Microaggressions aren’t so micro


Amelia Southern

Junior Erica Roman says she gets most frequently asks, “Are your parents illegal?”

An Asian-American student is complimented by a teacher for speaking perfect English, but it’s actually his first language. A mixed student is interrupted as she tells her peers her parent is Hispanic by the all too familiar phrase, “ But you don’t look Hispanic.” A black man notices that a white woman flinches and clutches her bag as she sees him in the elevator she’s about to enter, and is painfully reminded of racial stereotypes. A woman speaks up in a conversation, but she can barely get a word in without being interrupted by her male peers.

There’s a name for what’s happening in these situations when people’s biases against marginalized groups reveal themselves in a way that leaves their victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted: ‘micro’ aggressions.

The word “microaggression,” like the behaviors it describes, is probably going to be with us for some time, so it’s worth understanding what it means. A microaggression is a subtle behavior — verbal or nonverbal, conscious or unconscious — directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, first introduced the term microaggression in the 1970s.

Although this definition is logical, it does not account for how significantly microaggressions affect students of color. “Micro”-aggressions have the prefix micro attached but any student of color could tell you that microaggressions feel like they’re anything but micro. As students of color go through their days they are faced with these microaggressions that hinder them from having the most positive high school experience possible and this should never be the case.

Amelia Southern
Junior Erica Roman says she gets most frequently told she’s ” whitewashed.”

Categories of Microaggressions

  • ‘Micro’assaults. Microassaults are the most overt microaggressions. With microassaults, the person committing the microaggression acted intentionally and knew their behavior might be hurtful. For example, using a derogatory term to refer to a person of color would be a microassault.
  • ‘Micro’insults. Microinsults are more subtle than microassaults, but nevertheless have harmful effects on marginalized group members. For example, a microinsult could involve a comment implying that a woman or person of color received their job due to affirmative action.
  • ‘Micro’invalidations. Microinvalidations are comments and behaviors that deny the experiences of marginalized group members. One common microaggression involves insisting that prejudice is no longer a problem in society: a microinvalidation could involve telling a person of color that they are being “oversensitive” to a racist comment that was made.

In addition to microaggressions perpetrated by a specific person, people can also experience environmental microaggressions. Environmental microaggressions occur when something in the physical or social context communicates a negative message to members of marginalized groups. For example, representations of people of color in film and media (or a lack of representation) can constitute a microaggression; for example, if a television show only includes white characters, this would be an environmental microaggression.

Where did this term come from?

Back in the 1970s, Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined the term “microaggression” to describe the insults and slights he had witnessed against black people.

He wrote:

These [racial] assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous never-ending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black±white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in an automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has a pervasive effect on the stability and peace of this world.

How do microaggressions actually harm people?

Amelia Southern
Junior Sanders Walker says he gets most frequently asked, ” are you a boy or a girl?”

Microaggressions are more than just insults, insensitive comments, or generalized jerky behavior.

They’re something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

This is how psychologist Derald W. Sue, defines the term: “The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Research has shown that microaggressions, although they’re seemingly small and sometimes innocent offenses, can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipients. This toll can lead to anger and depression and can even lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities.

Plus, they can affect work or school environment, making it more hostile and less validating and perpetuate stereotype threat (the fear of confirming existing stereotypes about one’s group, which can have a negative impact on confidence and achievement).

None of this is hard to imagine if you simply consider how it would impact your life if you felt like you were subject to a constant stream of insults and slights and were always bracing for or recovering from an offense. It’s not just about being upset, though: some researchers have found that microaggressions can even cause physical health problems.

In some camps, there’s intense hostility to the idea that an “innocent” remark would ever be labeled problematic. Here’s one: “I have to say the analyzation of microaggression is annoying to me. In rebuttal letters to his 2007 American Psychologist article on microaggressions, some accused Sue of blowing the phenomenon out of proportion and manufacturing the perception of harm where none exists.

“Implementing his theory would restrict rather than promote candid interaction between members of different racial groups,” Kenneth R. Thomas, Ph.D., of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told the American Psychological Association Monitor. Thomas, a white male, said he believed that “the [microaggression] theory, in general, characterizes people of color as weak and vulnerable, and reinforces a culture of victimization instead of a culture of opportunity.”

This criticism seems to fit into a larger conversation about multiculturalism and “political correctness” in which opposition often includes underlying disbelief in the seriousness of the claims of marginalized people or a sense that it is too much trouble or impractical to cease the behaviors that they say cause them harm.

Amelia Southern
Sophomore Avery Redfern says she gets most frequently told, ” You’re pretty strong for a girl.”

Are microaggressions the same as racism, sexism, and homophobia?

They are based on some of the same core ideas about people who are minorities or are marginalized in America (for example, that they’re not smart, that they don’t belong, or that they make good punchlines), but microaggressions are a little different from overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic acts or comments because they typically don’t have any negative intent or hostility behind them.

Sue explained in his video primer on the topic, “People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good, moral, decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.”

“It (is not) the overt racists, the white supremacists, the Klan, the skinheads,” he told USA Today. But, he clarified, in some ways, this makes them all the more dangerous. The outright bigots, he explained, “are less likely to affect the standard of my living than individuals who are well-intentioned — educators, employers, health care providers — who are unaware of their biases.”

In this way, microaggressions are closely tied to implicit biases, which are the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions that we’re not even aware of, that can creep into our minds and affect our actions (also known as, “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.”)

A person with implicit bias against black people might have trouble connecting “black” with positive terms on the Implicit Association Test, a computerized test designed to measure how closely we associate certain topics in our minds. It’s fair to guess that same person might be someone who gets a little nervous — and shows it — when she first sees a black man in the elevator she’s about to enter. So, more than expressions of conscious prejudice or intentional bigoted statements, you can think of microaggressions as implicit biases come to life in our everyday interactions.

And yes, just like we all harbor various prejudices, we’ve all probably subjected someone to a microaggression at some point in life.

What do I do if I want to avoid subjecting people to microaggressions?

Amelia Southern
Junior Chloe Liu explains, ” The color of skin doesn’t truly define a person?”

In short: make an effort.

It’s not very hard to put some thought into the biases you might hold, become curious about the way your words and actions are perceived by others, listen when people explain why certain remarks offend them, and make it a habit stop for a beat and think before you speak, especially when you’re weighing in on someone’s identity.

Here are five suggestions for things individuals can do to avoid them:

  1. Be constantly vigilant of your own biases and fears.
  2. Seek out interaction with people who differ from you (in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, and other qualities).
  3. Don’t be defensive.
  4. Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases ad how they might have hurt others or in some sense revealed bias on your part.
  5. Be an ally, by standing personally against all forms of bias and discrimination. 

Using these five suggestions, take action against microaggressions so that all parties involved can begin to understand and take action against microaggressions so that people begin to ask themselves how micro do they seem now.

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