How Are Humans “Programmed to Learn” Microaggressions?

I believe we all have filters through which we interpret and make sense of the world. But sometimes — these filters fail us and when that happens, we fail to make positive, meaningful connections with others.

When writing about interpersonal experiences, I like to position my sociocultural identities. What I mean by position is, I want to describe the parts of me that intersect with one another, with parts that I may not know I have, and with parts of you — my audience.

I was raised in a predominantly White, rural town located in the foothills of North Carolina. I grew up with my mom, who is White and she was a single mother for most of my childhood and still to this day. Because of our circumstances, we were working-class growing up. I am biracial (my father is Black) and I identify as a Black biracial woman. My sexual orientation is bisexual, my gender expression is queer, and my gender identity is cisgender. I use she/her pronouns. I am able-bodied. I am agnostic, but practiced Christianity growing up. My family is religious, but not in a conservative way. The things I continue to learn and observe inform every part of who I am, specifically the filters through which I process new information. I believe we all have filters through which we interpret and make sense of the world. But sometimes — these filters fail us and when that happens, we fail to make positive, meaningful connections with others.

Microaggressions, or pesky mosquitoes, interrupt our ability to pause and think critically before passively interacting with another person. This is because we are “programmed for learning ” (Jacob 1991, as cited in Freire, 1998). Unfortunately, many of us have been the givers and receivers of microaggressions because of how we were programmed to interact with people; stemming from our distinct families of origin.

The mosquito metaphor was a lighthearted way of viewing a harmful concept; palatable, but not in a juicy way. When we don’t properly season the complexities of our identities, we end up with an under cooked concept. Instead, I like the approach of Freire (1998) in explaining the social construction of ideas, which is to “discuss with students the logic of these kinds of knowledge [or concepts] in relation to their contents” (p. 36). For instance, I resonate with the hair touching and the Angry Black WomanTM microaggressions against feminine presenting individuals who are melanated. Although, I am afforded “light privilege” because of my lighter brown complexion (Hargrove, 2018, p. 3). This privilege was a confusing reality to understand as a child — even into young adulthood — because I didn’t have an established Black community of friends and family growing up. Therefore, I once interpreted microaggressions such as hair touching/petting of my coily curls as a compliment¬†because people were so amazed and fascinated with my otherworldly hair. I refused to be further objectified when I learned what microaggressions were in undergrad, specifically the informed language to articulate why hair touching was insulting because of the historical and cultural context of hair across the Black diaspora. Furthermore, the idea of being aggressively rude because of one’s skin tone is another way I was conditioned to sit back and observe growing up, rather than take a stand and speak up when things were not quite right. I don’t think the mosquito video offered us the nuance of cultural factors, such as the different elements I outlined here.

Overall, my critique of how information is presented, such as microaggressions, is supported by Freire’s (1998) concept that “critical reflection on practice is a requirement of the relationship between theory and practice. Otherwise, theory becomes “blah, blah, blah,” and practice, pure activism” (p. 30).

2 thoughts on “How Are Humans “Programmed to Learn” Microaggressions?

  1. brittanyshaughnessy

    Stephanie, thank you for your post. I found your post to be really insightful, and provided a different perspective for microaggressions than the one that I wrote about in my blog post. I know that as a white person, I can never understand what it is like to be in your position. Those microaggressions are never okay, and it’s always bizarre to feel like you are ~so different~ just because the texture of your hair is different. I agree with your qualm as well–I think that especially in today’s society, it is easy to think that everyone can be a radical activist, and always feel empowered to stand up and stand your ground in such situations. This fails to account for the nuances that are in our everyday lives. Sometimes it is genuinely not appropriate to cause an entire scene and disrupt everyone’s day to tell someone that you don’t enjoy their chin on your shoulder. Sometimes it really is not the “time or place” for that. My question for you is: Do you think we will get to a place in American society where it *will* always be the time and place for these conversations? Or will we not get there? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts :).

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  2. alisafi

    Thanks for your very interesting post, Stephenie! I agree that taking a stand and speaking up is important. However, how to react is a subtle issue and we must react with a lot of care. In many situations, the person who does the microaggression might not even be aware of it and as you said, he or she is “programmed” to do the microaggression. So if we react harshly, it might have a reverse effect. Not only it does not take away the incorrect biases of our audience but reinforces them on the contrary. On the other hand, if we do not speak up, our audience might continue to do the microaggression which is not an option. The best option is to increase the awareness of our audience by explaining how we feel because of their behavior, without being aggressive. We can even acknowledge that we know they do not have any bad intentions to not put them in a defensive position and make our word effective.

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