Microaggressions, Relationships and the Church

How subtle or unintentional prejudices add up.
Greeter with a name tag greeting people at an event.

By Katy Miles-Wallace

I think about the times that 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 outright said “my wife” and been met with “So, tell me about your husband?” Then there are the times when people talk about indigenous land as where “native people used to live.” Or the times when I’ve marked both “she” and “they” as my pronouns, but people use the ones assigned with my birth gender exclusively. 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 to me 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, 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)”

I’d like to pause here for a moment and 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 the 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: These are overt and intentional, such as using racist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist, or other types of slurs.
  • Microinsults: These are 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: These are largely unintentional and may go unnoticed at the moment by the people that they hurt but definitely cause discomfort and seek to invalidate the experience of the minority person. They look like suggesting that a minority person is overreacting or imagining a perceived slight.

What Do These Look Like in Church Life?

  • A person of color (POC) is present in the congregation and is treated like “the help,” interrupted, talked over, or ignored
  • When we assume that people of color will only be comfortable in other denominations or with praise or gospel worship styles
  • An LGBTQIA2S+ person is present in the congregation and are assumed to be there seeking some sort of conversion from their “lifestyle”
  • When a same-sex couple are assumed to be related, roommates, anything but a couple or are asked “So, who’s the opposite sex in the relationship?”
  • In the times when pronouns or name changes are ignored or dismissed as being “just too hard to remember”
  • When we assume that our LGBTQIA2S+ people (including staff!) will be comfortable at lock-ins, with gendered singing parts, in gendered Bible studies, or on gendered retreats
  • In situations when a neurodivergent person is asked to leave worship because their divergency causes them to be disruptive to others
  • When important meetings don’t include options such as interpreters for the hearing-impaired
  • If 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 
  • When 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 old phrase goes, microaggressions are often death by a thousand cuts. It may not be one thing that is a major issue, but when you’re a person who encounters these microaggressions on a daily basis, they add up and even have been shown to be a detriment to the mental health of those they impact. That’s just for the smallest microaggressions. Larger ones, like false criminal accusations, could ruin a person’s life even if they end up being completely unfounded. These words and actions are 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. Project Implicit from Harvard has some good ones. The first step in curbing the damaging ways that you might be interacting with people is to really see that 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 into high voices and low voices. Figure out a different way to break up your study groups and retreats, maybe by age or marital status. Get really bold and figure out how to make your bathrooms gender neutral. Explore biblical Translations like The Inclusive Bible for use in worship settings. 
  • Use name tags 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 their 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 visible in the church, just as valued, just as included in the leadership of the church as any white person there. Inviting them/us shows that you want them/us there! Be respectful when your invitation is declined 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 which recognizes those who give greatly in time and talent.
  • Practice radical welcome. Not everyone who walks through our church doors is pleasant, but everyone has a right to be there, even if they smell, even if they’re dirty, 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. No one should be excluded for being different.
  • 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 that you include closed captions on any videos of any kind.
  • Ask questions. The truth about microaggressions is that they happen when we assume things. We assume why people come through the door, why they have the job that they do, that they’ll be comfortable in certain spaces with certain things, etc. Our assumptions cause the harm. Ask questions instead. Try things like, “Would you be comfortable joining us for the women’s retreat?” or “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, for example: “Do you want to be healed?”

The truth is that our assumptions allow us to keep people at a distance and this is even more true when those assumptions enforce stereotypes and do just enough harm to keep people away. We do a better service to all of the people around us, and to Christ who desires that 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.

Related Reading: A Systemic Approach to Justice and Equity Work and a free resource for forming a Anti-Racist Trust Team

About the Author

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

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