A store clerk tells a mother that her adult son is not allowed in the shop. “We don’t allow his kind in here,” says the clerk. “They’re a danger to others.”
The clerk has never met the son before, nor has the son ever visited that shop before. The son has no contagious disease and is, in fact, remarkably happy and peaceful by nature. He has a palsy that limits his mobility and his speech, and he uses a powered wheelchair.
Before the mother can respond to the clerk, the son speaks up on his own behalf. His speech is labored but clear. The clerk and the son argue for a moment until the son demands to see the manager.
After a moment, the manager approaches without the clerk. “Ma’am, I’m so sorry about this,” the manager says to the mother. The mother begins to speak about the clerk’s behavior, but her son cuts her off.
“Excuse me!” the son demands. “I’m the one who deserves an apology!”
“Oh!” says the manager in surprise. He squats down and places his hand on the arm of the son’s chair. “You’re right. I’m very sorry. Our clerk’s behavior is not tolerated here, and we will address it immediately. My assistant manager is terminating his employment as we speak.”
So, let’s unpack this scenario. The clerk is obviously bigoted, and his behavior was indefensible. But what about the manager?
He acknowledged the bigotry that the clerk displayed and moved immediately to hold the clerk accountable. But the manager himself is not without fault – he has committed microaggressions.
A microaggression is an otherwise neutral comment or action that is inspired by a stereotype. For instance, the manager initially addresses the mother instead of the adult son. This means he either assumed the son could not speak, or that the son needed his mother to act as his ambassador to the rest of the world. Both assumptions are based on the stereotype that having a disability means you can’t speak for yourself.
Another example is the manager squatting down. Adults often do this when addressing children to speak to them on their level, but the son is an adult. There is no indication that he cannot process information with the same ease as the manager. Meanwhile, the manager is oblivious that this often feels very condescending even to a child. The gesture assumes the superiority of one individual over the other, and it reinforces the stereotype that a disability nullifies a person’s legitimacy.
The last example is when the manager places his hand on the arm of the son’s chair. A wheelchair is an extension of its user. It acts on behalf of their body. When the manager touches the son’s chair, the manager is invading the son’s personal space. If the son were an able-bodied individual, the manager would not touch him, nor would the manager feel free to touch the son’s property without permission. The manager is acting entitled to the son’s personal space based on an assumption that the manager is somehow superior.
What about the mother? She did not refer the manager to her son. She assumed an authority to accept the manager’s apology, and she reinforced the stereotype that having a disability means you can’t speak for yourself.
If as you read this, you become aware of microaggressions you may have committed, don’t beat yourself up. Bias and prejudice come in many forms, and they often show themselves without a conscious effort. But microaggressions can do very real harm, so it’s important to carefully examine our own unconscious bias.
The first step is to be mindful of any assumptions we may be making. We must be more mindful of how much we don’t know as we interact with the world. If the manager’s assumptions about the son’s limitations were accurate, those would have surfaced immediately after he attempted to address the son properly. Instead, the manager revealed his own prejudice by assuming the accuracy of his bias. He granted himself the benefit of the doubt instead of his audience.
Start by asking to which strangers do you most easily grant the benefit of the doubt? Are there common physical traits among those individuals? What about belief systems or economic status? If you encountered the scene above midway through the events, who were you more likely to believe and why? Challenging yourself in this way is the first step to overcoming your own bias.
None of us is without bias. If we are mindful, and we are willing to check our assumptions, then we can avoid causing harm through microaggressions. As Maya Angelou once said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
Mitchell Harlan is an attorney with Disability Rights Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.