Microaggressions, Relationships and the Church: Subtle or Unintentional Prejudices

by Katy Miles-Wallace (reprinted from Faith + Lead with permission of author)

I think about the times I’ve marked “white, Hispanic descent” on forms and heard “Well, you don’t look it.” Or the times that I’ve mentioned my spouse or even said “my wife” and been met with “So, tell me about your husband.” Or the times when people talk about indigenous land as where “native people used to live.” Or when people assume that I should just be able to buy a car, go on vacation, or otherwise be financially stable. Or the times when… I could go on for a really long time, not because I hold these microaggressions close but because they happen so frequently.

For reference, I’m non-binary and use both she and they pronouns. I identify as queer though I’m also part of the lesbian community. I’m white-faced and of various Anglo origins but also Mex-Indigenous, I’m neurodivergent but not to the extent that it interrupts my life, and I currently work three part-time contracts in church work. For any person with minority identities, microaggressions are incredibly common and really quite painful. For people who hold multiple minority identities, Intersectional Minorities, those microaggressions are compounded and can make a person feel as though their whole self is invalid.

What are microaggressions anyway?

Merriam-Webster defines them this way:

“a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”

Let’s pause here to highlight the “unconsciously or unintentionally” portion. We all do this. Even people who are minorities can use microaggressions towards other minority groups and sometimes even their own. It doesn’t make us bad people. These are learned behaviors and phrases that have made their way into common culture. We can and should do better. We just have to be willing to learn how and try harder to avoid these types of statements and actions.

There are three basic types of microaggression:

  • Microassaults – Overt and intentional, such as using racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or other types of slurs.
  • Microinsults – More subtle and maybe less intentional, like suggesting that a disabled person only got their job so a company could meet staffing quotas for disability.
  • Microinvalidations – Largely unintentional and may go unnoticed at the moment by those they hurt but definitely cause discomfort and seek to invalidate the experience of the minority person (such as suggesting that a minority person is overreacting or imagining a perceived slight).

What do these look like in church life?

They are present when:

  • a person of color (POC) is present in the congregation and is treated like “the help,” interrupted, talked over, or ignored
  • we assume people of color will only be comfortable in other denominations or with praise or gospel worship styles
  • an LGBTQIA2S+ person in the congregation is assumed to be there seeking some sort of conversion from their “lifestyle”
  • a same-sex couple are assumed to be related or roommates (anything but a couple) or are asked “So, who’s the opposite sex in the relationship?”
  • pronouns or name changes are ignored/dismissed as being “too hard to remember”
  • we assume LGBTQIA2S+ people (including staff!) will be comfortable at lock-ins, with gendered singing parts, in gendered Bible studies or retreats
  • a neurodivergent person is asked to leave worship because their divergency causes them to be disruptive to others
  • important meetings don’t include options such as interpreters for the hearing-impaired
  • congregants are judged more by what they offer financially than in time or talent, or are excluded from congregational activities by cost
  • people are asked to leave worship or are otherwise ostracized because of the state of their personal hygiene
  • multicultural celebrations are dismissed as “something we just don’t do” or “pagan”
  • blatantly false accusations of criminal actions are made on the basis of a person’s color, gender, or sexuality

If these microaggressions are so small, why do they matter?

As the phrase goes, microaggressions are death by a thousand cuts. When you’re a person who encounters these on a daily basis, they add up and have even been shown to be a detriment to mental health. That’s just for the smallest microaggressions. Larger ones, like false criminal accusations, could ruin a life. These words and actions may be small but they pack an exponentially bigger punch.

In the church, the situation is even more dire. Your words and actions can imply things about the love God has for people. We have the power to make people believe that God doesn’t love them, when it’s really us who have the problem loving.

So, what do we do?

There are some major things church leaders can do to minimize microaggressions:

  • Check yourself. Take an implicit bias test. (Try Harvard’s Project Implicit). The first step in curbing damaging ways you might be interacting with people is to see you do have bias. The second step is working against your own bias to diminish it.
  • De-gender everything. I do mean everything. Break your hymns in high and low voices. Figure out a different way to divide your study groups and retreats, maybe by age or marital status. Get bold and make your bathrooms gender neutral. Explore Biblical Translations like The Inclusive Bible for use in worship settings.
  • Use nametags with pronouns. Offer name tags at every gathering of your staff or congregation. They can be reusable or disposable but normalize people wearing their names and pronouns. This will also make it easier if someone changes their name or pronouns to not have to remember it so quickly.
  • Invite People of Color. This doesn’t just mean a seat in the room, but a voice at the table which is respectfully heard. POC should be just as valued, just visible in the church, and just as included in the leadership as any white person. Inviting them/us shows you want them/us there! Be respectful when hearing a declination and when offering another invite.
  • Recognize people who contribute time and talents. This could be as simple as having a “Thanks” part of a service one Sunday.
  • Practice radical welcome. Not everyone who walks through our doors is pleasant but everyone has a right to be there, even if they smell, even if they have conditions which lead to disruptions, even if they’re poor, or gay, or trans, or black, or speak Spanish or Arabic.
  • Include sign language and closed captions. This might mean making sure that you have an interpreter for national and regional gatherings or that you and your congregation commit to learning at least the Lord’s Prayer in sign language. It should definitely mean you include closed captions on any videos of any kind.
  • Ask questions. The truth of microaggressions is that they happen when we assume things. We assume why people come through the door, why they have the job they do, that they’ll be comfortable in certain spaces with certain things, etc. It is our assumptions that cause harm. Ask questions instead. Try things like, “What style of worship do you prefer?” or “Do you speak more than one language?” or “What pronouns do you use?” or “Would it be helpful to….”. This also includes questions of consent similar to those asked by Jesus in Scripture, i.e. “Do you want to be healed?”

The truth is our assumptions allow us to keep people at a distance. This is even more true when those assumptions reinforce stereotypes and do just enough harm to keep people away. We do a better service to all around us, and to the Christ who desired we be in community, when we engage in legitimate relationship by getting to know individuals.

The Long and Short of It

Above all, we have to recognize that in the face of every person we meet, we look into the eyes of God and see one of the zillions of facets of an eternal being that we cannot even begin to understand. Working on reducing microaggressions is a form of working to better love God through our love of our neighbors and ourselves.

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Katy Miles-Wallace serves as the Inclusivity, Diversity, and Equity Coordinator and Lay Leadership Academy Coordinator for the Southwestern Texas Synod, ELCA.  Katy is also an artist specializing in iconographic depictions of saints beloved by the LGBTQIA+ community through QueerlyChristian.org