Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Microaggressions: Those Small Acts that Pack a Big, Negative Punch

Guest post by children's librarian at Bank Street College of Education, Allie Jane Bruce.

More and more, the word “microaggression” is cropping up in the world of children’s literature.  A “microaggression” —a term coined by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 — is a tiny act of bigotry. Examples include crossing the street when a dark-skinned stranger appears, giving a groan when the word “Feminism” comes up, or using “homo” as a synonym for “uncool” (Pierce used it to describe only race-related acts, but the word has evolved to encompass bigotry in general). Viewed individually, these acts are almost negligible; taken as a whole, they constitute an evolution of the very nature of bigotry, from overt, conscious and public bigotry to a more nebulous form that is hard to identify and even harder to acknowledge (Sue et al, 2007).

We who work in the field of children’s literature—librarians, teachers, booksellers, authors, illustrators, bloggers, publishers—must be aware of microaggressions. We constantly read aloud, recommend books, and do everything in our power to turn kids into bookworms. As fervently as we extoll the benefits of reading, we must also consider whether the books we love confirm kids’ dignity and worth as human beings, in ways small and large.

What one person perceives as a microaggression may be a non-entity to another. At what point does an incident become a microaggression? What responsibility do I, as a librarian and teacher, have to filter out potentially harmful books?  Is it better not to read something hurtful—or to read it, and then discuss it? These were questions with which I wrestled after a read-aloud incident a few months ago.

The book I chose was Betsy Lewin’s You Can Do It.  There is much to love in this story of an alligator who, cheered on by a good friend, overcomes a bully to win the race. But a seemingly-miniscule element—a hair ribbon—produced a heartrending effect on a member of my audience.
The kindergarten group I read to included a girly-girl.  A very girly girly-girl. We’ll call her Charlotte.  Charlotte loves to read, has a shy smile, likes a good hug, and almost always wears ribbons in her hair. As I held up the book, she observed the ribbon-wearing alligator and smiled.  I showed the title page and cleared my throat, but before I began reading, an argument broke out.  Which character was saying “You can do it!”, and which was the “doer”? The differences of opinion arose because although the cover makes it clear that the alligator wearing the ribbon is saying “You can do it!”, the title page suggests the opposite; it appears that the bare-headed alligator is leading the be-ribboned alligator to something that she will, presumably, do.  Charlotte was adamant that the alligator with the ribbon would be the “doer”. “Let’s find out,” I said, and we began.
As we read, the kids who had guessed correctly—the ribbon-less alligator is the “doer”—celebrated their victory with smiles and “yes!”es. Most of those who had guessed wrong gave a little groan and then recovered. But Charlotte’s face grew dark. Her chin dropped. Her eyes found the floor.  Her whole body curled inward. And she gave a tiny, angry tug at the ribbon in her hair.
Charlotte’s reaction cut straight to my bone. I wondered what was going on in her head. Anger at being wrong? Probably, but was there something else? Was it shame that she was, due to a fashion choice, now classified as a cheerleader rather than a doer? Did she now believe that to have any chance of winning a race, she must remove her ribbon? Or did she extrapolate that girls en masse (after all, the presence of the hair ribbon does, to the casual reader, indicate gender) have no business being doers? 
I tried to salvage it.  I pointed out that we didn’t know whether the main character was a boy or girl. Maybe they were both girls!  No luck.  In the world of picture books (reinforced over and over again, particularly with animals), the clothes make the gender. And even if we did accept that both alligators are female, Charlotte might have been thinking, “female alligators can do it, but not those who wear ribbons”.
I do not know what was in Charlotte’s head, and if not for the look on her face and her extreme body language, I would not have engaged in any sort of analysis after reading this book to the class. It is possible that my response is overly sensitive to Charlotte’s reaction, or that Charlotte’s reaction had to do only with guessing wrong. Ultimately, when analyzing for microaggressions (or, for that matter, macroaggressions), the question is “what effect does this have on its audience?” In this case, You Can Do It positively affected most of the children in my group, who enjoyed the fun, inspiring story. My impression of Charlotte, however, was that she seemed to feel devalued and type-cast. And this reaction—even if it was just Charlotte’s—is valid and deserves consideration. It may or may not rise to the level of “microaggression” classification but, either way, it is a helpful place to start an important conversation because seemingly small slights sometimes pack a disproportionately big punch.

