These blogs are an attempt to put the content of Eva’s NVC trainings online into a readable format. If you missed them, here are previous blogs in this series.
Part One: why we study nonviolence
Part Two: the practice of empathy
Part Three: the building blocks of empathy, feelings and needs
Part Four: observations and requests
Part Five: beginning a practice in NVC
Part Six: when enemies appear
Part Seven: the movement needs a repair kit
- Microaggressions are things we say or do, or structures we create, that intentionally or unintentionally send a message to a marginalized group that they do not belong or are less than.
- Microaggressions can impact bystanders who aren’t, themselves, part of the marginalized group in question.
- Animal advocates are familiar with the experience of the role of bystander for anti-animal microaggressions.
- Understanding a repair process for these moments can help animal advocates avoid and respond to microaggressions they inadvertently create for other groups.
- Committing a microaggression might feel like someone else is overreacting to something small we said or did. Understanding layers of observations may help us understand the extent of the impact of our words and actions in these moments.
Before I got involved in activism, I worked in healthcare. Fresh out of college, I held my idea of professionalism tightly and revealed little about myself to colleagues, keeping my exchanges sunny and brief. It was easy to do because my role involved driving by myself to patients’ homes for visits, so I seldom had moments for small talk with colleagues.
One day, after I had been working there for about six months, my team got together for lunch to celebrate an intern’s graduation. It was at a Mediterranean place, so I easily found something to eat. After we sat down with our food, the most veteran team member, Tom, asked what I was eating, and after I told him, asked if I was vegan. I confirmed.
He replied, “Hey, how do you know if someone is vegan? Oh, don’t worry, they’ll tell you!”
I don’t remember what I said next. I probably just laughed, but inside I was seething. If I had had any vegan friends at the time, I would have immediately excused myself to the bathroom to text them. He asked! How does he get to make that joke when he was the one who brought it up!
Here are some things I know about the interaction that day.
- I received a cue of nonbelonging: a message that there was something about me that did not fit in with the group.
- Tom did not mean to express hostility to me or tell me I didn’t belong, at least not in a consciously malicious way. He probably had no clue how he made me feel and quickly forgot all about it.
- This was not the first, or even the tenth, time I had experienced the same joke in my life.
I imagine many readers can relate to this, and especially can understand the impact of that final point above. What made the joke even worse was that I had received many similar cues of nonbelonging before. I’m thinking of times when, given limited options, I put together a strange combination of foods and someone said it looked gross. I’m remembering times someone told me, “I could never be vegan, I just love…” and described the experience of eating an animal’s body in graphic detail. Or a high-school friend who made a habit of telling me, “I like the kind of vegan you are because you don’t make a big deal about it.”
This is something that Tom had no idea about: he wasn’t there for any of those moments. Even so, his intention was completely unrelated to the impact his words had.
In January 2020 I attended a Nonviolent Communication retreat with my colleague Aidan. After a session on microaggressions by renowned trainer Roxy Manning, Aidan said to me, “Vegans can definitely experience microaggressions.”
I cringed, feeling a million retorts compete to come out of my mouth. “Are you equating being vegan with…” “That’s super problematic.” “We choose veganism; nobody chooses their race, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc.” “Gosh, I hope you never bring this up again.”
But in the magical, open, listen-first air of the retreat, I saved my retorts. I found space to listen to what he meant before I responded.
As it turned out, Roxy taught this definition of microaggressions:
Things we say or do, or structures we create, that intentionally or unintentionally send a message to a particular group that they do not belong or are less than.
While not explicit above, the explanation Roxy gives in her book, The Anti-Racist Heart, requires an element of systemic power.
“Because microaggressions are rooted in beliefs that some groups are less than others, a critical understanding of microaggressions include that they target groups that have been historically marginalized and given less structural power in society.”
So, microaggression wouldn’t usually refer to a joke at the expense of the only white person in the room or a comment disparaging Christmas in the US. Rather, it refers to a black person being called articulate or women in pain being denied medication, as brief examples. The concept was coined to describe subtle acts of racism and has expanded to refer to things that reinforce other differences in societal privilege, like gender, ability, class, religion, and nationality.
