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19. How Many Fingers am I Holding up?

Once you start a podcast, you will have moments in your life where something happens and your first thought is, I need to make an episode about this. I was waiting in line for coffee a few weeks ago when a random person came up behind me and asked “albinism?”. Turns out this guy was an ophthalmologist with a medical degree who was just really curious about a stranger's genes. And the fact that a medical professional with years upon years of training thought it was okay to go up to a random person without even introducing themselves and inquire about their health made me realize that I need to write an episode about microaggressions. My first instinct after hearing this was to say, “My name is Marissa, thanks for asking,” or “do you want a gold star for getting it right?” But instead, I had a conversation with him and I told him about this podcast. So there is a very, very slim chance that he's listening right now. So without further ado, let's talk about microaggressions or subtle acts of exclusion.

*Intro Music*

Hello, everyone. I hope you are all doing well and surviving finals season if you’re a student to the best of your ability. I am really excited to make this episode and I've been sitting on this topic for a while. I called this episode “How many fingers am I holding up?” because I remember in middle school, there'd be a few instances where my friends would shove their grubby little fingers in my face and ask me if I could see how many they were holding up. And obviously, they were my friends. I don't think they had any malicious intentions, but I remember it would just leave this pit in my stomach. It would make me uncomfortable, but I didn't really know why or how to advocate for myself, which is why I wanted to make an episode about these more subtle forms of exclusion and how to address them in a way that will lead to meaningful change.

Now, I'm sure many of you have heard about microaggressions, whether that be in your classes or in pretty Instagram graphics, but I think it's a good idea to give a baseline definition so we're all on the same page. Here's one that I found that I like: microaggressions are harmful questions, comments, or actions that occur casually, frequently, and often without any negative intentions.

For some of my listeners who may be less familiar with the concept, I think it's really important to give some examples before diving deeper into what microaggressions mean and why I think they're important. While I was conducting research for this episode. I found an article listing microaggressions that can occur during an IEP meeting.

And I think it's the perfect scenario to highlight because, in theory, it's supposed to be a meeting where you're surrounded by your team, your parents, your teachers, administrators, any kind of aid that you have, but harmful comments and actions can still occur even in the seemingly supportive environment. Some examples include teachers assuming that the student is not in an advanced class or on a diploma track or interested in extracurricular activities because of their disability. It could be comments, like, “I don't know how you do it,” or other remarks that make it sound like the student is in some sort of tragic situation. I think one of the biggest examples is assuming that the student can't participate in the meeting. I think that kindergartners should be in their IEP meetings. Even if they can't sit through the entire meeting, they could do something like write a letter or prepare a video, or just come in for the first five minutes to share what they need.

There are also several instances in which racism can come into play during these IEP meetings. And obviously, while I can't speak to it personally, here are some of the examples from the article. It could be assuming that the child will be on SSI or disability benefits for the rest of their life or that their father isn't in the picture or that they're on free or reduced lunch, not to say that these things could never be true, but rather that it is the automatic assumption that teachers and administrators are going into the meeting with. One of the most harmful notions that can crop up, and this is especially in regard to learning disabilities or behavioral issues, is that the child doesn't want to learn or doesn't want to behave or doesn't want to succeed. If you've ever been around teachers outside of the classroom, you know that they occasionally like to complain about students. And I'm not saying that there should never be a space for that. Everyone loves to complain. I love to complain. One could argue that is why I made this episode. But I think it can be very easy to assume that a child wants to be a jerk or that they don't care about school, they don't care about their education that people in other countries would kill for. I feel like you hear that one a lot amongst boomers. I'm no child psychologist by any stretch, but I think behavior is more complicated than a child thinking to themselves, “oh, I want to be a jerk today.” It's more complex than them being a bad person or wanting to be a bad person. And this is a prime example of microaggressions because this notion can come across subtly through comments and reactions during an IEP meeting, but it could really impact the kind of therapy and other assistance that the child's receiving.

So far, I have been using the term microaggressions, but I actually prefer the framework developed by Dr. Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran in the book Subtle Acts of Exclusion. I highly recommend this book. It's what inspired me to write this episode in the first place. And it helped me get an idea of how to constructively talk about hurtful comments when I see them pop up in my daily life, which I'll be talking about later in the session. But they specifically coined the term subtle acts of exclusion to highlight three key characteristics.

Firstly, they are subtle, there is a wide variety of actions that can insult, exclude or harm people. The authors are the first to admit that these microaggressions can be very subtle, confusing, or challenging to identify, especially if you're not a member of the group that's being targeted in a particular comment. Next, they are acts. They are things people say and do that have an impact regardless of their intentions. And finally, they serve to exclude, even if a person didn't intend it, the action had the impact of making somebody feel less than making them feel unwelcome like they're a burden or an outcast. They promote exclusion rather than inclusion.

