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  • Writer's pictureAngela Pearson

Microaggressions- What’s the Big Deal?

A stranger praise a Latin-American professional at a networking event for speaking perfect English, but it’s her first language. An Asian man observes a white woman clutching her purse as she sees him walking past her on the street and is uncomfortably reminded of racial stereotypes. A woman begins to speak up in a Board meeting but is quickly interrupted by her male colleagues before finishing her sentence. Some people say things or behave in the manner mentioned without knowing they are offensive. When people’s biases marginalize groups, they expose themselves in a way that makes others feel slighted, awkward, or disrespected: these are called microaggressions. Microaggressions could be based on race, income, social capital, religion, ableness, gender, immigration status, sexual orientation, and other characteristics. The term “microaggression” was coined by Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce back in the 1970s due to the insults and slights he had witnessed against people of color. He stated, “These [racial] assaults to black dignity and black hope are incessant and cumulative. Any single one may be gross. In fact, the major vehicle for racism in this country is offenses done to blacks by whites in this sort of gratuitous never-ending way. These offenses are microaggressions. Almost all black-white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in an automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has a pervasive effect on the stability and peace of this world” (Ivey, Ivey, & Zalaquett, 2013).

There are three types of microaggressions:

Microassault- An explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling.

Example: Describe a bad or abnormal situation by saying, “that’s so gay.”

Microinsult- Messages that express disrespect and insensitivity and degrade a person’s racial heritage or individuality. Microinsults represent clever slights, frequently unknown to the offender, but convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient from a marginalized group.

Example: When trying to identify their ethnicity, asking someone, “What are you?”

Microinvalidation- Messages that exclude, negate, or nullify a person’s psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality from a marginalized group.

Example: Saying, “I don’t see color.” Most people can see the color of a person’s skin. What the receiver hears is:

  • You don’t see, hear or understand me: my identity makes me invisible; my feelings and thoughts don’t matter; my lived experiences aren’t worth understanding.

Researchers have found that microaggressions can result in depression, anger, drug or alcohol abuse, and suicidal ideation in recipients and lower their productivity. Despite their perceived innocuity, microaggressions can affect mental health profoundly. People with implicit bias against black people might have trouble connecting “black” or other races with favorable terms on the Implicit Association Test (ITA). The ITA is an online test consisting of quick responses to a series of words and pictures that measure implicit bias. There are three things to consider before addressing microaggressions.

  1. First, ask, “Did it really happen?” When a person experiences a microaggression, they need to be sure that it occurred. Sometimes, a microaggression may be subtle, and someone might not realize at first that it was an attack. Emotions may be high, so talking things over with a trusted person may help determine if what was experienced was indeed a microaggression.

  2. Then decide if it is proper to respond or not. The individual must decide whether to react to a microaggression. If their life is in danger, they should weigh the consequences of responding. If a microaggression occurs at work, the person may worry that confronting the person could affect their working relationships, especially with a superior. They may fear losing their job or getting into trouble if they say something.

  3. Lastly, if you decide to respond, determine how to respond? Microaggressions can be responded to in a passive-aggressive, proactive, or assertive way. When possible, it is important to use the event as a teachable moment for awareness in the workplace.

References Ivey, A. E., Ivey, M. B., & Zalaquett, C. P. (2013). Intentional interviewing and counseling: Facilitating client development in a multicultural society. Cengage Learning.

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