Roxy describes receivers of microaggressions, who directly experience the cues of nonbelonging based on their own social identity, and also bystanders, who can be impacted greatly despite not being the direct object of the microaggression.
It’s true that veganism is a choice in a way that many social identities are not. It’s also true that when we open ourselves up to feeling empathy for animals, we feel that pain very deeply as bystanders. And, while animals themselves are victims of systemic violence, their advocates are penalized for bringing attention to this, even with the subtlety of what we eat.
But that realization—that microaggressions are experienced by animal advocates—isn’t about giving us a free pass. It’s about recognizing the way microaggressions can isolate and harm, even while being completely invisible to the person creating them. I offer this in hopes that we can feel more committed to avoiding them, to repairing any harm that we inadvertently cause, and to communicating in ways that help each member of our communities feel that they do belong.
We Are Tom, Too
I really liked my colleague, Tom, as did everyone else. He’s a goofy, sensitive guy with a carefree attitude I worked to emulate. (Did I tell you we were working in hospice?) Tom being one of the only men in our company, it’s likely that over the years working together, I sent him some cues that he didn’t belong there as a man. In fact, as someone who belongs to a lot of dominant cultural groups (I’m a white, cis, so-far able-bodied, straight-passing person in the US) it’s likely I’ve inadvertently sent a lot of cues of nonbelonging to a lot of people.
What Does Repair Look Like?
If we have a story in our heads that says that microaggressions are inflicted by racist (etc.) people, then it can be impossible to hear someone when they say that we’ve inflicted one. It conflicts with our self-image too much. Our only option might be to deny that we’ve done it. If we can understand that microaggressions happen in a context in which both the actor and receiver are only a tiny part, it’s easier to respond supportively when we find out that we’ve messed up.
When Tom made the joke about preachy vegans, I never told him how it landed. This is the case with a lot—and probably the vast majority—of microaggressions we will commit in our lives. But let’s imagine a world where Tom had the opportunity to hear me out and try to repair the disconnect he had caused.
I’ll go through a repair process as a dialogue, with notes in between about what is happening. I’ll include directions for both the actor and receiver (who, in this case, can also be called bystander) and imagine that both are “wearing giraffe ears.” (Marshall Rosenberg, NVC’s founder, would sometimes use giraffe puppets to role-play characters speaking nonviolently to each other.) But please keep in mind that neither person depends on the other following my directions. That is, in real life, we’re usually talking to people without training in this particular communication modality. Even so, this model can work for people on either side of a microaggression.
Let’s imagine a private conversation after our team lunch has concluded.
In this scenario, the receiver brings up the harm, as the actor was completely unaware of it. In other cases, it could also be appropriate for the actor to start the conversation with a gentle invitation to check in about anything bothering the other person or specifically about how a particular interaction landed for them.
Eva: Hey Tom, there was something you said earlier that landed pretty hard for me. Are you open to talking about it?
Tom is quickly doing silent self-empathy in this moment, checking in with his body sensations and trying to determine if he’s ready to have this conversation. He’s taking a deeper breath to self-regulate.
Tom: Sure, what’s up?
Eva’s going to try her best to use observation language, while still identifying multiple layers of the observation to help Tom understand why this is a big deal to her. She’ll refer to the joke generally to avoid disagreement about exact wording. She’ll name the feelings that came up for her and the needs that were unmet.
Eva: When you made the joke about vegans telling you that they’re vegan, I felt pretty alienated. I’ve been vegan for a long time for reasons that are really important to me, and it’s almost always the case that I’m the only vegan in the group, so it can already be something that leads to me not feeling the belonging that I’d like. When I hear stuff like that, it stings because it builds on a whole bunch of similar experiences.
Now, she’ll pass the conversation back to him. As an attempt to slow it down and give herself a chance to be heard before he defends himself, she’ll ask for a reflection.
Eva: That might be a lot to hear—would you mind telling me what you got from that? It would really help me to know that you’re understanding it.
Even if Eva didn’t make the direct request, Tom could offer a reflection to make sure he’s understanding it. He is so tempted to explain that he didn’t mean anything by the joke, but he refrains, and focuses on letting her know he hears her.
Tom: Okay, I think I’m getting it. It sounds like veganism, while important to you, can be pretty isolating. And comments like mine are hard to hear because they cue that you don’t belong here, either. Is that it?