Even though it's definitely not as zingy as microaggressions, I really like this term because I think it effectively separates the intention from the action. I think people can get very defensive when they hear the term microaggression because they think that the person is saying that they are a bad person or that they meant to harm somebody when oftentimes that is not the case. I think the term “micro” can also imply that these instances of exclusion are not as important. I know it's a huge thing for conservative commentators and YouTube to make fun of how sensitive college students are nowadays, the fact that they need trigger warnings or safe spaces, and that they're all worried about microaggressions. But the truth is, if a person experiences several of these seemingly small acts of exclusion throughout their daily life, it can make them feel unwelcome in their campus or their hometown. In essence, even if something seems small or unimportant to you, it can do real harm.

And while acknowledging their importance, it is equally as crucial to admit that everyone commits subtle acts of exclusion, we are all not perfect. We all make mistakes. While in this episode, I'll primarily be talking about microaggressions surrounding disability that I've been on the receiving end of because that's what I can speak to most from my personal experience, that doesn't mean that I'm some angel that has never said anything that was tone-deaf before. So as we get into some of the examples about how I've experienced microaggressions throughout my life as a disabled person, keep in mind that it is a very, very, very small sliver of the pie.

When I started to brainstorm for this episode, I essentially had a huge list of things people say or do that bothered me, and made me feel like a burden. But I think it's more productive to think about these microaggressions in terms of underlying themes. So I ended up creating some categories or buckets of microaggressions that I've experienced throughout my life. The authors of subtle acts of exclusion use the following phrases to convey the underlying meaning of these microaggressions. They send the message that:

You are invisible.

You are inadequate.

You are not an individual.

You do not belong.

You are not normal.

You are a curiosity.

You are a threat or,

you are a burden.

Once again, it doesn't mean that a person is saying that directly or intending to make someone feel excluded. What matters is that their actions are conveying that message.

The first broad theme I've noticed in my life is an assumption of lower intelligence or making assumptions about a person's capabilities based solely on their status as a disabled person. This most often crops up when people speak to you in a higher-pitched tone of voice, as they would talk to a child or when they shout at you, which is so confusing to me because I'm blind…I can still hear you. A lot of times for people with albinism and other visual disabilities, we have to deal with the assumption that physical disabilities are always accompanied by intellectual disabilities. I saw these sorts of albinism business cards on Facebook that you could hand out to people who were curious about what albinism is. And one of the last bullets is something along the lines of “albinism doesn't impact my intelligence” and the fact that that needs to be put on a business card says something about what we experience. Some other examples include speaking to friends and family rather than the disabled person directly, or assuming that they struggle to do basic daily living tasks. That's not to say there aren't people out there who need more assistance, but the problem comes in when people assume that every disabled person is the same and that they all should essentially be treated like such. What that conveys to me is that you don't see me as an individual.

Next is lack of autonomy or assuming that disabled people cannot advocate for their own wants and needs. And this is a great example of what microaggressions can look like because these types of scenarios usually pop up when people are trying to help you. The way that I typically experience it is that someone will ask me if I need assistance, I'll decline. And then they'll say something along the lines of, “oh, no, no, no. Let me help.” I get that most people in these situations are trying to be nice and chivalrous, but it makes me feel like you're not listening. I've talked about this in other episodes, but grabbing a blind person as they're trying to cross the street, or as they're in the train station is another example of not respecting somebody's autonomy. Keep in mind though, this does not apply if a piano is about to fall on my head. In that case, I don't care. I think what's interesting about this type of subtle active exclusion is that I think it occurs most often with people you know. At least when I first think about microaggressions, I think of the random questions or rude comments I've gotten from strangers on the street. But the reality is that everyone commits subtle acts of exclusion, right? So that includes your family and your friends. And so even if they're trying to be helpful and do what's best for you, it can still make you feel invisible. Like your voice isn't being heard.

Next on my list is pathologizing disability, or assuming that every person with a disability has a worse life than an able-bodied person, which we talk about on this show quite a bit, because I think as all of you know, I really don't like this assumption. But to quickly go over some microaggressions that can fall under this category. It could include somebody asking to pray for you. Somebody saying things like “I could never imagine being in your position. I don't know how you do it.” It could be assuming that a disabled person is never going to hold a full-time job, live on their own, or find a romantic partner, or it could even be insisting that somebody not stem or that they make direct eye contact. Because even if it's more challenging for them to do so, the assumption is that they're quote unquote abnormal social behaviors are bad.

