By Don McIntosh, associate editor
In the last few years, Barbara Diamond has led hundreds of union, non-profit and legal staff to confront issues of race, gender, and disability through films and trainings. I attended a training for union staff May 12 and spoke with her by phone May 16.
Why have you been making films and organizing trainings about microaggressions and implicit bias?
After 30 years of doing legal work and working in the labor union movement — which I think of as being part of the civil rights movement — I realized we weren’t as far along as I thought we’d be. We have a lot of the same issues — gender equity, racism. I started educating myself and started realizing that I wanted to do something that might affect people in the labor movement on a broader scale. I felt like there was a role for me especially as a white person to step up to the plate and start working on issues like this.
Do the trainings make a difference?
I think they’ve enabled union staff and leaders to represent members in a more effective way. I trained a union staff person and within a year they were having to advocate for a transgender member who was being mistreated by management. The seminars have also led to proposals at the bargaining table to protect transgender rights.
What’s a microaggression?
It’s typically an unconscious slight or subtle snub, between a member of an empowered group and a member of a disempowered group. Some people call it death by a thousand cuts. It’s a tiny distancing communication of some kind or another.
Why are we worrying about paper cuts when people are still losing limbs? Why sweat the small stuff when there’s so much unsolved big stuff, like the statistics on disparate treatment?
I like to think of microaggressions as the tip of iceberg that is implicit bias. I view implicit bias as the cause of those statistics. Microagressions are the part of implicit bias that’s visible because they’re above the water line. I doubt that the pediatrician who dispenses less pain medicine to an African-American child realizes that’s what he’s doing. If you’re committing a microaggression, it means that your implicit bias is unchecked, because if you were aware and studied and worked to become aware of your unconscious bias, you wouldn’t say or do those things.
Some of the terminology at your training sounds very academic, like intersectionality, cisgender, affirming language, micro-invalidation. Is this a college-educated middle-class attempt to police the thoughts, words or behavior of working class people?
If you believe that, you’d have to think that sexual harassment is also a classist attack. Until we developed a vocabulary and a way of understanding sexual harassment as a form of discrimination, we didn’t even have the concept of sexual harassment. You can’t combat it until you have a vocabulary to describe it. Microaggression theory is developing a vocabulary. It was developed in the counseling and teaching arena to try to explain to white people who are counselors and teachers and doctors how to relate to a patient who is different.
In your films, black people talk about white people touching their hair, and a woman in a wheelchair recounts being asked by a stranger if she’s able to have sex. Are these just examples of really bad manners?
This is about bias; you really can’t view it as just about manners. Some people will view this as being about “Don’t hurt people’s feelings by using words that might hurt them.” If that’s all people bring away from it and they change their behavior, then they’ll have to be constantly updated about the list of what’s appropriate and what’s not. They’re going to see it as a behavioral thing. I view this as a process of listening. That’s why I made the films: I want people to listen to the voices of people who are from these different communities whose voices are generally not heard.