Diary-microaggression by Supervisor of Color

Training and Education in Professional Psychology 2010, Vol. 4, No. 1, 16 –18 © 2010 American Psychological Association 1931-3918/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0017472 Microaggressions by Supervisors of Color Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University Supervisors of color are not only targets of discrimination but also perpretators. The denial of supervisees’ identities reveals a lack of respect and empathy, creating significant barriers to a good supervisory rela
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  Microaggressions by Supervisors of Color Stephen Murphy-Shigematsu Stanford University and Fielding Graduate University Supervisors of color are not only targets of discrimination but also perpretators. The denial of supervis-ees’ identities reveals a lack of respect and empathy, creating significant barriers to a good supervisoryrelationship. An area of professional development for supervisors of color is understanding the diverseidentities of our supervisees, who are increasingly multiethnic and transnational. Supervisors of coloralso need the opportunity to examine their experiences of microaggressions both as sender and receiverand reflect on their own identities and how they impede or enhance the quality of supervision. Keywords:  microaggressions, supervisors of color, identity, professional development The problem, I thought, was simple. White psychologists do notunderstand people of color. So the solution was for us to educatethem. But I found out that it is a lot more complicated than that.I pursued multicultural training with great zeal, going from coast tocoast for practicum, internship, and residency. I met wonderful teach-ers, some of whom still mentor me today. The training was invaluablein raising my consciousness, knowledge, and skills in working withdiverse populations, which is still the focus of my work today. I alsoencountered some difficulties that I share here, in hopes of bringingout into the open a topic that I rarely hear discussed. Names andplaces are masked to protect the identity of the individuals involved.For my internship I forsook the prestigious sites in Boston, closeto my university, and chose to get specialized training to work with“my people.” I drove cross-country to the West Coast and eagerlydove into my work. But one of the first psychologists I met, Dr.Chun, shook my hand and said, “So, you want to work with AsianAmericans,” as though he was somehow intrigued by the situation.I was stunned and confused by his statement. Why did he say sucha strange thing? I wondered why an Asian American graduatestudent wanting to work with Asian Americans was worth com-menting on. Was I supposed to explain why I was there?This experience complicated my simplistic conception of usversus them. I thought I was part of “us,” people of color trainingto become multiculturally proficient psychologists who would beable to teach White psychologists how to work with our people.The assumption seemed to be that we already knew how to work with our people, by virtue of some innate and acquired qualitiesderived from genes and social experience. But in one of my firstencounters with one of us, I was forced to face the unpleasantquestion of whether I was regarded as part of the group. Did I failto meet the necessary membership requirements? Was acceptancebased simply on blood quantum, or were there other standards?I am a so-called “mixed-race” Asian American, Japanese on mymother’s side, Irish on my father’s. I was born in Japan, raised in theUnited States, and have resided in Japan for most of my adult life.Throughout my life, I have been identified by others in various ways,at various times, and in various contexts. I also identify myself invarious ways, flexibly and situationally asserting identities as Japa-nese, American, Japanese American, Japanese Irish American, Japa-nese and American, Asian American,  Hapa , and  Haafu  in Japanese.Years of multicultural supervision, as both supervisee and super-visor, have provided a wealth of data that helps me to understandethnic minority perspectives. I present my experiences through nar-rative as a way of contributing to our knowledge of the racial andcultural dynamics in supervision. Because much of what happens issubtle, covert, unintentional, or unconscious, we need methods of analysisthatallowustounderstandtheexperiencesandpsychologicalprocesses at work. I view these dynamics through the lens of micro-aggressions,aconceptintroducedtomebypsychiatristChesterPierce(1970) when I was a graduate student. He described microaggressionsas small, continuous, seemingly insignificant acts that are an essentialingredient in race relations. Others have expanded on this work, withpsychologistsmakingnotablecontributionsinusingmicroaggressionsto explain the interpersonal dynamics when people interact and con-front issues of race, ethnicity, and culture (e.g., Sue et al., 2007). Inthis article, I use microaggressions to examine my racial experiencesin supervision. “But You Look White!” Seeking to expand my multicultural training beyond Asian Amer-icans, I did a postdoctoral fellowship in an inner-city Black commu-nity in the