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The Power to Define Reality

The power to define reality: Whose reality is real?

When I speak about my personal experiences with subtle and covert forms of discrimination, also known as microaggressions (see previous entry), I am often challenged about my interpretations. Is it possible, they may ask, that the behavior exhibited by the person you described had nothing to do with discrimination? Aren't there many other logical reasons why that behavior may have occurred? While the answer to these questions can be "yes," one important detail is overlooked when this type of inquiry takes place. The perspective of the person sharing their experiences with microaggressions is negated.

Why is it that many people are so quick to come up with reasons to defend the position that the experience was not discriminatory in nature? Why not just offer a neutral or supportive stance on the matter?

I believe the answer to this question has to do with power and who has the power to define reality. We live in a country that is dominated by the perspectives and ideals of a segment of society, rather than all of society. We need only look at who are in positions of power, such as politicians and corporate leaders, as well as who is represented in mainstream media, to find the answer to which segment of society has the power to define reality. Women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, and bisexual people (as well as other marginalized people) are highly underrepresented in positions of power in American society. And, it is often their experiences that are negated by those who have the power to define reality.

Let's think about this scenario: If a Black man and his White friend dine together in a restaurant and the White patron is given the wine list, and asked to taste and approve it, is there a potential bias here? If one considers the incident in isolation, the answers can be either "yes" or "no." Certainly, if the waiter were confronted about the behavior, he/she would probably deny it and leave with a belief that the Black patron was "oversensitive" and "paranoid." Supposing, however, that this scenario consistently happens when dining out together during lunch hours. When the Black man makes the observation about possible bias to his friend, he is also told by his friend that he is simply "oversensitive" and race had nothing to do with it. The racial reality of the Black man is being negated by his White colleague and the waiter. Whose reality is the true reality? In this case, the colleague, waiter and society have imposed their reality on the situation: The treatment of the Black patron had nothing to do with unconscious bias, but that it was a random act or explained by any number of reasons.

Research on microaggressions suggests that marginalized people (e.g., women, people of color, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, religious minorities, the poor, etc.) experience microaggressions in their daily lives. Additionally, when they question the motives of perpetrators or try to defend their experiences, their perceptions and concerns are invalidated. Ironically, and in this case, the act of questioning a person's experience with microaggressions may, at times, be a form of microaggression! It is a denial of the aggressed person's right to interpret and give meaning to their lived experience. It is denying the fact that we live in a society wrought with social inequalities based on race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social class, and ability. So, when a person is told that they have misinterpreted a discriminatory interaction, regardless of the intent, their experience as a marginalized person is negated.

So, why care about who has the power to define reality in any given situation? When only a fraction of society holds the power to define what is real and what is not real, the rest of us are left living by their rules. This can look like a woman who works in the financial industry having to conform to the ideals and expectations of a male dominated field in order to best ensure her chances for success. Or, it can look like a gay male elementary teacher having to conform to heteronormative behaviors by hiding his sexual orientation for fear of jeopardizing his career. In these examples, the woman and gay male have learned what the rules are for success in a sexist and heterosexist society. That is, they are forced to develop an understanding of the mindset of their oppressors for survival, whereas males and heterosexuals do not need to understand the mindset of women and sexual minorities in order for them to survive and succeed in American society. I can go on and on with examples of how people from marginalized identities have sacrificed their reality because they received the message that their reality was not real, but I think you get the point.

Whose reality is real? Reality is subjective. Reality is shaped by one's place in the world. To deny a person's reality, is to deny their place in the world.


About the Author

David P. Rivera, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at William Paterson University.