“You must have been through some hardships growing up.” The moment I heard a graduate professor utter those words, I felt unease. At the time, I didn’t know why, but I knew his statement didn’t sit well with me. It wasn’t until I saw the term “microaggression” floating around (and watching the horror look at some of my friends as I relayed the things he said) that I knew it was more common than I’d realized.
While recent events have pushed many to learn about white privilege, inclusive language, code switching and what All Lives Matter really means, it also opened up a bigger discussion on how we all can be more mindful about implicit bias (or how to respond to it when it's geared towards us). But first, we need to start by breaking down what it means:
What is a microaggression?
A microaggression is a behavior or communication (spoken or unspoken) that feeds into stereotypes and stigmatizations of gender, race, orientation, religion or other marginalized groups. Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, demonstrating implicit bias, aka unconscious stereotyping—like my professor’s assumption based on my appearance. Either way, microaggressions cause marginalized communities to feel insulted and uncomfortable.
The term was coined in the 1970s by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce and 30 years later Derald Wing Sue, psychologist and professor at Columbia University expanded on Pierce’s theory stating: "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." From social media to the I, Too, Am Harvard Student campaign, many BIPOC began sharing their own personal stories about experiencing microaggressions.
Are there different types of microaggressions?
There are three different types of microaggressions—microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
1. Microassaults are intentional and made to degrade someone based on their race, gender, orientation, religion or identity. This term connotes that someone is going out of their way to be derogatory or display problematic behavior towards a marginalized group (i.e. slurs, signs, etc).
2. Microinsults can be intentional or unintentional. Whether they’re nonverbal (i.e. a person clutching their purse or crossing the street when they see a Black person) or verbal (i.e. “Is that your real hair?” “Oh, you’re gay? Do you know this person?” or “You are so brave for coming out tonight” to a person in a wheelchair), these are insensitive actions against someone’s identity.
3. Microinvalidations can also be intentional or unintentional. They are subtle, casual jabs that alienate, exclude and invalidate someone based on their race, gender, etc. The person focuses on how different they are, making someone feel like an outsider (i.e. Mistaking any BIPOC as a service worker, a female doctor as a nurse, etc) or basically gaslighting a person’s feelings (i.e. “Are you sure that’s what happened?).
Are microaggressions really that bad?
Yes. They can leave a major impact, especially when you’re dealing with them on a daily basis. The American Psycholgical Associations writes that studies show it can take a toll on a person’s mental health since they are constantly feeling belittled, disrespected or even uncomfortable coming into work, school or going about their lives. These scenarios can affect their work performance, ability to be their true self (which can lead to code-switching) or even numbness to their surroundings.
5 Common Microaggressions
A whole library (or a PDF like this one) can be dedicated to examples of microaggressions but here are a few common ones and why you should stop saying it.
1. “Wow, you speak English so well.” This is not a compliment. You’re implying every BIPOC is a foreigner and can’t be considered American.
2. “You don’t look [race/gender].” This is not only offensive but hurtful. Telling someone they don’t look a certain race or saying someone “doesn’t look transgender” is ignoring their identity and playing on assumptions of what society “deems acceptable” or “the right way” to look.
3. “OK, but where are you really from?” When I’m asked this question, I respond, “New York.” When people probe, I say, “America.” These are the facts, but what Karen is really asking is where my parents/grandparents are from. This makes me feel like an outsider in my own country.
4. “Your name is hard to pronounce. Can we call you something else?” Honestly, if you can pronounce Daenerys Targaryen or Saoirse Ronan, you can find a way to pronounce any BIPOC person’s name. Just ask politely how it’s pronounced. No need to point out that it's foreign or unfamiliar to you.
5. “When are you having children?” Unless the person has demonstrated they want to talk about this, why would you make an assumption that demands such a personal response and could have negative implications at work?
How should you respond when someone says a microaggression?
1. Ask for clarification. Let this person explain why they felt the need to say or do what they did. Ask questions like, “Why do you feel that way?” or “What do you mean by that?”
2. Educate. While it’s not your job to educate someone, if you want to and are comfortable doing so, you can start a meaningful dialogue. Even if the person didn’t mean to offend or insult you, it’s important to point out that it did. Start the conversation with, “When you say this, it’s actually harmful/offensive because ____.”
3. Document and report. If you tried the previous steps and the microaggressions continue to make a place you frequent toxic—like an office, for example—the next step might be to have an external person intervene. Don’t be afraid to reach out to a higher-up whether it’s your manager, head of your department or HR to let them know what’s going on and how they can diffuse the situation.
How should you avoid saying a microaggression?
It’s important to note that most microaggressions are unintentional. Per Sue, “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."
We often tap into our unconscious biases without even realizing it. We begin to associate different groups of people based on what we see in the media, learn from others (aka family and friends) or assume based on one experience. Inspired by Sue’s research, here are a few things to consider:
1. Less is more. Has your mom ever said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it all?” Follow that mantra. If you think your question or compliment can offend someone, chances are they will. Just give some thought to your words before saying it out loud.
2. Dissect your own biases. Where did you learn it from? Why is it so problematic? Be open to having uncomfortable conversations.
3. Listen. The best thing you can do is let someone explain how your words offended or insulted them. Don’t automatically get defensive or push aside someone’s feelings because they felt a certain way about your actions. Recognize that your words can leave an impact on someone’s life, so show some empathy on how they must be feeling.
4. Learn. Don’t let one experience define a whole group of people—just like you don’t want to be defined by that one microaggression. Educate yourself on someone’s culture or seek out moments to interact with different people from all backgrounds. Some questions can be a quick Google search to avoid making someone uncomfortable.
5. Apologize. A simple “sorry” can be enough. It’s even more impactful to see your words turn into action. If you see a similar situation occur, use your new information to stop it from happening again.
Unfortunately, microaggressions are not going to disappear overnight, but how we deal with these issues can leave a lasting impression. Individuals can take action, but institutions can consider enacting policies or even hold training to acknowledge our biases and find ways to respond to it in at work, school or in any setting.