Teachable moments suck. Here’s how I make them suck less.
Oxford defines a teachable moment as:
an event or experience which presents a good opportunity for learning something about a particular aspect of life.
Sounds innocuous, right? All win-win and upside, sweetness and light, everyone is happy?
Not so much when the “teachable moment” pertains to diversity or identity, be it gender, age, disability, ethnicity, LGBTQ+ status, or any other aspect. Let me tell you that under those circumstances, “teachable moments” are unequivocally awful experiences, even under the best of circumstances.
- The “teacher” has just been discriminated against or, at a minimum, has been on the receiving end of a microaggression attacking or devaluing a core component of their identity.
- The “teacher” is then expected to step up on behalf of their community and educate the person who committed the discrimination without losing their *hit. This is commonly where issues like imposter syndrome (who am I to complain about this particular event?) and stereotype threat (I don’t want them to think that I am one of those disabled people always asking for special treatment) appear.
With age comes wisdom, and I’ve established the following process to break down my teachable moments and make them easier for me to digest.
Step 1: Recognize that you own and control the power of responding.
This step comes from basic 12-step program principles. Addicts are required to understand that:
- They are powerless over people, places, and things.
- They are powerless over another person’s bad or thoughtless choices.
- They cannot control whether others respect their boundaries.
- The only response they control is their own.
The same is true for being on the receiving end of discriminatory words or actions.
The only response I control is mine.
- lose it, which I sometimes do, followed by recognizing later that my emotional response was a missed opportunity;
- say nothing, which I also sometimes do;
- think carefully and respond either immediately or in the future in a way geared toward changing the person’s future behavior.
The moment is always teachable. However, I control whether and how the education occurs.
Step 2: Recognize that it’s not selfish to put your disability-related needs and identity first.
We are people with disabilities. We don’t have problems or issues that need to be resolved. We deal with barriers placed by others that need to be eliminated. Our needs are not conceptual. They are real and systematically inhibit us from having an equal playing field with everyone else. It is not selfish to demand (not ask) to be treated equally.
Step 3: Recognize microaggressions are important.
Microaggressions minimalize crucial and integrated aspects of our identity. They come in many forms: verbal, actions, and the failure to act. Microaggressions either intentionally or unconsciously send negative messaging based solely on the recipient’s perceived status as a member of an underrepresented group.
If the microaggression is important enough for you to be thinking about it, it’s important enough for you to consider calling it out. Institutionalized ableism, racism, gender bias are the source of many microaggressions. Moving microaggressions from the unconscious (I didn’t know this was bad) to the conscious (Gee, someone told me they didn’t appreciate this comment/behavior) is the first step in reducing institutional discrimination.
Step 4: Doing nothing is OK, too.
Sometimes, you are just out of spoons.
- You are too tired to respond in the moment.
- The comment/behavior was too overwhelming.
- You are concerned about backlash from calling out the person committing the microaggression.
Remember, you own and control the response (Step 1). Intentionally deciding not to respond is part of that ownership. Don’t lapse into doing nothing by default; make it a deliberate choice.
Step 5: If you can’t come up with anything but want to respond, start with What, When, Why, or How.
- Why did you think it was OK to say I am wheelchair-bound?
- How did you think I would feel as a person with a spinal curvature and club feet when you did that Quasimodo impersonation?
- When you posted the job opportunity, why did you add the statement you wanted male candidates? What makes you think a woman can’t do the job equally well or better?
- When you asked me if I would wear ugly shoes every day, I felt insulted. These are the expensive physician-prescribed shoes I need to wear to keep my bones from fracturing. That fact is vastly more important than your fashion opinion.
Yes, all four of these things have happened to me personally. When these incidents occurred, what I said probably wasn’t articulated this well. However, when you start with these three words, the rest frequently pours out of you.
Step 6: If you know the actor, you can always respond after the fact.
Some people (including me) find that writing their feelings in an email or text message is easier because they aren’t in front of the person (and their possible judgment) when the discrimination/microaggression occurs. However, there are trade-offs with this approach:
- Subtle communication cues like pain on your face aren’t visible when using a written communication form.
- If you “lose it” in your written communication, you’ve left a permanent record behind that can be used against you.
This is an instance where I love to use Grammarly’s tone detector. Suppose I get to the point where I have to write one of these messages. In that case, I’m generally-speaking too emotionally close to the issue to judge whether the message is coming off as accusatory or angry. Having a tool analyze my language and tell me what it thinks helps before taking the plunge and hitting the “send” button. I’ve found with my writing, the Grammarly tone detector is surprisingly accurate
Step 7: Decide. The correct choice is the one that works for you.
It is not productive to spend time later thinking, “I should have done this instead.” What is productive is revisiting your response (or lack thereof) and thinking, “if this comes up again in the future, do I have a plan for a better way to handle this?” That approach allows you to ideate on the issue in a non-threatening, non-immediate, hypothetical manner.