Contempt of Presence

By Sheila Caldwell

I was excited to be working as a new director in an inaugural role at a predominantly white university in the South. The community I worked in was the headquarters for the Klu Klux Klan and the galvanizer for the Trail of Tears.  It was the second week of the fall semester and I was tasked with persuading students and potential donors on the importance of investing in a college education. After the event concluded, a white male professor from the Business Department introduced himself to me with a compliment on my presentation and a lunch invite with him, and other colleagues. I declined the invitation due to a prior commitment. We continued to engage each other with small talk. After learning more about his work, I returned his compliment and stated that a business degree has the same vague brilliance as the United States Constitution: relevant, versatile, and timeless.  His eyebrows raised and he asked me where I heard that comment. I told him the alignment was my idea.

He laughed nervously and said, it was not my idea. He repeated his question. I looked him in the eye and responded the same. The third time he asked with indignation. What professor did you hear that from? I processed his question as “What white male professor informed my words?”  I was creative and smart, I retorted.

Our exchange was an example of a microaggression. Harvard Psychiatrist Charles M. Pierce coined the term in 1970. Microaggression is defined as intentional and unintentional daily insults, slights, and dismissals directed towards marginalized groups. As a diversity officer in a Christian Liberal Arts school, I make an effort to appropriately substitute secular terms with biblical language to provide a Christian perspective on bias, racism and sexism. I believe that using the scriptures to inform biased behaviors is more effective at changing hearts and minds for Christ followers. The biblical term for microaggression is contempt: the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving of scorn.

My interactions with the business professor was full of contempt. As a black woman working in the academy, he did not consider me worthy to have high or independent ideas. I walked away from the conversation baffled by a white male professor who I had interacted with for less than ten minutes. Within that brief period of time, he complimented my work, invited me to lunch, and determined the limits of my cognitive abilities and creativity. As a new employee, I pondered how he treated his female students and students from racialized communities.

The situation I just described happened a few years ago with a former employer. However, working in diverse institutions provides abundant opportunities for contempt. Earlier this week, I was in a leadership meeting with my peers. I provided an update on my current projects, including an invitation to present at a diversity conference. The conversation went as follows:

Me: I am presenting on race and integration at Harvard.

Colleague: Did you say Harvard?

Me: Yes. Harvard.

Colleague: Harvard University?

Me: Yes.

Colleague: The one in Boston.

Me: Yes. Boston, Massachusetts.

My white female colleague does not have difficulty hearing or understanding geography. However, she did struggle with her imagination to believe that I would be a presenter at Harvard University. Unlike the white male professor, she has endured her own line of questioning regarding her intellect and abilities for occupying a female body. However, in this instance, it was the black female body and mind that was subject to scrutiny because of her own biases and stereotypes.

I like to caution white women who are fully aware when they are victims of sexism to make every effort to avoid being agents of racism.  Although I have earned a leadership certificate from Harvard and I serve in a leadership role at my institution, my acumen and accomplishments were met with contempt. My white female colleague gave me, along with my white male peers, the impression that she did not think I was deserving to present at Harvard. My other team members would not have been burdened with a similar inquiry. Instead of a deficit-based perspective, my male colleagues would have likely received affirmation and praise, as they have in the past.

There are members in our society who are rarely confronted with questions that disrupt their psychological state. It is worthwhile to consider why poor, disabled, and racialized ethnic groups bear the daily burden of defending their humanity as equal image bearers in Christ. Majority members would do well to analyze the motivation behind words and behaviors that discount and devalue others who do not share their race or class status.

On any given Tuesday or Friday, I have been a victim or witness to the following contemptuous questions:  Why are you in this meeting? Who do you know at this organization? How did you get this job? Is that your real hair? How long did it take to do your hair? I am not bothered by curiosity. I am troubled by individuals who feel entitled to remind you that they view you as an object of contempt who does not belong in certain spaces. Contempt of presence is a form of disrespectful behaviors and/or words toward a group of people prompted by association with a stigmatized group.

When stigmatized groups are treated with contempt by members of a majority group, it creates a hostile environment and persistent stress. Sound evidence suggests that contempt in the form of microaggressions have a detrimental impact on the health of marginalized groups. Negative effects include traumatic stress, depression, anger, isolation, and lower life expectancy.

Christians are encouraged to be givers of life through the gospel. At the heart of contempt lies a lack of love and consideration. Hebrews 10:24 instructs believers to consider how to spur each other on towards love and good deeds. The operative word “consider” demands contemplation, examination, and thoughtfulness. Christians should consider the best way to invite someone into a conversation or relationship. For example, direct questions such as, “Where are you from? What are you mixed with?” are not the most effective questions to spur someone on because both objectify a person, and suggest a lack of belonging. Prior to posing a question to a marginalized person, one should consider, “Why do I think this person is positioned to answer this question?” Hasty and harmful judgements are in opposition to the teachings of Christ. I am hopeful that the word of God can be the source of inspiration that motivates all followers to honor, value, and respect each other.


Carter, R. T., Mazzula, S., Victoria, R., Vazquez, R., Hall, S., Smith, S., Sant-Barket, S., Forsyth, J., Bazelais, K., & Williams, B. (2013). Initial development of the Race-Based Traumatic Stress Symptom Scale: Assessing the emotional impact of racism. Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, 5(1), 1–9.

O’Keefe, V.M., Wingate, L.R., Cole, A.B., Hollingsworth, D.W. and Tucker, R.P. (2015), Seemingly harmless racial communications are not so harmless: Racial microaggressions lead to suicidal ideation by way of depression symptoms. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 45: 567-576. doi:10.1111/sltb.12150

Torino, G. (2017). How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health. Center for Health Journalism.  Retrieved from

Dr. Sheila Caldwell currently serves as the inaugural Chief Intercultural Engagement Officer for Wheaton College. She collaborated across the college to create the first Christ-Centered Diversity Commitment Statement. Her leadership roles include driving excellence and effective classroom practices by professionally developing new faculty, deans, and department chairs. Furthermore, she ensures all search committees are aware of unconscious bias and high-impact inclusive hiring strategies. Her aim is to fortify work and classroom spaces to ensure all members feel love, respected, and valued. Most recently, her leadership roles included Advisor to the President on Diversity, Director for Complete College Georgia, and Principal Investigator for an Upward Bound grant at the University of North Georgia. During her tenure, she secured over $1.3 million dollars in educational grants, facilitated the creation of UNG’s first Diversity Leadership Statement, and implemented Diversity Champion Awards for team members who demonstrated strong commitment to an inclusive environment. She is a diversity and student success champion with two decades of experience in higher education. Caldwell earned a Doctorate in Education from the University of Georgia. She completed Harvard Kennedy School Strategies for Building and Leading Diverse Organizations Executive Education program. Her professional affiliations include memberships with National Association for Diversity Officers in Higher Education, Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, and Complete College America.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash