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What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are one of the 4 essential types of diversity training in the workplace. They’re behaviors or statements that do not necessarily reflect malicious intent, but which nevertheless inflict insult or injury.

The term was first coined after the Civil Rights era – around the late 1960s or early 1970s. During this time, visible and violent expressions of racism were replaced by subtler manifestations. Today, “microaggression” has become a buzzword in the social justice arena, and now we’re breaking it down for you to understand.

What are some examples of microaggressions?

After reading the above definition, do you know what a microaggression is? Can you think of one you’ve witnessed?

If not, we don’t blame you. Unless you’ve learned about them before or been a victim yourself, microaggressions can be tricky to conceptualize. It’s not because they don’t exist – it’s because they’re like implicit biases. Microaggressions and implicit biases are often not “problems” to anyone who isn’t directly impacted by them.

As psychologist, author, and Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., puts it, microaggressions are “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations, or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Here are some examples. See if any of these are familiar to you!

ThemeMicroaggressionMessage
Alien in own land“So, where are you from?”You are a foreigner
A White person does not want to acknowledge race“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience
The notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are the ideal/”norm”To an Asian, Latino, or Native American, “Why are you so quiet? We want to hear what you think. Speak up more!”Assimilate to the dominant culture
A statement made when bias is denied“I’m not racist. I have several Black friends!”I could never be racist because I have friends of color
Statements that assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes“I believe the most qualified person should get the job!”People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race
White dominant society expect Black folks to be less competent“You’re so articulate or well-spoken.”This remark suggests that they assumed that the person would be less articulate and are surprised to find out that they aren’t

How do microaggressions actually harm people?

Dr. Sue writes that microaggressions cause frustration, self-doubt, anxiety, and cumulative emotional, psychic, and spiritual burden. Unlike macroaggressions – the large-scale, overt aggressions that mostly occur at the systems level – microaggressions are interpersonal. In fact, they commonly occur in academic and professional settings. This means that microaggressions are committed by people you know and in settings you should be comfortable and feel safe in.

How to disarm microaggressions

If you’re commonly on the receiving end of microaggressions, it can be an exhausting experience. How do you disarm them without exceeding your emotional bandwidth? Denise Evans, a certified facilitator of implicit bias and cultural intelligence workshops in West Michigan, suggests using wittiness. She, herself, is black. Here’s an example of how she “throws” microaggressions right back at the individual she’s speaking with.

If an individual tells her that she’s “well-spoken” or “articulate” – a known microaggression – Evans doesn’t miss a beat.

“I have said, ‘Thank you very much, so are you,’” says Evans. She then asks, with a smile, why they felt the need to say anything, including a list of possible reasons in her question: Is it because she’s a native New Yorker? A woman? Black?

And I literally wait for [an] answer,” she says. “I give people their microaggression and their implicit biases back in a pretty box with a nice bow on it. I hand it to you, and I wait for you to open it and tell me what you see.”

While you may find this awkward at first, as an educator, Evans says that these are teachable moments. Brains have made unconscious associations, and we have the power to undo the damaging ones (i.e. “African American and “uneducated or “women” and “assistant”).

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