She might have more to say, to which Tom will continue to reflect. Once she’s been heard out, they can move on.
Eva: Yeah, and I also know that experiences like this are one of the reasons that people decide to keep eating animals, or they start again after they stop, even when they care deeply about animals like I do. So when I feel that, it’s compounded because I know it’s the experience that means I have less camaraderie in this than I wish I did.
Now Tom really feels like too much is being put on him. He didn’t create all of animal agriculture! He didn’t even come up with the joke himself! This is true; what Eva wants Tom to understand is not about him. Again, he refrains from defending himself, and reflects what he heard.
Tom: I see, so it’s even bigger than your own history, and it feels so big because it’s the kind of thing that affects many others and stops them from joining you in veganism? Am I getting it?
Eva: Yeah, that’s it.
Now Tom will try to repair the relationship, first by sharing how it impacts him to hear her. He’ll start by asking if his share is welcome.
Tom: I’m glad you let me know about this. Would you be open to hearing what’s coming up for me?
He’ll be careful not to self-flagellate with overly emotional language, which can sometimes feel like a demand for comfort or reassurance. He’ll once again avoid the urge to defend himself, and instead keep a focus on his impact on her. The question of whether he did something wrong has not come up. He mourns the impact without taking blame.
Tom: I’m sad to hear that it had that impact, and I think I get why it did. I want you to have a sense of belonging here and I definitely don’t want to be the reason that anyone feels unwelcome. How is that to hear?
Eva might need more empathy at this point, or she might not.
Eva: Thanks for hearing that, it helps to know that it matters to you.
At this point, we can talk about solutions. Tom will name the obvious– not repeating the microaggression in the future– and probe for need for further repair.
Tom: Of course I’ll do my best not to make a joke like that again after hearing the effect it has, but is there anything else I can do now to help?
Observations Have Layers
I’ll draw attention also to the different aspects of her experience that this fictional Eva described.
In classical NVC, observations were sometimes taught as “something that can be observed with a video camera.” Roxy Manning notes how video cameras, and the attention of the people viewing videos, can pick up a million different observations depending on where they’re pointed.
Roxy calls observations on this level, external. In this case, this is Tom saying “How do you know if someone is vegan? Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.” Instead of stating the observation, Eva referred to it generally, saying “When you made the joke about vegans telling you they’re vegan.” This might sometimes be smoother to share than the observation itself because we can remember exact words or events differently.
Roxy also teaches internal observations. These are memories, internal reactions, or personal context that help all parties understand the impact of the external observation. In this case, Eva shares information about her personal history with veganism and similar jokes.
Finally, we discuss systemic observations. The impact on Eva mostly lives at this level. It’s not just that Tom made a joke at her expense, or even that it was one that she’s heard a bunch of times in her life. If he were making fun of her for being from California or even for being young, it wouldn’t have landed so hard, even if she’d heard a similar number of jokes about these in her life. The reason it sucked so much to hear that joke was that it relates to something really big- animal exploitation and Eva’s alienation in her understanding of it.
In this case, Eva knew that Tom wouldn’t be able to hear it if she talked about animals directly in relation to this microaggression. Even fictional giraffe-eared meat-eaters can shut down given too much horror. Instead, she spoke generally about animals- that there are important reasons for being vegan, and that she cares about animals—and shared a systemic observation about vegans—that their recidivism is related to their alienation. This allowed Tom to hear her and begin to understand. It also allowed Eva to practice self-respect and integrity with her own values.
We Can Be Better Allies
By relaying a repair that you can imagine from the receiver or bystander side, I hope to invite you to imagine yourself, also, on the actor side of this exchange. You may find yourself inadvertently causing harm to someone by delivering a cue of nonbelonging because of their race, sexuality, gender, ability, age, or for one of many other factors. The experience of delivering a microaggression is often that of experiencing someone else “overreacting” to something we’ve said or done, because we aren’t immediately aware of the layers of experience that are present. In these cases, your task of repair is not in defending yourself or explaining what you’ve meant—it’s in deeply understanding the other person to the extent that they want to share, and in sharing your commitment to repair and to learn for the future.