Effectively disarming prejudice--whatever its target--takes some practice and a bit of training. In this post, we present some smart, research-based resources to “come back” effectively and (when possible!) turn a biased remark or action into an opportunity for growth.
When it comes to exercising authority, my gender is largely a problem. Our church [the TEC] loves to talk about how forward-thinking and liberal it is. And yet, so often… I have had parishioners ask something, and I would say, “Yes, so you can do this and this, or no, you can’t do that.” And they would reply: “Well, let me go and ask S.” [the male rector] Really?... I had to ask one: “So, if S. had said that, would you have questioned his authority in this way?” And she was taken aback that I said it out loud [laughs]… to her credit, she did go away and think about it and came back and said, “You’re probably right. I probably would not have gone at S. about that decision in the way I came to you.”
Norma, 60, African American female, associate rector, TEC
Some time ago, I wore a knee-length dress and got a lot of comments about the length of my hemline from some of the older male members. By the end of the day, I just felt so embarrassed because I felt like I had taken attention away from the service and teaching… I didn’t want to be a distraction. So, each time somebody says something, either I apologize or I just kind of ignore it, let the comment pass. I try to wear black shoes all the time. And once I wore silver shoes because they matched what I was wearing, and I wanted to wear silver. And somebody came up to me right before service and told me: “How dare you wear silver shoes?” My [male] colleague was wearing brown shoes… he didn’t wear black shoes all the time, but nothing would be said [about him] ... So, sometimes I do avoid it.”
Kay, 28, Caucasian female, curate, TEC
Everyday prejudice: what is it? How does it impact clergywomen's experiences?
The most frequent and widespread form of prejudice affecting clergywomen is also the most difficult to challenge. It surfaces in commonplace interactions and wears a familiar face: a lay leader, a parishioner, or a colleague. Scholarly literature defines these exchanges as “microaggressions” or “everyday prejudice” and describes these interactions as follows:
“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, or religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”
Over the three years of our study, most female clergy participants reported experiencing “everyday prejudice” or microaggressions. These interactions can be classified into different categories, but all have an implicit derogatory connotation in common. The demeaning message generally targets clergywomen’s gender, often as it intersects other stigmatized characteristics (race or ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, and ability).
Everyday gender-based prejudice has many faces. It can materialize as “benevolent sexism” (well-meaning, paternalistic attitudes intended to protect the “weaker sex”). More frequently, it involves women’s sexual objectification—remarks focusing on women’s bodies as objects of sexual pleasure. This is the dynamic we see at work in Kay’s situation, where parishioners seem to police her dress hemline or silver shoes. Other categories of microaggressions aim at making women invisible (interactions in which women’s leadership role is bypassed or ignored, as in Norma’s case) or emphasize their inferiority as professionals (not as competent, authoritative, or effective as men). Microaggressions also manifest as a sexist language (patronizing or infantilizing names or, conversely, derogatory adjectives such as aggressive, bitch, etc.). They can evoke gender stereotypes (women as soft-spoken, submissive, caring, domestic, or overly emotional).
Everyday discrimination is devastating because it is subtle and ambiguous. Overt expressions of prejudice are increasingly viewed as socially unacceptable and labeled as bigotry. Scholarship shows that it is not overt prejudice that primarily harms women. They know how to recognize and counteract it. Instead, these everyday “papercuts” are particularly harmful because of the guesswork, self-doubting, and “credibility” challenges they generate. Existing studies indicate that microaggressions invalidate women, dismiss their achievements, and limit their effectiveness, with clear consequences for their psychological wellbeing (self-esteem, self-doubting, anger, depression, loss of motivation and purpose) and career advancement.
In our study, a significant number of women described their reaction to a microaggression as feeling “frozen.” They would start asking themselves: “Did THIS happen? How should I respond? And will they consider me oversensitive or weak?” The outcome of this inner dialogue was self-silencing, guilt, shame, and a commitment to respond better… next time. Kay, the young curate of our second story, is a clear example of this reaction pattern.
Disarming strategies and wellbeing
Microaggressions’ main challenge is what scholars call “attributional ambiguity.” The real message behind these apparently “ordinary” statements and actions is hidden as part of otherwise “friendly” or polite interactions. This ambiguity leaves many women trapped in self-doubt, which is a prime factor of microaggressions’ damaging impact. It depletes the target’s psychological energy and nurtures low self-esteem, shame, and feelings of failure and powerlessness.
How to disarm this destructive mechanism and “come back” effectively? Derald Wing Sue, the lead researcher in this area, has gathered a great repertoire of effective response strategies. He worked with anti-racist organizations and amassed a repertoire of comeback strategies and educational resources that can be adapted to any prejudice target—race, gender, sexual orientation, or ability, only to mention a few examples.
Derald Wing. Microintervention Strategies: What You Can Do to Disarm and Dismantle Individual and Systemic Racism and Bias. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2021.
A high-quality, research-based set of resources on microaggressions and intervention strategies has been developed by Sunflower Learning (https://sunshowerlearning.com) and is widely seen as the gold standard in this area. It addresses bias across the board (race, gender, sex orientation, ability, etc.) and can be used by individuals or groups (online and interactive via Zoom or on DVDs). Among the options available:
“Ouch! That Stereotype Hurts!” Explores the impact of bias and stereotypes and explains why people don’t speak up against them. Helps participants learn constructive and effective techniques to speak up.
