Summary: Until all human beings are consistently treated with equal respect, concepts such as micro-invalidation are needed. However, applied loosely and then defended, such concepts can also have an unintended chilling effect on cross-cultural dialogue.
I’ve been part of an on-line group of OD professionals and those interested in OD since the mid-1990s. Originally organized as an e-mail group, 170 of us recently migrated to goggle groups. Recently an allegation of micro-invalidation within the group reared it’s head.
Micro-invalidation and micro-aggression are important concepts. Unlike overt racism, sexism, or other isms, micro-assaults come in the form of many small moments. One group member put it this way:
“Imagine you’re part of a professional social media community. Imagine that most of the conversations are led by white males. Imagine when voices of difference particularly those of color or gender are either marginalized minimized or ignored. That my friends is micro invalidation more soon.”
Another group member took the que:
“I post about my book and the idea of Transformative Alignment that I have been working on. Other than four persons who responded in encouragement / affirmation, there has been radio-silence on this group. That, my friends, is also micro-invalidation of a brown-skinned Indian by the West, is it not?”
A worthy inquiry, leading to dialogue and learning if minds stay open. Open minds must include the possibility that a hypothesis does or doesn’t stand up to careful examination. If instead the conversation becomes a polarized debate, inquiry will be seen as proof of bias and/or defensiveness, and dialogue will shut down.
A white male Canadian group member put his toe into this water:
“Hi – what do you mean by your statement: ‘That, my friends, is also micro-invalidation of a brown-skinned Indian by the West, is it not?’ Please elaborate. To me, that is quite an assumption. Thank you.”
The person who wrote the original post, who is noted for his non-dogmatic expertise on race relations, responded with this:
“Another form of micro invalidation is to challenge the realities of people of color, surely they are either being overly sensitive, misunderstand or plain wrong. It always done in the perfectly innocent way. Thanks for this wonderful example.”
An example, yes…also an unintended invalidation of the white male Canadian, who chose not to respond.
This is where yours truly stepped into it:
“I should probably stay out of this, since anything I say or do might be evaluated as a micro aggression, at least by the criteria in this particular string. (Original poster), you have stood up to the over-application of micro aggression to anything that a person of color feels offended by as being too broad, but this sounds suspiciously like that kind of broad brush. I will fight group-think, no matter how noble the cause.
I have ignored every post here for at least a week. I am just now catching up. There is nothing about my lack of attention to (the author’s) post that isn’t true of every other post during the past week. There may be truth to the fear that racism is playing a role, but to the degree that race influences my responses to posts, race had nothing to do with my ignoring all posts the past week.
On the other hand I believe, for better or worse, that I am biased towards paying more attention to people of color (or people that are less pale than me). I can only speak for myself in that regard.
Now, where is this book that you are mentioning? Congratulations btw. Regards…even though I’m probably in trouble now…”
One person ( a white male from the US) responded directly to this:
“I’ll bet that sums up how many (who have stayed out of these exchanges) are feeling/thinking
I should probably stay out of this, since anything I say or do might be evaluated as a micro aggression, at least by the criteria in this particular string
Walking on egg shells seems apt. No matter how light your step, you are going to break some eggs.”
For the record, that was three less responses than the post that was allegedly ignored due to micro-invalidation.
To which I wrote: “It’s tricky stuff, but important. Anything that becomes taboo becomes poison imho.”
To the Canadian, the person who had wondered if the non-responses were micro-invalidation wrote:
“…it is not so much an assumption as a hypothesis I have offered for us to consider based on some evidence. I believe that the Unconscious operates in mysterious ways. When I received very sparse response from this list to my sharing about my book (and this is based on a LOT of research and work, combining music and OD), I felt rather deflated. Rather than pull it all into me, I asked myself as Alastair Bain of Socio-Analysis would have us ask, “What else is happening”? (The) points about micro-invalidations was serendipitous, and I read it as another prompting by the Unconscious.
I hope this clarifies my position. It is also possible that my statement may have come across as an accusation, which – if so – was never my intent.”
My next post, which included my positive assessment of the aforementioned new book:
“I understand being frustrated and insecure over the lack of response from this group. At least that is how I have felt on numerous occasions. I think it is a leap to jump to racism as a reason for people not responding…I didn’t respond because I didn’t read a single post the past week. Now I am defending lol.