Northeast. I was describing my first session with a newclient when my supervisor, Dr. Green, stunned me by asking, “Howdid she feel about getting a White psychologist?” I was at a loss forwords. Was she serious, calling me a White psychologist? How couldI answer such a question? I looked at her with a confused expression,and she quickly corrected herself. “I mean, I know you’re Asian. . . .”Then she blurted out, “But you look White!”This incident took place more than 20 years ago, but I still recall itvividly. What happened next, though, is a blur. Memories of mostracial incidents like this end abruptly, with the aftermath flooded overand buried. I only know that I was unable to respond coherently andeffectively to what seemed to me an assault on my identity. S TEPHEN  M URPHY -S HIGEMATSU  received a doctorate in counseling andconsulting psychology from Harvard University. He was professor at theUniversity of Tokyo and is currently on the faculties of Stanford Universityand Fielding Graduate University. His research and consulting practice focuson issues of cultural diversity and mental health in transnational contexts.C ORRESPONDENCE CONCERNING THIS ARTICLE  should be addressed toSteven Murphy-Shigematsu, Stanford University, 462 Carolina Lane, PaloAlto, CA 94306. E-mail: Training and Education in Professional Psychology © 2010 American Psychological Association2010, Vol. 4, No. 1, 16–18 1931-3918/10/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0017472 16  There was another psychologist at the clinic who was friendlyenough,butonedaythesecretaryconfidedthatDr.Jamesoftentalkedabout me. “He calls you the ‘Harvard guy.’ He’s always asking me if your clients are disappointed when they don’t get a Black psycholo-gist. And I say, ‘No, they’re just fine with Dr. Shigematsu.’”Dr. Green and Dr. James later subjected me to a case conferenceon an Asian American youth in which each of them based theiranalysis on their experience with one previous Asian Americanclient and an article they had read. They didn’t ask me for anyinsight, and feeling silenced, I didn’t offer any.At the end-of-the-year party, Dr. Curtis, another psychologistwho did group supervision, revealed her first reaction to mycohort. “Yeah, when I walked into that room and looked around atyour faces, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to have to do some seriouseducating here.’” What she said didn’t surprise me. That was theway she treated us all year—as though she knew and we did not.To her, she was “us” and we were “them.”What had she seen when she first laid eyes on us? I suppose shesaw a sea of White faces. There was a White guy there, Bill, raised bya single mother in Arkansas. Then there was Ricardo from Colombia.And there was Louise, a mixed-blood Chickasaw Indian from Okla-homa. Julie was a lesbian White woman. Then there was me. Like theothers, I suppose we all appeared White to her. But besides George,who was Black, our identities were quite different from what sheascribed to us. We each had our own form of otherness and were notnearly as ignorant of diversity issues as she assumed.What was going on in the minds of these supervisors? I think Igot a clue at an American Psychological Association convention afew years ago when I was startled several times at sessions onethnic minority issues when speakers remarked how good it was tosee so many White people in the audience. I looked around theroom and wondered, how did they know who the White peoplewere? Were they aware that some of the people they were gliblylabeling as White would not identify in that way?I am sensitive to these incidents because I am often one of thepeople whose identity is mistaken and imposed by others. I knowthat these kinds of incidents occur in supervision, even in placesthat you might think are immune to them, such as multiculturalpsychology training centers. Microaggressions are even perpe-trated by the most unlikely people, supervisors of color. “I’m White, but I’m not American” Supervisors of color most commonly work with White super-visees, a relationship ripe with the possibility of microaggressions.Although supervisees may perceive supervisors of color as expertson the minority experience, we also become targets of supervisees’misconceptions and prejudices. Supervisees may judge us as lesscompetent, challenge us, and resist our authority. When supervi-sors of color feel our competence and authority being challengedby a White supervisee, we might respond to these microaggres-sions by feeling compelled to prove ourselves. We can evenrespond with our own microaggressions, which we may alsodeliver in situations in which they are undeserved.When I asked about previous experiences in supervision, Arianetold me how she had tried to explain to her Puerto Rican supervisorher sense of dissonance between the way her clients viewed her andher own identity. She believed they saw her as just a typical Whitewoman,whereassheidentifiedasDanishorEuropean.Arianehadnotcome to the United States until adolescence and often felt differentfrom her American peers and culturally out of place. She painfullyrecalled how her supervisor had dismissed her claims of difference,insistingthatshewasintheUnitedStatesnow,andtherealitywasthatshe