Creating Better Cuppings, Part Three: Understanding Microaggressions

By Umeko Motoyoshi

This is the third installment in the series Creating Better Cuppings. Creating Better Cuppings is, itself, a follow-up to a three-part series called Gender At The Cupping Table.

Gender At The Cupping Table starts here.

Creating Better Cuppings starts here.

Still from the animated short   How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites   by Same Difference for Fusion Comedy.

Still from the animated short How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites by Same Difference for Fusion Comedy.

What is a microaggression? Let’s start where I often do, with the Wikipedia definition. 

Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.

Ok, let’s unpack that. 

Many of us  hold different identities and experiences that contribute to our lives being easier in some ways and harder in other ways. Some of us hold multiple identities that make our lives a little or a lot harder. And some of us hold multiple identities that make our lives a little or a lot easier.

If you grew up in poverty, that probably contributed to your life being harder. Poverty is known to result in mental and physical distress, it means isolation from classed opportunities, and it can put your life at risk on a daily basis. 

Let’s say you grew up in poverty and you also are a white man. In the US, this means you are aligned with a demographic that holds the greatest socio-economic power. What do I mean by that? As an example, white men comprise 31% of the US population but hold 65% of elected offices. And white men hold 91% of corporate leadership positions in Fortune 500 companies. Does being a white man mean you are a CEO or a politician? Of course not. But it does mean that you live in a country that holds strong preferences for people who look like you.

You didn’t choose this alignment, just as you also didn’t choose to grow up in poverty. But even though we don’t choose our alignments, or identities, they dramatically shape our experience. Others are unconsciously enculturated into viewing us and treating us in a certain way, and we unconsciously adopt the same enculturation into our own self-concept. 

Without realizing it, we constantly send and absorb micro-messages about ourselves and others through culture, media, how many grocery stores are in our neighborhood, whether a doctor believes us when we’re sick, whether teachers call on us in school, how bosses and co-workers treat us in meetings, whether we got the bank loan, the apartment, the promotion, what the barista assumes about our understanding of a macchiato when we order at a cafe.

When these micro-messages, sent through behavior and/or words, are negative; when they relate to a part of someone’s identity that aligns with power; and they are delivered by someone whose correlating identity is aligned or more aligned with power; that is a microaggression.

Don’t let the name fool you - microaggressions are a big deal. I even hesitate to call them “micro” because their impact can be so devastating. You know the saying “death by a thousand cuts?” Microaggressions are a thousand cuts. One individual injury may seem like not a big deal, but that’s only if you’re ignoring the 999 others.

And microaggressions are powerful because they are usually invisible to the person delivering them. The aggressor most often has no idea that they’re being hurtful. They don’t hold the identity they are unknowingly attacking, so the mechanisms of that experience are invisible to them, and they most frequently will respond with absolute denial when confronted with information. 

Denial and defensiveness gaslight marginalized folks into feeling unheard, invalidated, and full of self-doubt. “Am I overreacting?” is a common thought we experience when someone denies our experience. This gaslighting and frustration is a secondary, but equally devastating, impact of microaggressions. 

So what is the solution? I don’t think anyone knows, but I do have some key concepts that help me to improve my own practices. 

First, impact and intention are separate. Benign intentions do not justify or excuse harmful impact. It’s kind of like if someone accidentally hit you in the face - I don’t know, maybe you’re in a mosh pit. They didn’t intend to hit you, but it still hurts, and they still caused the hurt. We must learn to say “I’m sorry” instead of “I didn’t mean it that way.”

Second, even the most virtuous among us will always have more to learn about our impact on others and our relationship to power and privilege. As an example, it’s possible to hold a marginalized identity and still enact social violence onto others who hold different identities. Although I am half Japanese, I’m also half white and am frequently read as white by others. This puts me in a position where it is absolutely possible for me to enact microaggressions on East Asian people who are not half white or read as white. And in the US, both East Asian and white identities are privileged in many ways, meaning even if I were ‘full’ Japanese I would still be in a position to enact social violence on other people of color.

Third, It doesn’t make us a bad person if we make a mistake. Everyone make mistakes, and our microaggressions are a product of deep enculturation. However, we must be willing to listen and learn from those mistakes when someone takes the time to inform us. It is scary and emotionally exhausting to explain aggression to the aggressor, and that must be honored. Without listening and believing, we will not be able to identify and change the behaviors that cause harm.

Now that we have defined microaggressions, and explored how we can relate to learning about others’ experiences, let’s dive into how this all ties in to cupping. Easy answer: it ties into cupping because it ties into everything. 

However, cuppings can be particularly emotionally vulnerable environments, and I have never heard that truly recognized. In a cupping, you are tasked with describing your own personal, subjective experience of a coffee, and it can be painful when that is dismissed or called into question. When the words you choose or the framework you refer to are treated as lacking, your self-concept and belief in your professional competence can be deeply shaken. Because of this, many people feel vulnerable even being in a cupping room. When that inherent vulnerability is coupled with microaggressions, the result is exclusion, shame, and loss of human connection. 

Michelle Johnson, founder of The Chocolate Barista and Account Manager at Coffee Manufactory, describes it succinctly. “People are self-selecting out of cuppings because they don’t want to deal with being treated like shit.”

From the coffee professionals in this piece, I learned about microaggressive patterns in cuppings, and what we can do to counteract those patterns. If you are someone who feels discomfort or defensiveness around your own alignments with power, I hope this can be an exercise in staying solution-oriented through that discomfort. If you feel yourself becoming defensive, try going back to our key concepts. First, intent is different from impact. Second, we always have more to learn about ourselves. Third, everyone is imperfect and that’s just human - but we must listen to and believe marginalized experiences of our mistakes.

In the next two installments, we will explore ways to reduce instances of microaggression and improve the emotional safety of cuppings. Stay tuned friends!

By Umeko Motoyoshi, September 2019

The previous installment in this series is here.

The next installment in this series is here.

Kevin LealComment