Assumptions and Microaggressions

by Kimberly Alexander, M.S.

I am the only individual in my immediate family to graduate with a Bachelors. Therefore, it is particularly meaningful for my family, as well as myself, that I am now pursuing a Doctoral degree. I think my cohort can attest to how difficult graduate work can be at times and how meaningful it will be to say one day, “I graduated with my Doctorate!” However, recently, I found myself bombarded with a variety of statements from different people about my position as a graduate student that sent me in quite the angry tailspin.

A friend jokingly said that it’s great my parents are ok with me being a career student, an acquaintance stated that even though I’m “the token Black person” in my cohort, it’s great that I’m working so hard, and an individual I met at a social event reflected (almost surprisingly) that I was such a smart girl, one of the smartest he’s met. So, in a two-week timeframe, with mounting mid-semester pressures, I stood at the crossroads of age, race, gender assumptions and microaggressions. And I was ANGRY. Like how dare someone think that because I’m furthering my education, I’m somehow “taking advantage” of my parents? Why must there be an assumption that I’m only in my program because I’m a “token” fulfilling a racial quota… like it is so unlikely that I actually was admitted into my program because I had a desirable application? And what exactly is surprising about meeting an intelligent woman? I found myself over the past two weeks ruminating on these questions, and even questioning my own abilities and intentions based on these statements. Maybe I’m not that capable…

Now could it be that these statements were meant to be innocent? Of course. Could it be that I was at a heightened state of sensitivity because I was feeling stressed so I grew that much angrier? Sure. But the question is, what am I going to do about this central belief that surfaced, “I’m not a capable person.” So, how is it helpful to think this about myself… especially during the mid-semester crunch? Well it’s not helpful and I have been successfully progressing in my program thus far and I do not think my success is a function of my age, race, or gender regardless of what others have said. Furthermore, although I’m angry that these statements were made, I can’t demand others speak in ways that are sensitive to my age, race, and gender. All I can do is prefer they are mindful… for one, they may not share in my age, race, gender experience so there will always be a certain lack of knowledge. We all have this in common. This is why we ask questions to learn about each other.

I do think that there are certain statements that seem ridiculous and do not reflect the growth in our understanding of age, race, and gender. However, I can’t damn the person if an illogical, insensitive, or non-progressive statement is made. It would better serve me and the management of my anger, if I allowed myself to be healthily annoyed and even angry at times at the person’s BEHAVIOR OR STATEMENT. Why? Because sitting in that unhealthy anger for days on end about how horrible that person is will only negatively affect how I focus on my academic demands. Furthermore, who am I to say that this person isn’t a considerate person in other ways that may not have been best reflected in the statement that was made to me. We, as people, are far too complex for me to argue that a person is horrible AS A WHOLE because an illogical, insensitive, or non-progressive statement was made to me. Instead, I can use this healthy annoyance or anger to open dialogue with others about our misperceptions and assumptions of others or even help others who share in similar experiences manage their own emotions and self-perceptions.

Kimberly Alexander, M.S.


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