The Messiness of Microaggressions

Post Author: Shavon Starling-Louis

1 Corinthians 12:12, 26 NRSV

For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it.


The author

The author

Hey there, friend. I have news: we are all a mess, and you are messy, too.

I feel called to tell you that because I love you, and I love the people with whom you come in contact.

While we may know each other well, marginally, or not at all, the fact that you were willing to click on this link and at least start reading this think piece means that I can trust you with a bit of truth. I am guessing that something intrigued you to mentally and spiritually lean in towards a topic that most of the world would still choose to turn away from, minimize, or utterly deny.

With that in mind, I am going to assume the very best in you; I am going to trust you with my truth. Because, as we see being played out in government (45, I am looking at you), the media, and in the comment section of almost any page online, communication has no worth without an explicitly expressed value of trust.

Along those lines, let’s establish our starting place, friends. I am assuming that you and I have a shared value for what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. named the Beloved Community. That is, the kind of community that respects the intrinsic worth of all members of humanity. The King Center writes, within the beloved community “racism and all forms of discrimination, bigotry and prejudice will be replaced by an all-inclusive spirit of sisterhood and brotherhood.”

If this is not your shared stance on humanity, please feel free to exit this article because it will be a waste of your time, and probably only offend you. Honestly, I love you enough to let you be who you are. If the work of edifying the beloved community of humanity is not your shtick, then this is conversation is not for you.

I will give you a few seconds to go if you need to: 3… 2… 1…

So, you stayed. YEAH!!!

Starting from my own truth, let me share a little about myself:

As writing for Fidelia implies, I am a young(ish) clergy woman. I am 34-year-old, trap-music-loving (Yes, I know there are complexities in the explicit misogynistic and graphic language.), African-American woman. I am also the mother of two and the wife of one. I serve as pastor of Providence Presbyterian Church in Providence, Rhode Island. (Yep, there are black folk in RI.) PPC is a multicultural, multiracial, richly dynamic church that is going deeper in conversations and actions around racial injustice, mass incarceration, immigration, and the work that we are called to do as people empowered by the Holy Spirit. I, personally, am very invested in the areas of racial reparations and societal healing of the psycho-spiritual injuries of racism in the Reformed theological tradition and beyond.

So, that’s me.

Now for the business at hand: the messiness of racial microaggressions. Violence toward the marginalized comes in all forms in our society. Sometimes it is outspoken and brazen, like the macroaggressive, riotous terrorism of the white nationalists in Charlottesville, spewing hatred toward a large group of people and/or systems of power. Macroaggressors work to prohibit the autonomy, agency, and value of large groups of people, particularly brown and black people, through institutionalized expressions of racism.

Then there are the more subtle racist microaggressions: words and actions of exclusion that maim the spirit, and scar the heart. This is the type of social violence that happens person-to-person, or in smaller groups. They occur partly because we are all people breathing in the societal air of sinful racism and then breathing it out on others.

Microaggressions have often been described as death by a million paper cuts. In many ways, this is how it has felt for me and loved ones, when the startling, unexpected, sting of a microaggression occurs. The Rev. Dr. Cody Sanders and the Rev. Dr. Angela Yarber, authors of Microagressions in Ministry: Comforting the Hidden Violence of the Everyday Church, describe microaggressions as “everyday slights, insults, invalidations [that] accost the spirits of women, persons of color and LGBTQs on a regular basis.”

As a faithful person of color, who loves many people from different perspectives, a part of what makes racial microaggressions so messy is that, by acknowledging them, you run the risk of being further alienated, and deemed “too sensitive.” Due to the “slightness” of microaggressions, they can be minimized. And because microaggressions are often committed by well-meaning loved ones who have no intent to hurt others, naming them can be awkward, exhausting, and sometimes scary, especially if there is a power differential (which is common).

Regardless of intent, microaggressions have a deep and lasting impact. These messy interactions, gestures, and words happen in all arenas of society, but I believe they can be particularly damaging in the spiritual community of our churches. For any of us, but especially those new to faith, the experience of microaggressions in the faith community can be felt as a violent rejection, not just from the person who expresses the thought, but also from the entire people of God, and at its worst, a rejection from God’s very self.

In my experience as a congregant and church leader, I have heard such inconsiderate remarks as “your son is the the most beautiful black baby I have seen.” I have witnessed thoughtless assumptions about black men’s innate criminality. I have heard comments that conflate all Asian cultures as Chinese. I have endured the generalizing of all African nationalities, as if the continent were a huge country. All of these typify ugly and messy microaggressions.

As a black clergy member, called to be in community with a diversity of people (including white people who make up 90% of my denomination), microaggressions get really messy, really quickly. And you never know when or where you might experience the thin slice of such cutting words, actions, and images.

Observing the brokenness of others does not feel comfortable or even safe. It is messy.

Being pierced by the sinful racism of others is not clean or easy work. It is messy.

Being called to reflect to people that they are messy doesn’t feel kind or good (usually). It is messy.

We all absorb lies about the other and about ourselves. The only way past this racist mess is through it: acknowledging its impact on us all.

So, sisters (and brothers) of color, particularly those in primarily white communities, remember you are not alone in this work. The God of Justice and Wholeness, who calls you by name, crafts you, inspires you, and empowers you to overcome ANY mess that comes your way, is with you.

Now, to my white sisters (and brothers): It is with love that I tell you that, because of the sinful condition of this racist air we breathe, you are particularly messy. You have a deep kind of messiness, one that will not easily be absolved by thinking you are different from other messier white people around you (I am looking at you, safety-pin-wearing allies). But, as people who know better, you can, by the power of the Triune God who comes in perfect community, do better, and you can help your other messy people do better, too.

This work starts by naming that you are indeed are M.E.S.S.Y.!

Once you truly acknowledge this reality, I believe you will find infinite ways to start the lifelong work of being less messy in the places where God has sent you. I prayerfully offer these tools as you engage with your messiness, and the messiness of those around you.

Make space for the other.

In the relationships that you are blessed to cultivate, create space in your heart and mind for the infinite possibility of the other.

Expect your own bias.

Being grace-filled in the limitations of our own lives allows us to be more grace-filled with others. We can be surprised by our own defensiveness when someone names our limitations or brokenness, so take the time to acknowledge your base bias. You have biases, don’t ignore them – name and challenge your biases.

Stop for the Spirit.

When you are tempted to make a comment about another cultural group, stop. Breathe. Allow the Holy Spirit to test your motivation. Consider discerning with such questions as: “Does this need to be said? Does this need to said now? Does this need to be said by me?”

Speak from what you know.

Like base biases, you also have a particular lived experience. It is beautiful, but it is limited. Name this also, to create trust and room to grow. Consider simply saying, “I don’t know much about …, but I have noticed…would you mind telling me about your experience?” It is also important to genuinely be okay with someone responding no to that question.

Yield to the experiences of others.

You are a human being who has biases and does not know everything. Be open to the opportunities of growing and learning. Yield in mind, heart, and spirit to the wisdom that God may be offering you in the divine reflection that is the other person with whom you are called to be beloved community.


We live messy lives, in this messy world, friends. But, never forget that we are in this mess together, with the God who calls us into one messy, beautiful, suffering, rejoicing body.

Shavon loves God deeply, and her greatest joy is discovering in community creative ways to join in with what God is doing in the world. She drawn to the intersection of justice, theology, art and societal healing particularly as it relates to race and racism.

Image by: Shavon Starling-Louis
Used with permission
2 replies
  1. Mary says:

    Wow,thanks for putting this into perspective, and giving me some specific things to focus and work on.
    I’ll work on being messy! Love it!


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