The Importance of Becoming Self-Aware

by Jessie Rayl

Richard Bach states, "The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.  What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the master calls a butterfly."
I am reminded in reading this quote of many experiences throughout my life —experiences which have been both filled with sadness and happiness, experiences which have shown great ignorance and great acceptance.  These experiences have led me to become the person I am today.  They have led me into further study of the concept of micro-aggression and the importance of becoming self-aware.
Many years ago, as a young professional advocate working with people with developmental disabilities, I spent much time evaluating people and advocating for least restrictive environments to give them the most quality of life with their abilities and challenges in mind.  My own disabilities were rarely, if ever, questioned or brought up in my direct work with these clients.  I naively thought this would be the way my professional work always would be.  I was ecstatic several years later when, working at another job, I was asked to become guardian of two, then later a third, person who was determined by the court to need such assistance.  For the remainder of those people's lives, I would make all medical and financial decisions and essentially be the family they did not have.  What an honor for a then-26-year-old woman.  Again, not once did I hear the word "blind."  I heard terms such as capable, responsible, compassionate, knowledgeable.
In another capacity as counselor, I stood in the court room.  I was astounded as the attorney made comment after comment which demeaned and degraded me: How would you know what your client was doing …you cannot see him/her?  How can you possibly know what is in this file …you cannot read it?  How can you know what the client's affect is …you cannot see?  On and on this went, and no effort was made by the others in the court room, not even the judge, to stop it.  Try as I might, I could not defend me or the client …or so I thought.  But apparently I did, because that attorney lost his case and was highly reprimanded later.  I remember well leaving the courthouse, walking back with tears running down my face, walking into my office and closing the door.  My supervisor, Jeff Chlebnikow, entered.  I will never forget his words.  "You are the expert.  Never, ever, forget that.  You are the professional.  You know your client.  You are the expert and you know better than anyone what it is that you can and cannot do."
Not all experiences have been quite so affirming.  Micro-aggression is alive and well.  So, what is micro-aggression?  It is the term ascribed to our biases and prejudices that each of us has, usually unconsciously or unknown to us, those we might deny.  It is the thing that makes us say: I like that blind lady's dress.  I like that African-American man's shirt.  When we, needlessly, use the ethnic, religious, disability, or other cultural descriptor of another person, we are micro-aggressing.  There is no reason for it. It is a habit, and a hurtful one.  That habit is the one that will, ultimately, come rolling out of our mouths when we are angry or frustrated: That blind woman is incompetent.  That blind woman is holding up the line.  It is the habit that will cause us to exclude people who are culturally and linguistically diverse (CLD), either subtly or outright.  For example, talking to others without disabilities or racial differences and then including the person who is CLD.  That habit is the one that allows us to make presumptuous and assuming statements about people who are CLD.  And, as Bach so eloquently stated, your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.
I remember well a meeting wherein staff members were gathered together in a room that clients generally spent time in.  A client walked in, likely assuming there was a party.  As staff ordered and commanded her to leave, she stood there confused and bewildered.  Why should she have to leave her room?  My colleague and dear friend quietly, professionally and gently walked over to her and walked with her from the room, explaining to her that we were having a meeting and she could return after it was over.
The butterfly can only soar if the caterpillar thrives.  Each of us must be the cocoon for that thriving of one another.  Becoming self-aware is the start.  Omit cultural descriptive from your thoughts and statements unless they are needed (e.g., for identification, education or your own self-enrichment).  Do not allow others to undermine you with their insertions and help them become self-aware when they do.  Ask yourself: what is the purpose of using the cultural descriptor?  Can I achieve the same purpose without the cultural descriptor?  If that purpose is to put down, blame, degrade or demean, there is no value to the purpose.  Otherwise, know we are all equal and must soar together.