Understanding Microaggressions Through a Graphic Novel

Each year, the school where I work provides in-house professional development for its faculty and staff, and last year the focus was on microaggressions and implicit bias. I was lucky to be a part of the team who helped lead the PD sessions, which focused mostly on teaching the adults in our community how to recognize and deal with microaggressions at school.  

One of the most valuable resources I used during this process was the graphic novel As the Crow Flies by Mellanie Gilman (2018 Stonewall Book Award Honor, 2019 Amelia Bloomer Book List Selection). In an instance of true serendipity, we added the book to our library collection just as I was starting to work with the professional development team. When I read it, I realized how perfectly it illustrated microaggressions and their negative impacts (literally and figuratively). 

If you haven’t read As the Crow Flies, the story is about Charlie Lamont, a queer black teenager who goes to a weeklong Christian summer camp for girls.  As soon as she and her parents arrive at the camp, she realizes that she is the ONLY non-white camper. She decides to stick with it, but experiences several microaggressions within the first few hours of being there.

What I found really powerful about the novel is how it shows the impact of these microaggressions on Charlie. I decided to use some scenes from the novel during our professional development session, to demonstrate how our students (and adults) could be affected by microaggressions. I’ve included the scenes and my discussion points below.

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In these first three images, we see Charlie’s reaction to a racial microaggression made by the head of the camp. Charlie hears the microaggression, looks around to see if anyone else has reacted, then spirals into possible scenarios of how she could address the adult who committed the microaggression. By the time she’s gone through this process, the adult has moved on to another topic.

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Later in the story, we see that because Charlie’s mental energy was taken up with how to react to the microaggression, she missed important information about what to pack for the upcoming hike. This is a great place to discuss how this can happen to our teens during classes, and what looks like inattention could be the diversion of their mental energy.

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In the next three images, we see Charlie’s reaction to a microaggression based on sexuality, when a fellow camper uses the word gay as an insult. This provides an opening for discussing the intersectionality of minority identities. Not only has Charlie just dealt with a racially based microaggression, now she has to field a microaggression against another aspect of her identity, her queerness. This is also an opportunity to point out the idea that it’s not one microaggression that causes such harm – it’s the impact of multiple microaggressions over time.

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These images could also be a springboard for conversation about how people react if they commit a microaggression and are challenged.  Defensiveness is natural, but not helpful for the person who was the victim of the microaggression. They also provide a chance to talk about how the other people at the table reacted, and discuss the idea of allyship.

While I did this discussion with faculty and staff, I think it would work well with teenagers too.

Have you used books or stories to address tough issues in your organization? If so, how did it go?

–Whitney Etchison