In this part of the world, the phenomenon is referred to as “The Southern Compliment.” The words sound kind and gracious, but they hide a sneaky insult. For example, “You look really cute in that dress every time you wear it.” On the face of it, the speaker seems to be complimenting the receiver’s attire, but in the speaker’s opinion, the receiver wears the dress entirely too often, a critical social gaffe in this part of the world. This apparent compliment hiding an insult is a type of microaggression (Laureate Education, Inc., 2011. Murphy-Shigematsu, 2010).
Soloist at Church: Another Example
One thing I do like to do is sing. I was in the choir and praise band at one church, but then when I moved and joined another church, they had no choir. In fact, there were only two other people who enjoyed singing in front of the congregation. They let me have a try and for the next few years, I contributed to the worship services by singing solos from time to time.
Then I moved again and attended a new church. The choir meets while I am at work, but the pastor mentioned that the music director was looking for soloists. I volunteered and was told to prepare a piece. I had quite a collection built up from my previous church, so I chose one that was a reasonable demonstration of my ability. A couple weeks later, I was ready.
At my previous church, I simply told the music director, and he would tell me which weekend was for me. At the new church, I told the director, and she wanted me to come in to audition. That was no problem. We arranged a time, and I showed up with performance disc in hand. We tested mic levels and ran through the song twice.
Then came the Southern Compliment, “You sound fine, but we need you to work with our praise team to improve your stage presence. Your hands are pretty shaky, you know, and keeping your hand next to your side is not going to work. The congregation will not like that.”
She intended to be complimentary with the first part, and the rest of her comments were an effort to be instructive, I am sure, but what I heard was, “You are a cripple, and we cannot use you unless we make your disabilities invisible.”
That was not the first time I had faced rejection for my disabilities. I have lost jobs and friends because I could not be normal enough. In times past, such comments would have elicited a heated response, but I have since learned more patience toward people who do not understand what is happening.
I explained to the music director that the shaking was the result of an uncontrollable disability, and keeping my hand at my side is a preparation for those times when my hip pops loose and needs to be reset. This is more likely to happen after I go up a flight of stairs, and there were eight steps from the floor of the sanctuary to the top of the dais. That did not matter. My shaky hands and lack of movement around the stage did not fit the group’s entertainment requirements. In the end, it would be best if I did not participate in the ministry.
If there had been a competition to enter this soloist opportunity, I would have accepted this more easily. Other people are better than I am, and that is fine, too. That is not what happened, though. This was a non-competitive call for volunteers, and the church is still seeking soloists. My inability to fully masquerade as a “normal person” renders me ineligible regardless of my ability as a singer.
Themes of the Microaggression
Considering the history of interactions I have had regarding my disabilities, I would suggest two possible themes. The first could be called constant entertainment. I was insulted and eventually denied the opportunity to participate because my jittery hands and unstable movements detracted from the entertainment quality of my performance. People want to be entertained at all times and they expect the best entertainment available, or comments will be made.
For an alternate perspective, consider my previous church. Entertainment value was secondary. All I needed was reasonable skill and willingness to serve. No one was bothered about my shaky hands, and they made a further accommodation to reduce the risk of my hip popping loose by having one of the gentlemen in the group lend me a supporting arm when I had to go up or down the steps.
A second theme is equality. Society speaks a great deal about how there is equality for all regardless of our differences, but in the reality of day to day life, this does not play out. I was denied the ability to solo at this new church because being disabled meant I could not perform as well as other people. The problem was not an issue of willingness or a need for practice. I am physically incapable of fitting into the church’s definition of a “normal person.” Because of that, they perceive me as inferior.
Carrying Forward as an Educator
Now, there is a matter of what to do with that information. In my future endeavors as an adult educator, I need to keep the differences of individuals in mind. Someone else’s demonstration of a skill may look very different from my own, and it may show strengths and weaknesses. Offering constructive criticism is acceptable, certainly, but some things cannot be fixed. When that happens, I need to acknowledge everyone’s best effort without making unnecessary excuses or letting people off the hook too easily. That balancing act could be delicate, but it’s worthwhile.
Ginsberg, M. B., & Wlodkowski, R. J. (2009). Diversity & motivation: Culturally responsive teaching in college (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (2011). Microaggressions in Everyday Life [Video webcast]. Retrieved from https://class.waldenu.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_4065756_1&content_id=_13502902_1#_13502965_1&courseTocLabel=Access%20Resources
Murphy-Shigematsu, S. (2010). Microaggressions by supervisors of color. Training and Education in Professional Psychology, 4(1), 16–18.