was White. He told her that she had to accept the situation andeven change her behavior to fit with that of a White American.The supervisor appeared intent on teaching Ariane the importantlesson that there is a social reality of how others view her and thereis privilege that comes with the designation of White. He probablyfelt it was important for her to acknowledge how she is perceivedby clients. However, in his zeal to teach her this lesson, he did notacknowledge that it may also be important for her, and for herclients, to know that her identity is at odds with her appearance.The supervisor’s either–or worldview prevented him from ac-knowledging the gray area of identity in which Ariane dwells.George was a guy who was unmistakably Black to most observers.In supervision with me, he mentioned a previous Black supervisorwho had provided crucial mentoring by supporting George’s emerg-ing identity as a Black psychologist. However, the supervisor becameineffective in George’s eyes when he was unable to acknowledge thatGeorge was anything else but Black. George talked with me of howhe felt ridiculed when he tried to explain that his Irish roots were asource of empathy with his White clients and confusion with hisBlack clients. He told me that he longed for a supervisor who couldsee how inside he was also Irish. After all, George had been raised byan Irish American single mother in a mostly White area of a Bostonsuburb and had never known his Black father or his father’s extendedfamily. He was now purposely working in a Black community, whichbrought up considerable conflict for him. But his supervisor couldonly see him as Black and showed no understanding of George’sidentification as Irish and how this could raise issues for him inrelating with his clients. “You’re Not Seeing Me” Acknowledging that we are involved in microaggressions, notonly as victims but also as antagonists, is a necessary step forsupervisors of color. When we deny our supervisees’ identities, weare re-creating a common situation for them in their lives. The wayin which we define people on the basis of physical appearance maylead us to make completely wrong assumptions about what issignificant in their cultural background. Race tends to overwhelmall other markers. We hold powerful assumptions that true authen-ticity is racial, and even insist that others fit themselves into thecategories to which we assign them. We often emphasize people’sWhiteness or Blackness, but for them another identity may bemore salient. We can fill an important role for supervisees byhelping them to deal with the reality of their own particular formsof privilege. But we also need to acknowledge other, less visibleparts of their identity that may be fundamentally important forthem, such as a hidden ethnic identity or sexual orientation.In trying to understand the identities and worldviews of mysupervisees, I draw inspiration from Erich Fromm’s (1963) obser-vation that respect can be understood by its Latin root  respicere ,which means simply “to look at.” To me, this means that we showrespect as supervisors when we try to see our supervisees clearly,not through our stereotypes, biases, and assumptions. This viewmotivates me to try to gain more understanding of supervisees’identities and worldviews. 17 SPECIAL ISSUE: MICROAGGRESSIONS BY SUPERVISORS OF COLOR  Some of the negative experiences I have had in supervision wereprobably caused by the inability of supervisors to see me clearly,which felt disrespectful. They may have been confused by myracial appearance and had difficulty placing me in the categoryAsian because of their perception that my physical features wereinconsistent with the general image or stereotype of an Asian face.This confusion was expressed in our relationship, as I challengedthem to expand their conception of what an Asian looks like andthe boundaries of the group of Asian Americans.I believe that these challenges are common in supervision.Supervisors’ abilities and inabilities to understand the identities of our supervisees greatly affect the content and quality of supervi-sion. When supervisors made assumptions about me that were atodds with my own sense of identity and group affiliation, it createda major barrier in our relationship. Not surprisingly, I trusted themless and disclosed less.Although each individual supervisor has his or her own personallimitations, there are also systemic issues at play. We are all part of social systems that construct “imagined communities” of monolithicethnic and racial groups. We are assigned by others to one of thesegroups, given a label, and assumed to have all the stereotypic char-acteristics associated with that group. We in turn do the same toothers, normally on the basis of no more than a glance at a face or aname. This process can be smooth when our designation matches theother person’s self-identification. But in my experience as superviseeand supervisor, it often does not. When we as supervisors remainstuck in our own essentializing tendencies to divide people into fixedracial and ethnic groups, we do a disservice to supervisees who do notfit easily into dichotomies and categorizations and instead overflowinto cultural borderlands that defy simplistic