"Disarming microaggressions with Dr. Derald Wing Sue." This program has been recently developed in cooperation with the lead researcher in the area of microaggressions and interventions. It sheds light on what microaggressions are, explores their harmful impact on people, workplaces and communities, and teaches how to speak up and interrupt. Info contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
A few examples of "disarming" strategies
Intervention strategies have different goals (unmasking/making the invisible visible, disarming, educating, finding support). They also represent different intensities of engagement, depending on the severity of the microaggression. In the limited space of this webinar, I’ll go through a few examples. You can find the entire repertoire of strategies in the book and training mentioned above.
Core objective: "making the invisible visible"
This goal is crucial because microaggressions are not always explicit or deliberate. As I emphasized above, dealing with overt insults is easier because targets are spared the guesswork. Additionally, microaggressions often contain a mix of conscious and unconscious messages that may go beyond a perpetrator’s awareness level. Naivete or lack of deliberate intent to insult make it difficult for offenders to change because they perceive themselves as free of bias or prejudice. Allies and bystanders can also use the strategies we discuss below.
Tactic #1: develop perspicacity The first rule for targets, allies, and bystanders is to improve their “perspicacity” (the ability to read between the lines and recognize the hidden meaning of a particular statement or action). In our study, clergywomen often doubted their perceptions. Perspicacity is a form of discernment. Training in this area is crucial—and rare, especially in seminaries. Yet, it would help targets (women, people of color, etc.), allies, and bystanders to identify and unmask biased attitudes.
Tactic #2: disempower the innuendo by “naming” it The first step to empowerment is “naming” an oppressive event, condition, or process so that it no longer holds power over the target. Naming provides a language for people to describe their experiences and claim their “reality.” It also forces perpetrators to problematize their role as potential oppressors. In Norma’s case, if a parishioner ignores her advice and turns to the male rector, she could reply: “So, you seem to think that female rectors have less authority than their male colleagues. Is that correct?”
Tactic #3: undermine the hidden message This is a “softer” comeback strategy designed to increase perpetrators’ and onlookers’ awareness. Let’s say that a female clergy receives a backhanded compliment such as “You are quite a good priest for being a woman!” Undermining the hidden message would involve bringing the (possibly) unconscious communication to the perpetrator’s awareness and planting a seed of growth in the interlocutor. A reply could be: “You are very kind. Luckily, excellence is equally distributed among men and women.”
Tactic #4: challenge the stereotype A black female priest assertively expresses an opinion during a meeting and is subsequently rebuked for her “angry” tone. The metacommunication here is “black women are bad-tempered, loud, and aggressive,” a longstanding stereotype used against African American women. The target (or any ally and bystander) recognizes the underlying stereotype and challenges it: “Black women are often stereotyped as angry and aggressive. It’s harmful and untrue.”
Tactic #5: universalize the negative trait This strategy does not directly challenge the stereotype but points out how the same trait could be applied to any group, not only to a marginalized one (women, people of color, etc.). For instance, it would turn a statement such as “All women tend to fall prey to their emotions” into a universal trait: “All human beings tend to fall prey to their emotions, one way or another. Men are no exception.”
Tactic #6: ask for clarification of a statement or action Questioning or asking for the meaning of a person’s words or behavior throws the ball back into the perpetrator’s court. Additionally, it buys targets, allies, and bystanders time to find an appropriate response. In Kay’s case, for instance, this strategy would involve replying to those who question her silver shoes: “Do you realize what you just said?” The aim of these questions is a) to force the perpetrator to stop and reconsider; b) to communicate disagreement; c) to encourage exploration of a false belief or negative attitude.
Tactic #7: make the innuendo explicit by rephrasing the statement or action In this strategy, the target (ally or bystander) adopts a questioning tone to rephrase a statement or action and clarify the implicit message. Let’s take parishioners’ comments about Kay’s hemline as an example. The reply would sound like: “So, let me understand. Are you telling me female priests cannot wear knee-length dresses?” This tactic is more direct than others. It is meant to make the person “hear” what they may have said. It may trigger defensive attitudes but is intended to peel away perpetrators’ naivete and show that their words or actions were not “innocent.”
Tactic #8: Reverse, redirect or mimic the statement or action of the offenders as if it was meant for them This tactic aims at “turning tables” and reversing the roles of perpetrator and target, often by using humor or sarcasm. It seeks to challenge a false assumption without showing anger or hostility. For example, in Kay’s case, it could sound as follows: “So, I take you only wear black shoes at work, correct? Does it mean that my male colleague, who is wearing brown shoes, is also doing something wrong?” Reversal comebacks are brief but potentially impactful forms of comeback. They throw perpetrators off balance. Allies and bystanders can also use this strategy to support a targeted friend or colleague.
These are just a few examples of micro-interventions. Training (and practice) can unlock a rich repertoire of strategies to empower women and their allies, educate parishioners and leaders, and foster cultural growth and structural change. What do you think about these comeback tactics? What strategies would you use? How can women move from powerlessness to empowerment, from helplessness to usefulness, and from self-doubt to confidence?
Manuela Casti Yeagley, Ph.D.