privilege allows people different access to these resources.
Lorelei: Okay. So what is power?
Alejandra: So power is defined as the ability to direct and influence behavior, events, and allocation of resources. Power can be seen in many different ways, and is generally understood when we start answering questions about who can do something, who cannot do something. For example, who can go to work without worrying much about what to do with their children, who can walk at night alone with no worries about safety, who are the ones making top decisions, laws, policies in organizations and countries. In most Western societies today, many decisions are still controlled by people with certain backgrounds, over 40, male, European, heterosexual, middle class and wealthy people, those are the folks who are the top in the pyramid of power.
Lorelei: People that generally look like a President of the United States...
Alejandra: Exactly. And power has always been a commodity, an asset, something that is valued, required, needed, but also abused. A lot of these things are invisible, all these power relationships, but it's through power dynamics that make power struggles evident. Power dynamics describes how power affects relationship between people, the ways we interact with each other, whether it's at work, in the community, school can be easily interpreted by power differentials.
Lorelei: What about privilege?
Alejandra: So privilege comes from being a member of a specific group that has power, so if you're a member of a group where you're gonna have certain privileges that not everyone has. So privilege is a societal power and it is an unearned advantage that comes to you as a member of a specific group. In the US and a lot of the world, the western world, white, heterosexual, cis-gender individuals have primarily been the ones who define the systems that make our society. How we understand society, how we understand norms from raising a family to work. These are created by people in power who are generally, like I said, white, heterosexual, cisgender males, and that gives you privilege, a lot of privilege in life.
Lorelei: So not necessarily related to the things that you've done or earned, but really just by winning the lottery of being born a certain way. In a certain place.
Lorelei: How are the concepts of power and privilege used to exclude and include others?
Alejandra: Human beings subconsciously and unconsciously use this power, the power that they have and the privilege that they have, to exclude or include others. So we engage in exclusion behaviors, we use the power we have to exclude people, and we can do that at the micro-level, we can use that through institutions and organizations and through policies, procedures, laws, all those things, and we use the people who have the power to create those and we can exclude people using those. But we can also exclude people at the micro-level, and when we do that, that's when we're talking about microaggressions. Microaggressions are ways that we exclude people at an individual level, in fact, actually one of the authors who works on microaggressions, Tiffany Jana's "Subtle Acts of Exclusion," says our individual acts exclude people in different ways. We tell them, "You do not belong here," "you are not welcome," "you should not be here."
Lorelei: That's an... Unfortunately great definition of a micro-aggression.
Alejandra: Exactly, yes. Well.
Lorelei: So you let us straight to micro-aggressions, which is a term I think most of the audience is familiar with, we've been having conversations about this for years, so define it for us so that we are all really clear moving into the rest of this conversation. How would you define a microaggression?
Alejandra: Microaggressions are the subtle, verbal, behavioral or environmental things that are present that deny or make other people, like I said, feel like you don't belong that you are not supposed to be here, that your existence is not real or it's not important, so all these little actions comments or things that we see around the world that can push people aside, push people away from the mainstream system. A rude comment might be once in a while, one thing here on there, but a microagression is more of a pattern. They have been done over and over and over again with a very clear message, sometimes it's not repeated, but a very clear intention of, like I said, excluding people and putting them aside.
Lorelei: So to clarify, microagressions are more long-term built-in habits, both in people and in policies. How do micro-aggressions relate to someone's position of power and or privilege?
Alejandra: If you think about it, you think about it in terms of who has the power to do this, who feels so comfortable in their skin and in their place that they are able to say things that can be hurtful or harmful to others, without any worry about the impact?
Lorelei: The ramifications...
Alejandra: The ramifications, exactly. You feel so comfortable in your space, in your skin, in the place where you are, that you feel that power to say whatever you want to say. And they're related to privilege because it is a privilege to be going around the world without feeling the need to be prepared to defend yourself from microagressions, or you are going through life with the privilege of not even worrying about receiving one or being the target of one.
Lorelei: Or even having the consequences of perpetuating those things.
Lorelei: To reiterate here, microaggressions are really harmful regardless of the ignorance behind them or the intention, right. How does this death by a thousand cuts really harm folks, how does that impact people on a personal or professional level?
Alejandra: It's important to remember that microaggressions, people who receive microagressions, they can spend a lot of emotional energy trying to identify and understand the intentions of the comment. It can be exhausting trying to say... "What was said? Did I interpret it correctly? Did she say that? I think she said... What did they mean by this?" And this is psychological exhaustion of having to deal with this comment over and over again, and then you have to start thinking about, "Okay, what should be my response? What should I do? Should I educate people? Should I just remain quiet?" It's a psychological burden to be having to do this in all instances or, like, having to come up with ideas of what to do, it can be very tiring for people, so these microagressions can also create feelings of self-doubt, frustration, isolation, anxiety, anger, and they can really have a strong impact on performance and work engagement in any kind of workplace. For example, when you have a microagression about, you were hired because you're a person of color, right, and we need to have more representation, so your work here might not be because you are good at what you do. Your work here might have been because you are a person of color.
Lorelei: So filling a quota, they're not here for my skills.
Lorelei: What are the ways that micro-aggressions can be expressed?
Alejandra: So microagressions can be expressed verbally, with comments or questions, they can also be behaviors, actions that people do towards others, and they can also be environmental, subtle discrimination that occurs in the form of images that we can see or in the form of narratives, that run in our society or in movies or stories or jokes. So generally, we can think about those three ways that microaggressions can be expressed.
Lorelei: Alejandra, part of our narrative in this show is that I have to take a break about half way through, so we will be right back after the sponsor break.
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Lorelei: And we're back. We are talking with Dr. Alejandra Mielke, talking about the power and privilege of microaggressions. Now, before the break, you had shared a couple of the forms of micro-aggressions. So it seems like there are different styles, [laughter] I guess, is the right word? Of a microaggression?
Alejandra: [laughter] Yes. Microaggressions, we have categorized them into different types.
Lorelei: Ah, types.
Alejandra: Microaggressions: We talk about micro-insults when we are talking about more intentional discriminatory behavior towards a person who is a member of a specific racial group, and these are more open, more direct. And this is what we know as old-fashioned racism, when it's very clear that there is intention of sending a message... "I don't like you. You are not one of us."
Lorelei: The KKK comes immediately to mind.
Alejandra: Exactly. An environmental microagression can be displayed on the hood of the Ku Klux Klan, that's a very clear message that we believe this and we do not like you, or having you around. So that's one type of a microagression.
Lorelei: A moment ago you mentioned the forms of micro-aggressions, it's verbal, behavioral and environmental, and you just shared an environmental one. What's a verbal one? I guess would just be using a derogatory word... Explicitly?
Alejandra: Explicitly, right.
Lorelei: Okay. What are the other types of microaggressions?
Alejandra: So we also have micro-insults, and these are comments or actions that are intentionally discriminatory or different to the microagression. They are unintentional. There is no real intent of harming others, they are just based on the stereotypes or based on what we see certain groups to be or to look like, and they are very insensitive, they communicate a disregard for individuals identity or heritage. They're subtle snubs, and they convey a hidden message to the recipient. For example, a manager who doesn't call on a female employee during a meeting.
Lorelei: Right, yeah.
Alejandra: That might not be intentional, but obviously something is going on with his brain that is causing him not to call on women, so that's a micro-insult, some kind of a behavioral micro-insult, an action. Another example could be someone saying to an Asian-American candidate, "oh, you must be applying for the data analyst position."
Lorelei: An assumption about the type of role that they're usually doing, I guess.
Alejandra: Exactly, so that would be a microinsult. Like your heritage, being Asian-American, might mean that you're very good with numbers and math, and that's why you should be a data analyst.
Lorelei: Usually born out of ignorance or bias, unconscious bias.
Alejandra: Unconscious bias and stereotypes.
Lorelei: And stereotypes.