Next is homogeneity or assuming that all disabled people are alike and that they have the same interests and outcomes in life. I think this could apply to a lot of the other microaggressions I was saying earlier, but I think it deserves its own category. I think for blind people this often crops up when people assume that every blind person uses a white cane full time, or that every blind person has a guide. In regards to autism, there's the stereotype that all autistic people are teenage boys that like trains and are apathetic. I think this one always hit me the hardest when during IEP meetings, teachers would be surprised that they would have a student in honors or AP classes that had an IEP or needed accommodations.

Another theme that often pops up in IEP meetings or in regards to accommodations, is what I think could best be described as the myth of meritocracy or the idea that disabled people could be successful if they tried harder, despite lacking adequate support systems. Like I was saying earlier, this crops up when teachers assume that a student won't do something, rather than that they can't. It pops up when people assume that those with disabilities are lazy or unmotivated or that they're relying on government benefits. I talked about this in episode 10 when I was discussing inspiration porn, but the photos of somebody in a wheelchair or running with a prosthetic leg with the caption, “what's your excuse?” And I think these types of remarks and attitudes are especially harmful because I think they create a very unhealthy relationship between success and failure for disabled people. I was in a mock trial competition in high school, and there was a, there was a portion of the trial where I had to essentially read part of a witness's statement, but I was really struggling because I couldn't find where the appropriate text was and I was having trouble reading it because it was all printed out. And I felt so embarrassed after that competition, I felt like it was my fault for not being able to read it as clearly as a sighted person would have been. But now looking back on it, I think, “Why didn't I get help? Why did I blame myself Instead of thinking about ways I could make the competition more equitable for me?”

So the next item on my list, I think some people may not expect, and that is ignoring or denying disability. This is very closely related with the idea of colorblindness or “I don't see race. I don't see color. I don't see disability.” I've had people say that they're surprised I'm blind or I've had friends tell me that they forget I have a visual impairment, which I understand to a degree that life happens. Right? But I don't think comments like this send the best message. Because here's what I think, usually when strangers say this it's because they're surprised by how competent someone is. Another phrase sometimes thrown around is I forget you have a disability because you are so friendly, intelligent, competent, et cetera.

I get what these types of comments people are usually trying to be nice and trying to let you know that they don't think your disability defines you. But honestly, it doesn't feel great to hear because it almost feels like you're ignoring part of my identity. And that the only reason you don't think I'm disabled is that I'm acting perfectly. And that if I mess up, then you'll find out. Like heaven forbid I get lost or can't find something. It sets up a really stressful and uncomfortable relationship for me.

My final category does not happen that often with visual disabilities, but it happens quite a bit with albinism and that is exotification, essentially treating someone like they are an oddity or zoo animal. Admittedly, the line between compliment and microaggression in these types of situations can be very, very thin. But I think what makes the difference is that what makes me uncomfortable is when people emphasize how strange I look or that they've never seen anyone look like me before the emphasis is that I'm a rare creature or a unique find.

And of course, in some ways I am quite a treasure, but not just because of albinism! When I was in middle school, there was a woman who pointed at me from across an arcade and shouted, “look, there's an albino!” So that's a pretty obvious example, but it could also occur if someone starts commenting about how weird your hair looks or starts touching it, especially without asking, which I really don't understand why people think that they can just touch someone's hair. It could include staring into somebody's eyes because you're in complete and utter shock that they are blue and not red like albinos should be. Also, in that same vein, assuming that every single person with albinism is related to one another. Let me tell you from personal experience, nothing makes a date better than when a waiter comes up to you and asks if you're brother and sister.

So now that I have given you a huge list of things you shouldn't do and things that you should look out for in terms of microaggressions regarding disability, let’s talk about how to address them. As Dr. Tiffany, Janet and Michael Baran explained in their book, the hardest part about discussing microaggressions is pausing the conversation. It can seem like you have such a short amount of time to intervene, especially if it's just a sentence or a phrase. I think there've been several moments in my life where I was in a group having a conversation. And somebody said something that made me feel off, but I didn't really feel like I had time to address it because immediately somebody else was speaking. Now this isn't to imply that you have to be the language police and have to intervene every single time you hear something. I don't think that's really possible for anybody. I think that would be incredibly exhausting emotionally. But if a coworker is making objectifying remarks about women, that's making people uncomfortable. Or if someone is asking you really invasive and inappropriate questions about your disability, you should have the tools to answer. You could say something like, “hold on, let's pause” or “why don't we talk about that for a minute?” It can be extremely daunting to work up the momentary courage to say something in a few split seconds. However, slowing down and pausing the conversation gives you the opportunity to actually discuss what happened rather than brush it off or build up feelings of resentment.