generalizations. “You Know What It’s Like to Be on Welfare” Although supervisors of color need to better understand thedeveloping identities and worldviews of our supervisees, we alsoneed to better understand our own evolving identities and world-views. The need for White supervisors to learn multicultural com-petence is obvious, but little attention has been given to the needsof supervisors of color. The discourse on how we are victimized bydisrespectful and abusive White supervisees raises the question of how we deal with these microagressions.When I was in training, I was surprised to hear Dr. Harris introduceBill, a new intern, to the group by declaring, “He’s our White boy!”We all laughed, and Bill smiled. He seemed embarrassed, possiblyeven hurt, but he knew that this was not his home territory. He knewthat he couldn’t respond, “It’s real nice for me to be supervised by acolored girl.” That wouldn’t go over well. But I wondered if it was allrighttomakehimthebuttofourjokes.Wasitpossibleandacceptablethatthesupervisorwasworkingoutherracialresentmentsandinjuriesthrough her relationship with this White intern?In multicultural contexts, such as the training centers I mention,there may be an institutional culture that provides a place of respiteand refuge from the world out there where one must function as aminority. In the multicultural context, supervisors of color are theones in control, the “experts” who know because we are the rightethnicity. We are in our own little world of privilege and entitlement,where we become the gatekeepers and the authorities. But we may beconfronted by disturbing incidents that complicate this simple picture.A White trainee told me of an incident in supervision in which shewasdescribinghowshehadempathizedwithherBlackclientbecauseshe too had once been on welfare. She had said to her Black super-visor, “Well, you know what it’s like to be on welfare.” But thesupervisor surprised her by answering, “No, I don’t.” The internconfided in me that her supervisor’s frank response opened her eyesto her own unconscious racist assumption that all Blacks, includingher psychologist supervisor, would have necessarily had the experi-enceofbeingonwelfare.Iwonderhowsuchracistassumptionsaffectsupervisors of color. Are we offended by what is projected onto us?Do we feel pressured to reveal personal information? Are we temptedto fulfill supervisees’ expectations and stereotypes and prove ourauthenticity? Do we confront the question of just how “native” we arein the community in which we work?I believe that the professional development of supervisors of colorcan be enhanced by risking vulnerability, owning entitlements, andassuming an attitude of “not knowing.” In my own efforts at dealingwith microaggressions in supervision, I try to be more self-reflectivein my practice. The more mindful I am, the better I become atreflection-in-practice in the moment that a microaggression occurs. Ina recent group supervision, I made a statement about Blacks andnoticedthatIturnedtoBob.Iimmediatelyreflectedwiththegrouponwhy I may have done that. Bob was our darkest skinned male. Was Isearching for affirmation from the person I saw as the most legitimate,authentic member of the group I was talking about? What did this sayabout how I thought of Jim, a lighter skinned member? Why hadn’t Iturnedtohim?Washelessauthenticinmyeyes?Whatdidmyactionsayabout my own assumptions and needs that are expressed in cross-racialencounters? How might my own identity struggles affect supervision?This experience shed great light on the tensions in my development.Supervisors of color need the opportunity to reflect on their expe-riences of microaggressions, both as sender and receiver. It greatlyaffects supervisees when their supervisors are dealing, or not dealing,effectively with their own identity issues. We can enhance the oppor-tunities for growth and transformation for all involved, includingclients, by focusing attention on our own identity development.We all dwell in grayness, some more than others. We all haveotherness, although the forms are not the same and not equal.Getting in touch with our own otherness is a way of empathizingwith the otherness in our supervisees. The increasing ethnic diver-sity of people in training forces us to be open to broadening ourscope to include more borderland issues that are multiethnic andtransnational. We are challenged to develop ways of seeing theworld in which race and ethnicity are no longer Black–White oreither–or but full of richness and complexity in which we maydiscover new power and creativity. References Fromm, E. (1963).  The art of loving.  New York: Bantam Books.Pierce, C. M. (1970). Offensive mechanisms. In F. B. Barbour (Ed.).  The Black seventies: Leading Black authors look at the present and reachinto the future.  Boston: Porter Sargent.Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Buccheri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B.,Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life:Implications for clinical practice.  American Psychologist, 62,  271–286. Received November 21, 2008Revision received July 8, 2009Accepted July 24, 2009   18  MURPHY-SHIGEMATSU
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