Alejandra: And the last type of microaggressions are microinvalidations. And these are commonly ignored. This undermines experiences of someone who belongs to an unrepresented community. For example, when we hear someone saying "you're overly sensitive, you should not make a big deal out of that. We cannot say anything in front of you," so all that is denying your existence, denying your place, and that is also very, very hurtful. Yeah, I think it's in this one, in this last one, the micro-invalidations when we really see the role of power and privilege, because for a very long time, individuals who are in power are the ones who have been able to describe the reality of people of color, they have been able to tell them who you are, what can you do, how much value you have, what is your worth. And it is through this micro-invalidation that we continue to create or that people who commit this, people in power, that they continue to create these realities of these people.
Lorelei: That's a really powerful, powerful call out right there about defining reality and the people with privilege and power having the ability to define others realities. So give us a couple examples of the types of messages, the types of realities that we're subtly attempting to say to those on the receiving end of said micro-aggression.
Alejandra: Exactly, yes. Microaggressions, the thing to keep in mind is that they always have this hidden message, the message is not very healing, as we said, but in the other instances, there is a hidden message and it can be very, very harmful. For example, if a staff member of color brings up racism with a female supervisor and the female supervisor says, "Oh, I totally understand that. As a woman, I experience discrimination too." So what is the message behind that statement? That your racial experience, your racial life, your racial oppression is no different from my gender oppression. It's the same. It's not as important, or it's like, don't make a big deal out of it, that is a huge message when the person of color is trying to convey something about his or reality. So that's a good example.
Lorelei: Alejandra as you will know, so many folks experience microaggressions on a monthly, weekly, daily basis. What can folks do when they are the target of a microaggression or a witness to a micro-aggression?
Alejandra: Number one, take care of yourself. And distinguish between two routes that you can take, you can take the self-care survival route, or you can choose to confront the source. So there are two different things. Now, a lot of times, you do not want to go and confront the source, and it's okay, that's a very important message. If you don't want to say anything at the time or you don't know exactly what to say, or you could be taken by surprise, and it left you frozen right there. It's okay. People who study microagressions have learned and discovered that we have things or actions or tools called micro-interventions that can be used against microagressions. So micro-interventions are words, comments, interpersonal tools to contract change or stop microaggressions. And they can be very powerful. And I can give you some examples.
Alejandra: So we can use micro-interventions to make the invisible visible, remember we talked about the hidden messages, we can just use a sentence or phrase to make the hidden message visible. For example, when a white teacher says to a third generation Asian-American student, "Oh, you speak English so well," the student can respond, "Thank you. I hope so. I was born here." So we make that message of like, "You do not belong here, or your English is so good to be a part of here," and we can make that visible. Yes, I belong here. I'm an American, I was born here. So that could be one example. And the ones that I really like are the micro interventions that shut down microagressions. They stop the message, they communicate this agreement. An example is like a simple... "I don't agree with what he said." "That's not how I view it." And the one that I love, is a simple "ouch." It can really create this response like, "Oh, what did I say that I needed an 'ouch' from you," right. That can be very powerful, or even shaking your head in disapproval... All those little actions and those phrases are so powerful in giving the message that what you just said was not right. We can also go and educate the offender, right. We can also engage in dialogue and explain clearly what why what was said was offensive. Right, so we can also do that.
Lorelei: That seems like the bigger hill to climb sometimes for folks. 'Cause how do I, coming from less power and privilege have the ability to effectively communicate something that to you, when your landscape, your world, the narrative that you've been living under is so different than mine. So you've been giving us a lot of really helpful examples of microaggressions and a lot of great tools to understanding and combating them, I wanna ask you to give us some strategies for acknowledging when we ourselves might have committed a microaggression, because I think defensiveness kicks in so quickly with people when we're talking about addressing these really big challenges.