What happens next depends on where you are in this. Are you the recipient, the initiator, or the bystander? If you were on the receiving end of a subtle act of exclusion, it's important to explain why that comment or behavior made you feel upset using I statements. Now, if you weren't in pure mediation, like this gal was in middle school, I statements emphasize your feelings. So you could say something like, “I feel uncomfortable when you shove your fingers in my face and ask me how many you were holding up because one you're invading my personal space. And two, it makes me feel like I am being tested and put on display.” I think it can be very easy to jump to accusatory language and call people out, which quite frankly, if they're making someone feel excluded, I think is deserved. But if you want to change their behavior and have a constructive conversation, being overly confrontational is just going to make them more defensive and guarantee that they will not listen to anything you say. If at the moment you're feeling extremely frustrated and overwhelmed, you can always ask to pause and have a conversation about it later, but keep in mind that you are not obligated to educate the other person. Google exists for a reason. You don't have to be a human glossary or give them a 200-year history lesson because the American education system failed them. If they have questions you don't have the time or emotional capacity to answer, just tell them to do their own research. As someone who did their own research to write this episode, I can guarantee you, they will find something.

Now, what if instead, you are the initiator? When I was in high school, I took a Modern American Issues course and we were talking about public education versus private schools, charter schools, and even homeschooling. I, trying to be funny, asked my teacher, “So can you tell when kids came from homeschool, like is there just something off about them?” I was up on my high horse, but lo and behold, there was indeed a homeschooler in our class who was probably perfectly well adjusted and who was probably pretty hurt by my comment. So if I could time travel and go back to my Modern American Issues class, here's what I'd do.

First off. It's extremely important to try as best as you can not to be defensive. Defensiveness doesn't always mean getting angry and shouting at people. It can also look like over-apologizing. I think sometimes when I get embarrassed, I just want to get the interaction over with as quickly as possible. I'll say something like, “oh, I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. “ And then just try to leave as quickly as I can. However, when you're doing that, you're not giving a sincere apology instead, you’re just trying to shut them up and run away. Instead, be curious and empathetic. Try to listen more than you speak and try to avoid phrases like, “oh, I didn't know that,” or “I didn't mean to hurt you.” Because frankly, what matters is your impact - Not your intentions. If you're in a place where you're feeling super anxious, overwhelmed, and ashamed about what happened, you can ask to talk about it later, but it is crucial that you follow up.

The homeschooler in question never confronted me, but looking back, I wish I had gone up to him a day or two after it happened and said, “Hey, I was thinking a lot about what I said in class a few days ago. And I realized how insensitive I was. I wasn't being considerate of people from other backgrounds. And I wanted to apologize to you.” I think a concise apology that demonstrates you were reflecting on your actions and their impact will do a lot more than saying I'm sorry, over and over again, in the heat of the moment.

And finally, if you are the bystander, I think this is by far the most difficult situation to be in because you don't want to completely ignore a comment if it was hurtful. But at the same time, you don't want to speak for other people or for communities that you aren't a part of. What Dr. Tiffany Jana and Michael Baron recommend is if you're intervening as a bystander, explain why you think someone on the receiving end of that comment or joke might find it offensive, but don't make over-generalizations or assume that everyone in a particular group is going to feel the exact same way about it. They also recommend that if you think a particular person in a group was hurt by what somebody said, don’t call them out directly. Don't say something like, “I think Sam would find that really offensive” because that puts the spotlight on them. And if they don't feel ready or comfortable to talk about it, you probably will just make it worse.

In general, be empathetic, compassionate, and open-minded. Try to listen more than you talk. If you've gotten this far in the episode, you're probably good at that. But for me, someone who likes to shout at my iPad, it's probably something I need to work on. It can be really challenging, but try to give yourself and other people as much grace as possible. We are all human and that means we're guaranteed to make mistakes/

Well, everyone, I hope you enjoyed today's episode and found some of the information I listed useful. Once again, reading the book Subtle Acts of Exclusion by Dr. Tiffany Janet and Michael Barron was super helpful in writing this episode, especially the last portion about how to address microaggressions. I highly recommend reading this book, especially if you're in any kind of leadership position because it gives a very thorough outline of what subtle acts of exclusion are and how you can address them in the workplace. If you liked today's episode, make sure to subscribe to Legally Blonde & Blind on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Google podcasts, or anywhere else you get your shows. You can also follow my social media pages @legallybb_ on Instagram and Legally Blonde & Blind on Facebook.

I've actually decided to take a bit of a break from podcasting this summer. I want to improve the quality of my episodes and my editing skills. Maybe even get a microphone for recording. Wouldn't that be something? I want to do some rebranding, and make this podcast more accessible by transcribing each and every episode. And maybe even make a website, which I have no idea how to do, but this time two years ago, I had no idea how to make a podcast. So we'll get there

Anyway, thank you all for listening, and I hope to see you soon!


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