The meaning of microaggressions
Early in my counseling career, I began working for a private practice. I was the first Black woman, who at the time, identified as a lesbian, hired at this practice. One day, I was speaking with the practice owner, a White woman who identifies as a lesbian and happened to remark how often people ask about my credentials. “What?” she stated, her face at first confused, then slowly turning a blood red as she began to understand. She stared at me, half wanting to cry and half in pure rage. Her face told me everything I needed to know, but I couldn’t help but ask, “Has anyone ever asked you?” She responded between tense lips, “No, in the 15 years I’ve been doing this, not once, ever!” she put her head down and quietly said “I’m sorry.”I felt the air leave me slightly. No matter how much I learned, how many degrees I attained, I could never prove myself, I could never be good enough, to not be feared.
“Microaggressions are the little cuts individuals from marginalized groups receive continually within our culture, often outside of the awareness of the individual committing the act.”
What are microaggressions? The term “Microaggressions” was first created by African American psychiatrist and Harvard University Professor Chester Middlebrook Pierce while working with Black Americans. The term was further developed by Asian American counseling psychologist Derald Wing Sue. Sue et al., (2007), defines Microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities whether intentional or unintentional that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights and insults to the target person or group.” (p273)
Initially, Sue focused on racial microaggressions, but since then, it has been established that microaggressions can occur in any marginalized group (Sue & Spanierman, 2020). Microaggressions are linked to heterosexism, racism, genderism, classism, ableism, and others. (Sue & Spanierman, 2020). Microaggressions are manifestations of inequity within our culture and are linked to oppression and injustice. Research on microaggressions suggest individuals who sustain microaggressions have increased levels of depression, and trauma (Torino, 2017). Another study on Native Americans with Type 2 diabetes reported a correlation between microaggressions and worse physical outcomes, lower quality of care, less communication and compliance (Walls, et.al., 2015).
Derald Sue identified three types of Microaggression (Sue & Spanierman, 2020, Sue, et al., 2007):
Microinvalidation – Communication that invalidates, disaffirms, excludes, or disregards the emotions, life events or thoughts of a marginalized individual. This often occurs outside of the awareness of the individual committing the microaggression.
“I don’t see color” – This comment on the surface seems like a kind person who is trying to say they accept racial minorities indisputably. They harbor no implicit or explicit bias and are a safe person. When a person makes a statement like this, they are in denial of the brutal and violent history racial minorities have had and continue to endure. In denying color, all that is attached to it is denied as well. One of the most painful things a person can do to another is deny their emotional experiences and cause them to question the reality of their lived events. Comments like this, while well meaning, often come from a lack of awareness and overall discomfort with the ingrained and often subconscious cultural dynamics which begin to emerge whenever there is extended contact with an individual from a racial minority group.
Refusing to use appropriate pronouns/misgendering. This is intensely painful for many individuals who identify as transgender to experience, and when the pain of this is made known, it is often disregarded, minimized or ignored.
“So, who is the man and who is the woman?” In addressing a same sex couple of two women. This is very common and often is seen as a harmless question, but it effectively invalidates the same-sex couple unless they are acting according to the social construct of heterosexual normative behavior.
“Hey, what’s your issue, are you on your period?” – There is a common tendency to minimize, demean or dismiss women who assert themselves and suggest their behavior has nothing to do with their individual need for respect, because women are not allowed to ask for, let alone demand, respect for themselves.
“I’m not racist, my (son, girlfriend, boyfriend, mother, father etc) is a racial minority” – Using a relationship to justify microaggressive behavior, or using relationships as justification to not examine one’s behavior and historical associations, is preventing a deeper connection and understanding of your loved one. Recognizing their struggle can go a long way in building a greater relationship with a loved one from any minority group. Understanding bias and how it impacts the people you love is a vital part of being an ally. Merely having these relationships does not permit a deeper understanding of the conscious and subconscious forces present within them, this takes focused effort and examination.
Microassault – Blatantly being insulting and disrespectful of the minority individual either verbally or non-verbally. This is likely to be deliberate, but done in semi-private environments like offices, gyms etc.
A black co-worker finding a noose on his desk.
A person who identifies as transgender being ridiculed by their friends, who purposely use gender pronouns that make them feel uncomfortable.
Following a latinx person in a store and repeatedly asking if they need anything.
Staring at or stalking a woman while she is working out.
Calling women derogatory names.
Microinsult – Communication that conveys insensitivity, subtle snubs or rudeness that demean a person’s heritage or identity, often outside of the awareness of the person committing the microaggression.
