Microaggressions, Political Correctness, Growth Mindset

I’m hoping this post will end up more well-thought-out-deliberation than rambling-haphazard-rant, but if not, at least you had this preface as a warning!

I’ve recently been trying to find the words to articulate and respond to a frequently occurring phenomenon that I do not enjoy. I’ve witnessed it in personal and professional contexts; it usually irks me a lot to begin with and then I’m more flummoxed when I realize I don’t know how to respond. The general description: when someone either (1) gets called out on a microaggression (or act of blatant prejudice/discrimination) and becomes defensive; (2) when someone jokes about how “sensitive everyone is nowadays.”

The first time I saw this Washington Post cartoon I shouted “YES.”

A recent library-related example that comes to mind: A few months ago I was at an internal staff training on microaggressions – specifically how to intervene as a bystander when you see them happening. The training was fantastic and was led by Dr. Negar Shekarabi, Interim Coordinator of the UCI Faculty & Staff Mental Health Care & Respondent Services, and Dr. Kanwar Pahwa of the UCI Counseling Center. They went over a variety of potential scenarios, including patrons and staff as both aggressor and victim. They went over intent vs. affect, different strategies for intervention and deescalation, and things to keep in mind for specific groups. Overall: fantastic training. However, a few times during the training a few of the participants made comments that definitely fall into the aforementioned second category. It’s been a few months, so I can’t remember exact phrasing, but basically expressing mild incredulity at the level of sensitivity that was being taught/explored and joking about “sensitiveness” and “political correctness.” The instructors handled it well, but it struck me that these people, who work in public services (as all of the participants did) would be so surprised/bewildered by the level of sensitivity that was being advocated for. The instructors’ presentation had highlighted that these strategies and language would add to the comfort level and feelings of acceptance within our students. Why would a librarian not want to do everything in their power to do so for their students?

OK, so now for a few reflections and feelings/thoughts as they have evolved over the last few months:

  • Many aspects of all this really clicked into place for me when I started viewing it through the Dweck “growth mindset” lens. The mindset theory is that there are two major mindsets that people invoke when faced with a problem: the fixed mindset, which dictates that intelligence/talent/ability levels are fixed, inherent, and cannot really be changed; and the growth mindset, which dictates that intelligence/talent/ability levels can be changed through effort and application.
  • When I apply the mindset lens, it helps me understand some of the actions of others. For instance, I was so surprised with the library staff member who was bewildered by training on microaggression sensitivity, who even laughingly asked something like “when will I *know* that I’m being sensitive enough, since so much of it is unintentional?” Similarly, I am surprised at people who get exasperated about the constraints of “political correctness” and “not being able to make jokes anymore.” Obviously these examples are not all the same level, but I see one thing at the root of all of them: a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset that asks “how much is enough?” “when will I be able to relax?” and “why do people care about things now that they didn’t used to?”
  • This helps me formulate my response, which is: it is a process, especially if you belong to any dominant groups. You will never reach a number of trainings or check off enough boxes and suddenly *be* culturally competent and sensitive to all. It is not a fixed endpoint goal – rather it is about developing a growth mindset around microaggressions, cultural competence, and sensitivity. And this is key: not because you HAVE TO, but because it is a nice thing to do. I am still bewildered when people see this as a burden rather than a challenge to better themselves and their public service (or, in a non-professional context, their interactions-with/treatment-of other humans). But approaching it with the mindsets in mind I can respond as the wonderful presenters did: each time they replied that the act of showing up to the training was one step and that the process of becoming an effective bystander/advocate is just that: a process.
  • I think that too often fixed mindsets tend to coincide with(usual false) binaries. When, in reality, we know that life is really much more about spectrums, about the continuum between extremes. Thus one is not “politically correct” or “not politically correct,” and thinking about it that way is reductive. Rather, acknowledge that it is a process – don’t use that to let yourself off the hook when it comes to doing the work of improving, but use it as a way to say: I am trying. And when you get called out: don’t offer excuses, apologize, and do better next time. Near the beginning of her wonderful essay, “Bad Feminist,” Roxane Gay explains: “I fall short as a feminist. I feel like I am not as committed as I need to be, that I am not living up to feminist ideals because of who and how I choose to be” (if you’ve not read the essay, or the book, go do so now).  Near the end of the essay she comes to a conclusion that rings so true with the growth mindset ideas I’ve been circling: “No matter what issues I have with feminism, I am one. I cannot nor will not deny the importance and absolute necessity of feminism. Like most people, I’m full of contradictions, but I also don’t want to be treated like shit for being a woman. I am, therefore, a bad feminist. I would rather be a bad feminist than no feminist at all.” This is so very much how I feel about cultural competence, both within librarianship and in general: I am not perfect, but I am trying. I will continue to develop my knowledge and skills, I will apologize when I fall short, and I will strive to improve. I’m hoping that this mindset framework will help me navigate professional and personal instances like the aforementioned in the future, in the hopes that my workplace, profession, and community will change for the better.
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