In my opinion, the most dangerous thing about microaggressions is that the dominant group (eg white people, straight people, men, highly educated people…) often can’t see them at all.  They see only a person from the non-dominant culture go to pieces or start a fight over something that looks negligible. They say, “Wow.  ______ people are so sensitive!” or “Why do you have to be so angry?”  Those who experience such feelings then start to believe that their anger is not legitimate, that they are overly sensitive, that the smothering blanket of microaggressions they are wrapped in is their rightful burden.

Teachers, librarians, and parents: Have you ever had an experience similar to the one I describe?  How did you handle it? What conclusions did you draw? Microaggressions are hard to think about and harder to talk about. But we need more conversation, not less. Let’s get started.

Pierce, C. M., Carew, J. V., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Wills, D. 1977. An experiment in racism: TV commercials. Education and Urban Society, 10, 61–87.

Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. 2007. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.

Allie Jane Bruce is Children’s Librarian at the Bank Street College of Education.  She began her career as a bookseller at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. and earned her library degree from Pratt Institute.  She tweets from @alliejanebruce and blogs at http://bankstreetcollegeccl.wordpress.com.


  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post.

  2. Hi Allie. If you remember me from our conversation on Fuse #8 a few weeks ago, it will come as no surprise that I take issue with some points in your post.

    First, there seems to be some psychological projection going on here. Of all of the possible reactions you bring up, the most likely one is that Charlotte was angry at being wrong. To say that she "extrapolated" these abstract thoughts--like "girls en masse can't be doers"--seems a stretch. More likely, the other reactions were YOUR reactions and you projected them onto her.

    Also, you make it seem like those in the "dominant" group can have only two types of reactions to those from a "non-dominant culture": validating their feelings or belittling them. I believe there's at least one other option: legitimizing someone's feelings, but also helping them realize their reaction stems from within and that it doesn't have to depend on someone else. In other words, teaching them that other things and people only have power over you if you give it to them.

    Are you familiar with the word "ressentiment"? I think Wikipedia has a pretty good starting definition:

    "Ressentiment is a reassignment of the pain that accompanies a sense of one's own inferiority/failure onto an external scapegoat. The ego creates the illusion of an enemy, a cause that can be 'blamed' for one's own inferiority/failure. Thus, one was thwarted not by a failure in oneself, but rather by an external 'evil.'"

    Some important things to know about ressentiment: We all suffer from it to some degree and it's easier to see it in others than in ourselves. But once we're aware of it, we can begin to resist it, and we start to realize our strength and value can only come from within; it isn't dependent on things external. That's essentially what ressentiment does, it turns our gaze outward, assigning blame to anyone but ourselves. Our feelings become dependent on what resides outside our control and we end up feeling powerless.

    So how does ressentiment relate to this post? I believe that understanding our ressentiment is the only effective method of overcoming microaggressions. I don't care how much progress we make as a society, we will never eradicate microaggressions totally. I understand the desire to shield our children from them in the books we choose, but I don't think that will prepare them for life. I'm not saying we choose books that are deliberately harmful--not many of those exist anyway--but we should share the books that speak to us, and if a child ends up feeling "de-valued" by that book, we can provide them comfort. But, ultimately, children must find their own strength within, and we can help them do that, only if we're aware of our own ressentiment.

    Let me end on a personal note. I am all of those things you mentioned as traits of the dominant group. I'm also in an interracial marriage, and my 10-month-old daughter is half white, half Japanese. Living in Montana--a place exceedingly white, and, as my wife can attest to, a place where most people are insensitive to matters of race--I know my daughter will experience many microaggressions in her lifetime, and probably more than a few macroaggressions. But I hope to impart to her an awareness of of her own ressentiment and a strength not to succumb to it. I realize this learning process will not be easy. When someone tries to knowingly or unknowingly "devalue" her, I will feel anguish and I will comfort her, but I will also teach her that she is stronger than all that. In my opinion, that's what true education is about. So, if Charlotte were my little girl, you can bet I'd be using that incident as an opportunity to talk to her, validate what she's feeling, and hopefully help her see that someone else may write a book where the girl wearing the ribbon isn't a "doer," but in no way shape or form is that a reflection of who she is or what she's capable of.

  3. Hi again, Bradin. Thanks for reading.

    I am sorry that you felt I left only two options available to those from dominant cultures: validating or belittling. I did not intend to convey that; as I stated at the end, I hope to encourage conversation about what CAN be done in these situations. I did not intend to prescribe anything. I agree with you 100% that those from dominant cultures can help those from non-dominant cultures by legitimizing their feelings and doing whatever they can to offer support as they build their own inner reservoir of strength and fortitude. But why can’t we do that, and ALSO have a conversation with publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, etc. about the messages books are sending? Why can’t we encourage readers—young and old—to BOTH draw on their own inner resources to maintain their senses of self-worth AND speak their minds when something upsets them? I do not see these options as mutually exclusive.