Alejandra: Exactly. Let me tell you one thing, if you receive feedback, you should be very thankful for receiving that feedback because it takes so much courage from the other person to speak up, and you should consider us a very lucky that that person cares enough about you that wants to spend time and energy giving you some feedback, because it doesn't happen a lot. It's easier when the person receives a microagression, for that person, the target, just to turn around and move on, right. And go to other spaces, so if you receive feedback, consider it a gift because it's very powerful. So if you reviece the feedback, don't make it about you. Again, take a breath, counter, turn if you need to take some time to think and you might have to turn around, go to the corner and come back a little bit after, just take some time to not make it about you. It's not about you. And listen, spend your mental energy listening and trying to understand the speaker's perspective.
Lorelei: Talk to us about some ways that we as professionals can keep from committing these micro-aggressions in the future, while also becoming more aware of the power and privilege dynamics at play, even in our own lives.
Alejandra: We are all leaders, and good leaders are self-aware, once you are self-aware, you understand so much about you, like you said, your power, your privilege, and your reactions to the world, the way you perceive the world. That's number one, be self-aware of that. Now, be intentional about learning about others experience, always understand that other people are gonna have very different realities and that what is obvious to you, it's only obvious to you, and that's what I keep saying, it's not obvious to anyone else, but to you, so don't think that because it's obvious to you it's gonna be clear to everyone else, so keep that in mind... And think before you speak.
Lorelei: Classic. How can we as persons in the world, as professionals in the workplace, start to balance the scales of the haves and the have-nots on the power and privilege conversation?
Alejandra: Well, that's a good question, and that's a tough one on to answer. I wish we could all work together towards answering this question. A lot of people believe that power is finite, that there is only a certain amount of power and that I need more... More and more to survive, to succeed.
Lorelei: Like only having a piece of the pie, but there's only the pie that's all there is.
Alejandra: Exactly, but that isn't all there is. And I think it's the opposite. Power, the more you share power, the more power grows, the more power is present in everybody's life, and when we share that power, when we as a society allow more people to enjoy power or this privilege, it's only gonna be good for everyone. It's a ripple effect. If I can do this, the whole world will be better because that idea of we have this finite amount and I have to keep as much as I can for me and all, this is an idea that is hopefully changing because it has not taken us anywhere.
Lorelei: Beautiful. Thank you so much for that. My goodness. Alright, well lastly, share some resources for our listeners to continue this really empowering educational journey forward.
Alejandra: Derald Wing Sue is fantastic. But a work that is very easy to read is the book written by Tiffany Jana, and the name of the book is "Subtle Acts of Exclusion," that would be a fantastic source to start the journey on studying microaggressions.
Lorelei: Thank you for that, I really appreciate that. And of course, those options will be linked in our show notes. Alejandra, we wrap our show with what we call a femme fact, and throughout the lifetime of this show, we've talked a lot about women in the history books, who for the most part, have kicked the bucket. So while we always appreciate a rad, femme fact about spies and pirates and warrior women, we're gonna take a moment today to highlight one of the modern do-gooder of our time. Although an eye patch and a sword might not be her uniform of choice, she is equally as daring. We are talking about Svetlana Tsikhanouskaya of Belarus. Svetlana was a stay-at-home mother and former grade school teacher who has become known to her country as the face of political revolution against its long-standing authoritarian leader, Alexander Lukashenko. But let's back it up real quick. As with all national figures who become the faces of a revolution, their passions start somewhere. Svetlana was born in 1982 in Belarus, USSR, or the former Soviet Union, not too far from where the Chernobyl nuclear disaster occurred. Svetlana grew up with a supporting and loving family who did face poverty that was also affecting most of her home town's residents.