“Are you qualified to do this job?” – A white patient asks his black female doctor, when he meets her for the first time.
“But you’re not a real man!” – A coworker says to another male coworker who identifies as transgender.
“When did you have your surgery? Can I see?” -A person says to a woman they recently met who identifies as transgender.
“I’m gay, I so get what you go through each day.” -A white woman says to a black woman, both identify as lesbian.
How to respond to Microaggressions
According to Sue, (2007), there are a number of ways to respond to microaggressions if you witness them, they happen to you, or someone you love.
- Make the invisible, visible – Point out the microaggressions directly so the other person understands what occurred. Example: “I’m a gay woman, I so get what you go through each day.” – Said by a white woman to a black woman, both identify as lesbian. Response: “Actually, I don’t think you do, while we’re both women and gay, I’m also black and you cannot know the intersectional issues I deal with each day as a black lesbian woman.
- Remind them of the rules – Point out the rules, particularly in the work place. Example: A man is watching a woman workout at the local gym, he is following her around and even attempting to film her with his phone. She is visibly uncomfortable. Another man watching this steps in and says, “Hey man, that is not ok what you’re doing, it’s against the rules and just plain wrong. I’m letting the staff know about your behavior. You need to leave!”
- Use humor – Because there is an unconscious component to microaggressions, in that, individuals often do not know they are committing them, humor can help prevent some of the defensiveness that can erupt when microaggressions are confronted. Example: Following a latinx person in a store and repeatedly asking if they need anything. An antiracist ally, watching, says to the employee, “Boy it sure seems like you think they’re going to steal something!”
Oftentimes, there is a defensive response to microaggressions, denying the experience of the person who is impacted by the microaggression. This may, in part, be due to a fear of being a bad person, thus unlovable. Believing if good people do something bad then they are bad, may result in denying one’s behavior and insisting the person must have misunderstood, is too sensitive, or just needs to harden up a bit. Overall, there is a refusal to understand how one’s behaviors may impact other people and a rejection of the reality of what has occurred in this country historically among marginalized groups.
Healing begins with the acknowledgment of the social constructs, injustices and conditioning ingrained in all of us. We refuse this understanding oftentimes, because we are too full of shame. In her book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brene’ Brown (2010) identifies three facts about shame. 1. We all have shame, we all want to be worthy of love and feel a sense of belonging in our culture. 2. The less we discuss shame, the more it controls us. 3. We are terrified to talk about shame. (p38). She goes on to say that shame is the ‘fear of being unlovable’ (p38). It prevents us from taking responsibility for our behavior, because we tend to tie our and others behaviors to their worth. Shame hides in how we see ourselves, how we parent, work, eat, and the social constructs of sexuality, gender identity and race. Research has established unacknowledged shame is often at the root of the rage and violence inherent in racism (Ray et.al.,2004)
To learn more about Microaggressions and Derald Wing Sue, can check out his You Tube video HERE:
In ending microaggressions, there must be a desire to deal with the discomfort of shame and guilt. The uneasiness of knowing something was done incorrectly. Accepting and managing microaggressions isn’t about being good or bad. It is about connection, empathy and support through the acknowledgment of the reality of oppression among marginalized groups and taking actionable steps to heal the fissure of pain within this culture. Understanding microaggressions will help identify blind spots and ingrained subconscious socialization we have all received, to either dislike ourselves, have an aversion to certain groups of people, or be reviled by the culture at large. Authentic antiracism is not comfortable, but, discomfort is often where the greatest growth and healing reside.
Dr. Africa L Rainey, MA, LCPC, Ed.D
The Brainwaves video Anthology (2021, May 5) Derald Wing Sue: Microaggressions in everyday life.
You Tube. https://youtu.be/okE-5eg7ARc
Brown, B., (2010) The Gifts of Imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, MN. Hazelden.
Ray, L., Smith, D., Wastell, L.,(2004) Shame, Rage and Racist Violence, The British Journal of Criminology, Volume 44, Issue 3, May (2004), Pages 350–368, https://doi.org/10.1093/bjc/azh022
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G. C. Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K.L., & Esquilin, M. E. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.
Sue, D. W., Spanierman, L., (2020) Revised Edition of Microaggressions in everyday life. Hoboken, NJ. Wiley.
Torino, G. (2017, November 10) How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health. Retrieved from https://centerforhealthjournalism.org/2017/11/08/how-racism-and-microaggressions-lead-worse-health
Walls, M. L., Gonzalez, J., Gladney, T., Onello, E. (2017) Unconscious Biases: Racial Microaggressions in American Indian Health Care. J Am Board Fam Med. Retrived from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4386281/
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