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5. Recognizing Microaggressions in Relationships Across Lines of Difference

By: Rachel Godsil and Aya Taveras

Expected Time to Complete: 20-25 Minutes

What happens when implicit biases -- those automatic stereotypes about particular groups -- turn into comments and behaviors? One description of comments and behaviors that reflect  negative stereotypes are “microaggressions.” As described here, Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined the term in 1970 to describe racially charged subtle blows delivered incessantly.   

In his own life, Dr. Pierce experienced explicit racism in the national spotlight.  In 1947, the same year Jackie Robinson started to play for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Chester Pierce was the first Black player on a college football team to play below the Mason Dixon line.  The University of Virginia tried to prevent him from playing and didn’t allow him into the traditional hotel for players (his teammates joined him in an alternative, refusing to be separated).  

Obviously, explicit racism is not a remnant of the past.  In the context of athletics, from high-profile soccer players in Europe to varsity girls basketball players in an Illinois high school, Black athletes continue to experience racist taunts.  And it is not limited to athletics but exists across domains.  

As horrific as it is, explicit racism is not the only concern.  Dr. Pierce also experienced and went on to study the impacts of more subtle discrimination -- and he is best known for recognizing that the experience of being on the receiving end of constant microaggressions can have significant effects on physical health.

In this MLM, we’ll share the continued work on microaggressions as well as strategies to prevent them from occurring in the first place or causing harm when they do.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue and other scholars have continued to develop a taxonomy linked to micro-aggressions to dissect what it is about particular comments and behaviors that causes harm. We sometimes refer to them as “identity triggers” because they aren’t just insulting comments, but comments that summon negative stereotypes about a person’s social identity group.  

The formal definition from Dr. Sue and colleagues in their article, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, is:  

Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to persons of targeted groups. They are generally expressed in limited or private situations, usually invisible to the perpetrator, harmful to the well-being, self-esteem, and standard of living of targeted groups. 

This definition packs in a lot of information about why these comments or behaviors matter -- they happen regularly, they constitute an indignity to the person receiving them, and they are often not even known to cause harm by the person who delivered them. This means that the person hearing the microaggression is often experiencing a harm while the person delivering is oblivious that anything of significance has happened. In this short video, young people share a set of common microaggressions and how it feels to hear them and have to figure out what to say in response.    

  1. How might microaggressions show up in students’ interactions during the school day? Beyond?
  2. Given your own group identity, how might they show up in your own experience? At work? Beyond?

As the definition above suggests, microaggressions come in different forms -- and to understand them, it is crucial to work through the differences.  Dr. Sue and his colleagues divide microaggressions into the following sub-categories.

Microassault: "Microassaults are most similar to what has been called 'old fashioned' racism conducted on an individual level.”

The language of assault is used to reference the fact that these statements or behaviors are likely to be conscious and deliberate -- they are ‘micro,’ because they are generally expressed in limited 'private' situations.  A racial epithet, a comment that explicitly generalizes about people from a particular economic background -- these are microassaults.  People would “know them when they hear them”, and easily agree that they are about race or ethnicity. 

Microinsult: "Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.” 

An example of a microinsult from Dr. Sue is when a white employer tells a prospective candidate of color "I believe the most qualified person should get the job, regardless of race" or when an employee of color is asked 'How did you get your job?,'   While it may not be the conscious intention of the person making the remark, the recipient may hear the following: (a) you think that people of color are not qualified, and (b) as a minority group member, you must have obtained the position through some affirmative action or quota program and not because of ability.  

This comment may seem innocuous to some -- how could it be a problem to affirm that qualifications matter or to ask how someone got their job?  But in the context of race in the United States, consider the underlying “colorblindness” suggestion in the first comment and also how curiously unnecessary such a statement would be during an interview.  With respect to the second, how would anyone be expected to answer the second question --  “I got my job by applying for it?”  

Microinvalidation: "Microinvalidations are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color."