    For example, you read my blog post and disagreed with me. You felt I’d gotten it wrong. Why didn’t you turn inwards, tell yourself that your feelings stem from within, and turn off the computer? Because you felt there was something to be gained from a conversation with me. So you spoke out. And I can't tell you how much I appreciate it, because I want to encourage kids to be like you—speak out when they believe a dialogue could be fruitful. I am calling for a conversation – not emotional scapegoating, not a relocation of from where kids get their sense of self-worth. I agree with you that we need to teach our children that “people only have power over you if you give it to them.” But they can have a conversation about how they feel without handing over power.

    Thanks again for reading!

    1. Thanks for your response, Allie. The way I read it, you’d like more conversation on two levels: 1) among adults in the industry and 2) between kids and adults. I take no issue with the latter. We should encourage kids to speak up more when it comes to their feelings. I believe conversation between kids and adults is healthy, especially if the adult is aware of the psychological processes I pointed out in my first comment.

      Now, depending on what you mean by "[having] a conversation with publishers, authors, booksellers, librarians, etc. about the messages books are sending," I might take issue with that. Because here we venture into the territory of our conversation over at Fuse #8: what kinds of messages should picture books be responsible for?

      To answer this, I think it's helpful to move away from abstractions and focus on particulars. Let's start with the incident you described. What lessons should we take from it? Should we stop using clothes to indicate gender? Should we stop publishing books with be-ribboned characters? Are these things only okay if those characters are shown in an exceedingly positive light? You mentioned a bully in the book. I'm guessing the bully is a male. What if a boy in your storytime felt the depiction of the bully somehow meant he was a bully too? Is that a microaggression, and what should be done about it?

      In fact, how far should we go in demanding what messages belong in picture books? Where do we draw the line and say, okay, this kind of message is a non-issue? For example, right now I'm doing a storytime on foxes. Foxes in picture books often get a bad rap. They're depicted as devious and violent. There are some books where they don't exhibit those qualities, but most of those books are boring, boring. So let’s say a girl shows up at storytime and she just loves foxes so much and she gets sad to see them depicted in such a negative light. We probably both agree it would be a good thing if she voiced her concern and I validated it and perhaps we had a conversation about it. But what else should be done? As the storyteller, should I have chosen the boring books instead, because they lacked negative depictions of foxes? Should creators be more sensitive about how foxes appear in their stories? Since animals in picture books are rarely just animals and often stand for human types and traits, should we stop using foxes to depict these devious and aggressive types? Or maybe we should stop depicting devious and aggressive types in picture books altogether. Do kids really need more negative role models?

      I don't really expect answers to all these questions, but I'm trying to figure out where this line of thinking takes us. Because, in my opinion, once you start saying picture books should have such and such a message in them, then the focus is no longer on what picture books do naturally (i.e., telling a story as artfully as possible within the restraints of the medium) and instead it becomes about whatever personal ressentiments a reader is projecting onto the artform. We then end up with books filled with nothing but positive messages, with not a chance in the world they might offend, but also books that are aesthetically null and dull and that few children would read or remember.

      Roger Sutton (who may not appreciate me dragging his name into this) makes a similar point, I think, in his latest Horn Book editorial, where he describes The Snowy Day as a book that has thrived because "children, regardless of color, recognize [Peter] as one of themselves, his pleasures their own," and because its message was "not handed down from above but built from the ground up." In my opinion, those are the messages picture books should be responsible for, not those "moral imperatives" handed down from above by adults who won't deal with their own ressentiments.

  4. Great post. I'm enjoying the conversation also in the comments.

  5. I have to chime in and agree--great post, and great discussions. There are certainly many things here to think and talk about!

    I was just reminded of this post in looking at a picture book yesterday. I got a little mad that the author/illustrator chose to depict all of the heroes in the book as boys. That probably felt authentic to the creator(s) of the book, but I felt that it was a missed opportunity, and just furthered gender stereotypes. I tend to edit picture books that many would dub "boy books". During the editing process, I've sometimes asked the creators to change the gender of characters, and generally get some resistance, and decide not to push further--but maybe I'll push a little harder next time. Perhaps I'll direct them to this post!