Anyway, I was surprised that (you) attributed the lack of a response to race…I think discipline about such distinctions is important so I will continue to weigh in. One of my hero’s is Don Quixote and sloppy use of racial injustice looks like a windmill to me, as is actual racial injustice.
Sloppiness diminishes the clarity we need when confronting actual injustice imho.”
Now the original poster to me: “I did not call it racism..but an example of microinvaladation..in and of themselves extremely minor individually..and in the absence of a pattern nothing…but..if a pattern then it’s a form of microaggession…and this does not rise to racism unless it is system wide…one event does not a system make..much love”
To which I responded: “Fair enough…but when a guy with your kind of expert authority calls it microinvalidation (now my head hurts again…is that different than ‘microaggression’ lol) instead of saying “it might be microinvalidation” then it lends a lot of weight to the assertion…and a system might be assumed. The love is deep back at cha…way deep…and far too deep for me to tarnish the relationship by placating.”
And he: “Same here my friend…i forget…the speed of email and our responses…me trying to balance multiple tasks…..could I have explained more fully…the answer to such questions is always yes…am I perfect..the answer us always no…but who is…”
To which I wrote: “Thanks for this. This is important to me because your opinion on these matters carriers extra weight for me and for others. We need you sir!”
And he again: “…on line…part of my problem is that as I work through these ideas..and yes I use this space to flesh out the wrinkles…the full range of assumptions and clarifications that would go in a 30 page paper are not included…I assume ..damn that word..I know…if folks want clarification they would ask…think about an individual act of discrimination or prejudice absent the system and power are not evidence of racism, sexism, etc. This is standard definition a stuff…racism is discrimination/prejudice plus power ..over tone and across institutions it becomes systemic…
But…at the individual level..suppose the person gets a thousand of these cuts..all unrelated..from different individuals in different situations..that is the structure of microaggressions that constitutes systemic processes,..at issue is that the perpetrators are often ignore of the other slights…it’s the individual experiencing them that sees the patterns but has limited ability to help the others see”
…and my response: “Non-response to posts in this group still seems like a loose application of the concept to me. With any fear, one can start to see the threat even when it is not there. Of course, one can also see a real pattern and have it dismissed, especially by those who benefit from the pattern.
It’s complicated! And Important! I want as much clarity as possible, and forgiveness for making mistakes.”
I began that post by stating that “…it’s the individual experiencing them that sees the patterns but has limited ability to help the others see”…makes good sense to me but does not speak to whether this particular situation constitutes microaggression/microinvalidation. That was left unsaid.
The original poster responded with this: “…this is why patterns and trends are important to ascertain. Single incidents do not patterns make. But if this environment has a habit of ignoring such material or persons, then that does lend credence to the determination. But we are still left to grapple with the 1,000 paper cuts that occur across multiple platforms in which some individuals may be more apt to experience multiple episodes of microaggressions. Again, as an individual cut, they may appear hardly significant..its not the individual cut..but the accumulation of cuts, slights, and etc. that add up. And yes, simply having this conversation helps to become more deliberate in how we communicate and hopefully how we become more involved…more later..and much love.”
So: it is wise to empathize with the experience of those who have been invalidated on a lifetime basis. I get that and I do. It still does not address the specific incident, nor my attempts to address it.
I wrote: “I wonder if there is a way for us to study the response pattern here.” In retrospect, even though I would still be interested in that data, I also think it doesn’t matter. If a person has been invalidated all their lives because of race, gender, etc., I want to validate them as much as possible.
Meanwhile, things went downhill for me in that group (even though the rest of the group was having a lively time talking on a more abstract level).
I started to get lengthy philosophical responses which, while vague in terms of understanding of my message, concluded with subtle push back on my perceived meaning. For example: “I would rather leave you figure the challenge you’ve reaped from the challenge you’ve sowed for us here.”
About then the author who originally wondered about the lack of responses equating with microinvalidation wrote: “Thanks for checking – no, I am not at all upset with you. I actually enjoy this engagement. I am in acceptance of the larger point that you make, esp of the dead horse on the table.”