Microinvalidations regularly occur during cross-group discussions of microaggressions -- if a person of color shares the experience of being on the receiving end of a microinsult and the white person they are talking to attempts to “explain away” the element of race.  Thinking about the example of above, “I am sure the interviewer just wanted to confirm that they are focusing on everyone’s qualifications” or “your colleague was probably just curious.”  

As author Ijeoma Oluo writes in So you want to talk about race?, “Microaggressions are cumulative. On their own, each microaggression doesn’t seem like a big deal. But just like one random bee sting might not be a big deal, a few random bee stings every day of your life will have a definite impact on the quality of your life, and your overall relationship with bees. Microaggressions are perpetrated by many different people. Because each microaggression is just one sting perpetrated by a different person, it is hard to address with each individual person without (1) becoming very exhausted, and (2) being written off as hypersensitive (169-170).”

Table 1 from Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life is a valuable resource for understanding the underlying power of certain comments to trigger identity harm:

Understanding microaggressions is important -- the next question is what to do about them.

Because racial microaggressions can be linked to different racial and ethnic backgrounds, whatever our own race or ethnicity, we are all potentially vulnerable to engaging in comments or behaviors that are microaggressions.  So we suggest thinking about action in four ways - the first three focusing on what to do if we are transgressors, the last on how to respond if we are on the receiving end (though if we have a dominant racial/ethnic identity, we are not vulnerable to racial microaggressions):  

First and most obvious -- do the work to avoid making statements or behaviors engaging in behaviors that are likely to be experienced as microaggressions.

Second -- practice what have been called “Micro-affirmations.”   These can be comments -- substituting  “messages about deficit and exclusion with messages of excellence, openness, and opportunity.”  They can also be behavioral.  Instead of falling into the pattern of microinvalidation, instead engage in:

  • Active listening 
  • Recognizing and validating experiences
  • Affirming emotional reactions

In other words, when someone recounts an experience of a microaggression, hear them out openly and genuinely.

Third -- if you do make a comment or engage in behavior that you think might be a micro-aggression - a person shows a reaction to something you said, or you learn from someone else that you have harmed someone, don’t just let it go and hope the person isn’t hurt or that the issue will fade away.  Instead, we suggest what we call a “respect/reset” framework.  The specific words have to be individual and authentic to you - but the sequencing is important.

  1. Invite the “reset” conversation - recognizing that the person may not want to have the conversation at that moment or maybe ever.
  2. Acknowledge your role and take on the burden of identity navigation.
  3. Briefly share recognition but don’t self justify.
  4. Take responsibility.

This framework places the onus on the person who has caused identity-based harm to take the lead in seeking to address the harm -- even if they didn’t intend to cause it.  In offering a reset, the transgressor has to be genuine in creating space for the person who has experienced harm to decide whether they want to continue that interaction.  Sometimes the person may prefer to have some distance.

In acknowledging their role, the transgressor has to take on the work of identity navigation--meaning that if they do not fully understand why what they’ve said or done has been harmful, they recognize it is their responsibility to learn rather than to expect the person who has experienced a microaggression take on the burden of educating them.  

When we talk about identity navigation, we are also referring to emotional navigation.  In the respect/reset conversation, the emotions of the person who is harmed should be at the forefront.  It may be the case that when a person has unknowingly said or done something that is experienced as a microaggression, they may feel either guilty or defensive, but as in any other case when our actions have caused someone else harm, we should strive to hold our emotions for another setting so that the person harmed doesn’t feel pressured to make us somehow feel better. 

Finally, taking responsibility means doing the necessary work to be held accountable and not repeating the same harmful actions in future interactions. 

  • As a student, did you ever experience the various forms of microaggressions?  Do any stand out as particularly painful?  Describe the experience. Describe the impact.
  • If you haven’t personally experienced a microaggression, have you ever delivered one or been a been a bystander to one? In retrospect, if you were the transgressor, how would you try to reset?  If you were the bystander,  how might you respond now?

As a mentor, sharing your experiences with microaggressions in academic or professional settings can arm your mentees with the language and tools necessary to respond to microaggressions that they may experience without incurring undue cognitive burden and emotional stress.

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