You're pretty for a Black girl. (Are all Black girls not pretty?) Why do you enunciate all of your words? (Because that's how I talk. Would you prefer I spoke differently?) You're not really Black, you're an Oreo. (Last time I checked, I am, but thanks for comparing me to one of the best cookies ever). Do you wish you had good hair? (Do you?)
Growing up in a suburb in Maryland that's considered politically and socially progressive, statements like these were directed at me at nearly every turn in my life. I now know a name for them that you've probably heard from a friend or seen all over social media: microaggressions.
Oftentimes when I'd hear these, I would laugh, learning to entertain the deliverer while convincing myself that what they said wasn't a big deal. But there was something so subtly hurtful about these words that they still stand out to me today. Why do these veiled insults—that I now look at as hurtful rather than a joke—still echo in my mind today? Because they're emotionally harmful, but let us explain why.
First of all, what is a microaggression, exactly?
A microaggression is a comment or gesture (whether made intentionally or not) that feeds into stereotypes or negative assumptions created around oppressed or marginalized groups of people. The term was first used in the 1970s by Harvard's Chester M. Pierce, MD. They tend to be based on a person’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability—and to the recipient, can feel like an attack.
Think of microaggressions as multi-level forms of communication. The words that are stated may seem neutral or even positive to the speaker, but that neutrality is a thin veneer for the bias that may lie beneath them. Derald W. Sue, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University, studies microaggressions and their impact.
“Asian Americans and Latin Americans are frequently complimented for ‘speaking good English,’” he says. “But there is a hidden communication the target experiences: ‘You speak excellent English’ to the target says 'You are not a true American. You're a perpetual alien in your own country,'” Sue explains.
Translation? That statement implies Asian and Latin Americans are not expected to speak the very language of the country they live in. Why would it be shocking they speak English? That answer may be rooted in long held stereotypes.
What are other common examples of the microaggressions heard in everyday life?
- “Where are you really from?"
- “You don’t act like a Black person.”
- "You're so articulate."
- "How you've overcome your disability is so inspiring."
- "You don't look transgender."
- "You're cooler than most (insert marginalized group here) I know."
- "Your name is hard to pronounce. Can I call you this instead?"
- "You're Asian? You should meet my one Chinese friend. You all may know each other."
- "Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?"
- "I'm colorblind. I don't see color."
According to Sue, the statements reflect the speaker’s implicit bias, defined by Perception.org as, "when we have attitudes towards people or associate stereotypes with them without our conscious knowledge." And though they may be thrown around casually, they have a very real impact on the people they're directed towards.
Why are they hurtful?
Microaggressions are particularly toxic because the aggressor often doesn’t view their statement as an insult. Those who deliver them may wonder, “Why are you so sensitive,” or “Why are you making this about race?”
But here's the thing. No matter your intention—or lack thereof—biases that you may not even be aware of lead to microaggressions, and there is no way you can determine or control how someone reacts to words they deem hurtful.
“In our research, we find that the impact of microaggressions are cumulative, causing major psychological harm,” Sue says.
It's likely that this isn't the first time a target has been met with questions about their perceived "superior speaking skills," or their personality being in contrast to the assumptions that come with their ethnicity. And take it from someone who's been there (aka this writer) it's exhausting to constantly face tedious questions and stereotypes when you're just trying to be yourself like everyone else.
How do I react to a microaggression in the workplace?
It’s helpful to think about anti-bias strategies before you witness or experience a microaggression. In the moment, a bystander simply might not know what to do or how to help. A target, on the other hand, might feel, angry hurt, and could ask themselves, “What just happened?” That mix of emotions makes it difficult to respond.
One response strategy that works when you have the benefit of anticipation and can literally stop the hurtful statement from happening? If someone begins to tell a racist joke, for instance, say, “I don’t want to hear that” or, less forcefully, “let’s not go there,” Sue recommends.
He adds that people who aren’t aware of how a microaggression is offensive will not understand the response of someone who feels hurt. By calling out a person’s comment, you’re helping people understand how biased their statement is. In response to someone’s comment, say, “That’s a stereotype. I don’t believe it,” or "I think what you just said was offensive because..."
What if an authority figure commits a microaggression?
Confronting an individual for making a microaggression can have negative, and potentially dangerous consequences—especially if the aggressor is in a position of power. “It might be to your advantage to appeal to a higher authority with equal status as the perpetrator to deal with the situation,” Sue says. For example, a college student who is experiencing microaggressions from a professor might ask another professor who is an ally to intervene and advocate for them.
And if you still don't fully understand the concept...
Sue suggests we all try to unlearn the biases we’ve been indoctrinated with in the first place, regardless of your background. “All of us, even people of color, and other marginalized groups are culturally conditioned with biases, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors that are detrimental to other groups,” Sue says.
Remember, the most important thing is to listen to other groups when they raise an issue that’s bothering them—and try not to become defensive. Sue says white people in particular should keep this in mind in a society where skin color has the power to define reality.
The best thing you can do is try to understand the hurt you or someone else has caused and apply what you learn to similar circumstances in the future. When in doubt offer a genuine apology and say, "How did I offend you? Because I do not want to do it you, or anyone else, again."
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