So far so good. He continued:
“I really wonder about the evidence on which your hypothesis is being constructed…”
And from another highly respected OD professional:
“I find that a good rule of thumb for me is that, if/when I find myself defending my behavior against others’ impressions, there is likely something at least partially true to the observation and it is discoverable when I look internally . . .”
Mostly my posts were ignored.
I think I was beginning to understand micro-invalidation in a new way.
By then, the rest of the group was busy posting on how wonderful inclusion is. I gave them my last frustrated post:
…but (you) are saying what everyone here, including I, supports…inclusion, etc., and (a member’s) model is helpful, but it doesn’t clear up the concern I raised at the beginning of this string. On this list at least, supporting inclusion and diversity are like supporting motherhood (all three of which I support!). This from a string that began with a hypothesis that four responses to a post about a book equaled a non-response from everyone else and that equaled microaggression. I think that is poppycock, and perhaps a reverse micro-aggression against everyone that didn’t respond. Unintended of course, but then microaggressions are often unintended. To create inclusion must we always respond to every post? Even if, as in my case, we don’t want to read any posts for a week? Obviously crazy but apparently necessary. If once the word micro-aggression is spoken we are no longer able to reason together…if attempts at reason are automatically regarded as a defense, then we make the concept of microaggression into a dogma against which one dares not raise their voice.”
To which I got zero responses.
My summary: It’s a sad state of affairs that people can experience micro-invalidation throughout a lifetime. I pray that will change and I pledge to do what I can. If we are talking about history, than any micro-invalidation in the present, including the 166 members of my online group that didn’t respond to the author’s original posting, even if like me they simply didn’t read any posts that week, are guilty of participating in micro-invalidation.
At the same time, such a broad brush makes it almost impossible not to participate, and when individual choice is removed from the equation, I question the value of the concept, except perhaps to evoke guilt. I think it would be far better if the concept was reserved for willful acts.
If I say a white women is professional and a black women in dreadlocks is not, that is a micro-invalidation. If I pay attention to white writers and ignore persons of other ethnicity, that is a micro-invalidation. If I listen to Obama and say he is “surprisingly articulate,” that is a micro-invalidation. I consider those willful acts.
Within that framework, micro-invalidation is a useful concept.
On the other hand, if someone questions whether, for example, the 166 non-responses to the non-white non-US OD person’s post about their new book is an accurate example of micro-invalidation, and not one person says “I agree with you,” then that is an invalidation of a different color. That is where I sit…and from 170 people steeped in group dynamics. Not one other dissenting (supportive) voice. The closest voices like mine were the Canadian who backed down after his initial query and the white male from the US, both of whom later resurfaced in the chorus of voices proclaiming support for the author’s book and for diversity. Nobody in this group that has studied group-think clearly articulated what I was addressing. More than one hinted that maybe I just needed to look in the mirror.
That imho is what can take a useful concept and turn it into a dogmatic nightmare, not to be questioned. If it can happen in an OD group, it can happen anywhere.
Finally, a poem inspired by this experience:
An eye for an eye
and the world will be blind
An invalidation for an invalidation
and the world will be invalid
Use of self is to speak
of the impact on you
Or all we wind up with
is OD word salad
Describing what happened
is the safest way to confront
but can still ignite flames
if 166 non-responses (out of 170 members)
systemic invalidation makes
then every day on this OD group
we are baking invalidation cakes
And while invalidation is most important
in ethnic, gender, and historical terms
directed against anyone the individual and the system
Invalidated daily for a lifetime
it is hard not to see
non-responses in the here and now
as invalidation reality
But if challenging invalidation
as an explanation becomes taboo
then if I cry “invalidation”
the onus is all upon you
The victim becomes the persecutor
The persecutor is caught in a trap
Do they challenge the label
And lose in perception court?
Further invalidating the invalidated?
Or do they keep their mouths shut
and live a new kind of hell
The “father of the civil rights movement”
Howard Thurman (MLK’s pastor)
was taught by his grandmother well
When told by the white pastors to behave
she thought “Go to hell”
With only cautious support in this group
Isolation that made my head spin
I pause, reflect, and give thanks
when all is said and done
must come from above
and come from within