Fortunately, Svetlana excelled in school and studies, which came in handy when she began making annual summer trips over to Ireland for work, so for over a decade, Svetlana spent all of her summer breaks in a small town in Ireland where she worked as a Ukrainian to English translator for the refugees that were fleeing from the Chernobyl disaster. Her host family of 10 years, who she still keeps in close contact with even to this day, described her as being incredibly kind, genuine and caring. She eventually saved up enough money from her endeavors to pay for college and went on to study teaching at university in Belarus. After a tenure of teaching, Svetlana married Sergei Tsikhanouskaya, a famous activist blogger and YouTuber. Together, they had two children and she left her career to be a stay-at-home mom, but the stay-at home mom life was pretty short lived. Believe it or not, America wasn't the only country biting their nails at a high stakes presidential election back in 2020. In Belarus, the recent 2020 presidential elections had Svetlana's husband, Sergei, running as an opposition candidate against the incumbent Alexander Lukashenko. Lukashenko has held presidential power in Belarus since 1994, which should come as no surprise, given that he's currently heading an authoritarian regime. It also explains his catching name as Europe's last dictator. Anyway, under his regime, the voice of independent media has been silenced, international relations are rocky at best, there are lots of political prisoners and folks who have been "disappeared," and I did air quotes there, there is evidence of assassination plans on dissidents, I think you might remember a plane being hijacked by their air force recently, that was him too. And let's not forget, the hallmark of authoritarianism, elections are neither free nor fair, and the 2020 elections were no exception. After Sergei announced his intention to rival Lukashenko in the elections, he was arrested two days later. In response to her husband's arrest, Svetlana then announced that she'd replace her partner and proceeded to run as Lukashenko's main rival. Together, with the assistance of the wife of yet another jailed activist, as well as a third female Campaign Manager, the trio women formed a political coalition with Svetlana as the face of the resistance. Now, these heroines have garnered quite a bit of attention from the country's female populace and drew so much support that apparently Svetlana won about 75% of the tallied vote when it came to the elections.
Now, an unexpected plot twist here, Lukashenko claimed that he won in a landslide, declaring himself as the winner of the 2020 presidential election. As you can imagine, this enraged most of the Belarus voting population, because not only are they way past ready to throw him out of office, they were also really excited by the prospect of Svetlana becoming a president, the legs of which they have never seen before. The largest anti-government protests in Belarus is modern history, have ensued over Lukashenko's fraudulent results and protests have been met unfortunately with massive hostility. Violence from government authorities, protesters have been faced with violent assault, harassment and persecution, and an investigation done by the United Nations Human Rights Office cited over 450 documented cases of torture of detainees, and that doesn't even cover the reports of sexual abuse and rape. Meanwhile, Svetlana has gone into hiding out of concerns for her personal safety and that of her children, and she has since been safely self-exiled in Lithuania. But there's that saying that like exile never stopped the woman or man, maybe there's a phrase like that somewhere out there. Anyway, from residency in Lithuania, Svetlana has continued to make active strides to remove Lukashenko from office. She's released a series of videos where she's clarified the election results, she's called for sanctions against Belarus and Lukashenko's government, which have been enacted by the EU and most recently by the United States, and she even released a black list of government police and soldiers who have been invoked in the violent government crackdown on protests, which has since been dubbed Taraikovsky's list, named after the first officially confirmed death of a protester named Alexander Taraikovsky at the hands of police. Accordingly, Lukashenko is no longer recognized as the president of Belarus by the United States, the United Kingdom or the EU, but is still regarded as such, by nations with similar forms of government like Russia or China. So all of this to say that your history making might not produce a happy ending every time, and in fact can sometimes be quite painful, however, as Svetlana has demonstrated and continues to show the world, you don't need lots of fireworks or double rainbows to change people's lives.
The outcome of Svetlana's actions and activism might not yet be the ideal she's been hoping for, but I'd like to think that history will record her in a favorable light, as she clearly still has a lot of fight left in her. We're gonna be thinking the best for her and for the country of Belarus. Sometimes it really does just take a woman or three to ensure the best kind of revolutionary chaos. And for that, we are grateful. Alejandra, thank you so much for supporting our episode today with your incredible, incredible expertise and the really empowering messages that you brought with you.
Alejandra: Thank you for having me. I had a great time.
Lorelei: Our pleasure. Now, if you enjoyed this conversation and you have not already subscribed or followed the show, please do so, and you can even leave us some sort of rating, a review or your thoughts. You can send me an email, the email is [email protected] [dot] org and I will be sure to link that in the show notes 'cause it's a mouthful. I'm Loreleii and this was HERdacious. Until next time, go out there and lead some revolutions, big or small, we can all change the world in some powerful way. The end.