Storytelling & microaggressions in #TrumpAmerica

betty ming liu Inspiration, Relationships, Writing how-to's 6 Comments

When I showed up for my Wednesday evening communications class, the mood was miserable. Donald Trump’s victory at the polls was just hours old. Everyone was angry and scared.

Most of these students are people of color, with many from immigrant families. What kind of America is this, where it’s suddenly okay to be racist, sexist, anti-LGBTQ, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant, anti-everything?

Their fear is real. But so is my answer.

I told them that storytellers have the juice to trump Donald Trump. Storytelling builds confidence, creativity and community. Storytelling begins by examining our lives. And for many of us, especially right now, the stories begin with exploring microaggressions.

When I first mentioned this word at the start of the semester, my students faces went blank. But once I explained its meaning, their whole beings lit up with instant understanding. They knew exactly what I was talking about because they hold the pain in every cell of their bodies.

Microaggressions are those annoying little insults that we hardly notice or bother with. Yet, we carry them like an infection that saps our energy.

Why do people think they can randomly ask us things like: Where are you from? No, where are you really from?  Can I touch your hair? Why don’t you speak Spanish?

We also hear things like: You don’t sound Black. You speak such good English. You’re so gay!

When these comments pop up, we might pause a second and wonder. Hmmm, did I really hear that? Did something just happen? Should I respond, or not? Then, we think we’re being oversensitive and brush the feelings away.

But in my communications class, which is all about public speaking, we talk through stuff that bothers us. The results of our storytelling are always spectacular.

I recently shared our process at a conference for public school teachers and other support professionals. Here we are, at the Oct. 13 conference for GradNation, a national program committed to raising high school graduation rates throughout the U.S. The event was hosted at Rutgers University-Camden by Center for Supportive Schools.


Check out the signs that everyone’s holding. The conference attendees reacted just like my students when I hold these things up in class. The signs stir up memories go back to childhood hurts.

For this particular workshop session, I made signs in three different colors. Black lettering signified microaggressions inflicted by strangers. Blue was for comments from family and community.


As for the red signs, they expressed the cry of both our inner child and our adult selves. These signs speak to the everlasting longing for what we’ve always wanted since we were little: acceptance, safety and unconditional love.

When I have a whole semester with a group of storytellers, they churn through the most remarkable tales. They let loose with stories about broken hearts, family deaths and illnesses, and exhausting jobs. They talk about depression, domestic violence and even rape. There are immigration struggles and financial issues.

Of course, we also trade laughs and wisdom about everything from a recipe for outrageous coconut cookies to tips on parallel parking and how to make better LinkedIn profiles.

Most important of all, the storytelling overcomes the sense of not-good-enough-because-I’m-different. Microaggressions feed our unworthiness. Storytelling shows us who we really are. We need to trust our stories and ourselves in #TrumpAmerica. Let’s start talking now!

For more on microaggressions, check out:

And what about you? Do any of the microaggression signs in the photos trigger memories, stories or reflections? 

Comments 6

  1. This is a very sensitive topic, very close to my heart! What I find hard about this microaggression behaviour is that, it is very unconscious. It has been done to me all my life, for my mannerisms, my dressing sense, my voice etc. However, I am equally guilty if not more guilty than most people who were aggressive towards me. I can take the whole – “I was bullied, so I am a bully” – defense. But, when I do it others, I feel bad about it much later, perhaps a day or two later. It’s somehow wired in my (our) brain(s) to assume certain indicators about certain people. It is hard for me to say this, but I don’t know how to stop this and how to deal with this maturely when it is done to me! I have read your earlier post on microaggression, but I am not fully sure who is to be held responsible for this. Of course, I am going to work on it, even if it takes a lifetime, but the hurt of others becomes a domino effect through me. Any suggestions or resources that can help? Thanks!

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      Average Guy, anyone who bothers to read my earlier microaggression post is far from average because it’s long! In that post, microaggressions expert Kevin Nadal admits that he commits microaggressions too. We all do. We’re human and need to be kind to ourselves. A sense of humor and willingness to change also helps too.

      I, like you, sometimes find myself doing the very thing that was done to me. In more than one newsroom, there would be only two Asian American women — me and someone else. The staff, mostly White, would sometimes mix up our names. Everyone was super-apologetic when it happened. As I get older, I’m more compassionate because I’ve been guilty of the same behavior in the classroom (especially at the start of the semester). Mixing up two people of the same race/gender is really embarrassing! So now, I never mention any student’s name unless I really know who everyone is.

      And are you writing at all? Or in therapy? I’m no expert but putting myself in supportive situations where I can talk about my life has always helped me. The ability to interact with other like-minded souls is a great healer. I guess that’s why I enjoy the classroom so much.

      P.S. — Here’s a link to an earlier blog post on how to choose a good shrink.

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  2. Aggressions – micro and macro – seem to often result from assumptions based on stereotypes. There was an op ed piece in the Times day before yesterday by a female, Muslim student in New York about her fear of being victimized by such stereotypes which seem now to have been licensed by this dreadful election. There were 462 replies in the comment thread. I was distressed by how many of them took a “get over it and move on – you’re lucky to be in this country no matter what” attitude about her, it seemed to me, very legitimate concerns. I was complimented that my own reply was the Times Editor’s pick out of them all. Here it is:
    We must take courage from the fact that the haters are not the majority, though their ilk won the election by a complexity of mischances. Those of us who are against the bigotry and prejudice Trump has empowered must not respond with fear and surface based assumptions ourselves but must see through to each other’s hearts and unite, overcoming our own differences. Be assured that when I see you wearing your head scarf, I assume you are a young student who will in time make this world a bit better. I do not assume you are a terrorist or that you would hate me if you knew I was gay. Likewise I hope that when you see me, an elderly white man in a suit and tie, you will not assume my values in any way resemble those of the odious Trump supporters. Having lived through the gay liberation struggle ever since the era of Stonewall, I know what it is to be the object of unreasoning hatred and the antidote, hard as it may be to swallow, is love; love of ourselves, of those who stand with us and – the hardest part – as much as is humanely possible, of those who hate us. In this last regard I have often failed and with each failure, a bit of ground was lost – but I keep trying and so must you. So must we all. That said, the next most vital thing is unity – organization – standing together as one people who will never surrender to bigotry and fascism. That we will suffer defeats and casualties is assured but the arc of history is with us. In the end, we will win.

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      Toby! Thank you so much for leaving this message of love and unity. I can see why the Times featured your comment. We’re in a very, very important time of reorganization in America. I hope to be part of the solution. Thanks for reminding us of the path we need to take. xo

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