Microaggressions — what they are and what you need to know

Microaggression (n.): a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)

What they are, why you should care, and what you can do about it.

What they are

Microaggressions take the form of small, almost imperceptible actions or offhand comments that reinforce stereotypes and prejudice often without the conscious knowledge or malicious intent of the perpetrator. Typically they are brief commonplace indignities that may be verbal (“But you don’t talk like you’re Asian”), behavioral (a customer service rep ignoring a transgender person over a hetersexual), or environmental (i.e. a woman in the workplace where upper management are all males). Whether intentional or unintentional, microaggressions communicate hostile derogatory insults in situations where power and prejudice are part of the dynamics of the interaction.

Types of microaggressions and examples

Microinsults: comments or actions that are unintentionally discriminatory

  • “You’re so lucky you don’t have to wear sunscreen since you’re Black.”
  • Pointing out differences between someone and the “norm”

“You don’t act like most old people I meet.”

“You don’t even look gay!”

“Wait, but you’re White!”

  • Clutching your purse or crossing to the other side of the street when passing a Black person.

Reveals an assumption of Black people being dangerous.

  • Doubting and judging where people are from

Asking in doubt, “Where are you really from?” reveals your assumption that they are immigrants/non-citizens or not “American”

Microassaults: intentionally discriminating comments or actions against someone while trying not to be offensive

  • Telling a sexist or racist joke then, when being called on it, saying, “I was just joking.”
  • Using conditional or backhanded compliments

Examples: You’re really pretty for a dark skin girl; You speak good English to be Hispanic; You’re so pretty… for an Asian; etc.

These “compliments” reveal the speaker’s assumption that that trait is not normal for that group of people

Microinvalidations: comments or actions invalidating the experiences or identity of a group of people

  • A White person telling a Black person they do not see their color when looking at them (being “colorblind”).
  • Invasive questions or interactions

Touching the hair of people who are Black (this violates personal boundaries and can make people feel objectified, or like they are curiosities to be observed and handled)

Assuming the ethnic or racial heritage of people of color, or making a game of trying to guess

Assuming/asking Latinx people if they or their family members are undocumented

There are many more examples, but these are some unintentional comments and actions that are microaggressive. As a result, sometimes all it takes is just one more time for it to be “too much” and trigger someone in a negative way.

Why you should care

The reality is that, while the intention behind all of these microaggressions is likely not to inflict harm, the impact is what matters, not the intention. And the impact of microaggressions can be devastating.

Microaggressions can cause a whole host of mental and interpersonal issues for those facing them. “Sometimes,” Elizabeth Gehrman writes, “it’s the ‘thousand little cuts’ that hurt our mental health the most.” Over time, microaggressions can contribute to mental health challenges like depression, anxiety, and even suicidal thoughts. Further, they are part of a more far-reaching list of psychological challenges “that may seem unrelenting and can result in everything from depression, fatigue, and anger to physical ailments such as chronic infections, thyroid problems, and high blood pressure.”

Imagine this scenario: there are only two women in a board meeting of 20 individuals. One woman speaks up with an idea, but is interrupted by a man who goes on to suggest basically the same thing the woman suggested. Now, this single situation would not cause devastating harm to that woman. However, when the impact of weekly or daily microaggressions is added up, the harm does have a lasting impact. As a result, sometimes all it takes is just one more time for it to be “too much” and trigger someone in a negative way.

If you want to be a leader in your school, nonprofit, business, or community, these impacts are ones you need to care about — and that means caring about, learning about, recognizing, and preventing microaggressions, for the wellbeing of diverse groups of people AND the benefit of the whole community.

What to do about it

Though it’s difficult to unlearn our bias and change our way of thinking and behavior towards diverse groups of people, here are a few steps you can take to help change behavior:

  • Understand your own positionality — the position from which you view and engage with the world based on your various identities.
  • Listen empathetically to the stories and experiences of others.
  • Question to learn more and deepen your own understanding, not to doubt or discredit what they are saying.
  • Be sensitive to yourself becoming defensive or dismissive of the thoughts and feelings of others.
  • Reflect on your own bias, identify it, take responsibility for it and take action to learn and experience more.
  • Challenge microaggressive behavior in others, and be open to criticism if you are told you’ve committed one. These issues can’t be fixed if they are denied or swept under the rug.
  • Work on dismantling and unlearning bias — this is the first step to a more equitable world.

If you care about all individuals in your organization, you have the responsibility to take complaints seriously. One way to allow for microaggressions to be addressed would be to provide an anonymous line for individuals to report microaggressions — not necessarily to correct or discipline the offender, but to allow for sharing of things that are harmful and to make that sharing commonplace and accepted. If you are a bystander in an interaction, speak out — let the individual know that you don’t agree with that stereotype or that you find their statement offensive. If you are targeted, ask for help standing up to microaggressors — and demand accountability from leadership in your organization.

For all of us, being bold and humble, taking on the issue of microaggressions head on, and modeling the right way to deal with and learn from microaggressions will allow for strong, healthy and equitable communities.

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