The Problem with Microaggressions
My educational background is in Communication Studies and, before COVID-19, my days were filled with words - leading workshops, giving presentations, coaching employees, mediating conflicts - so many words flowing between my audience and me. Because of my education and occupation, I know that words – both spoken and written – have the power to heal and the power to destroy.
The destruction can result from big, powerful statements, such as, “I hate you!” or from small, seemingly insignificant comments that quietly eat away at our self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Such is the case with microaggressions. The term, coined in 1970 by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, described the slights, snubs, and insults that he saw white people inflicting on members of the black community. Since then, the term has morphed into meaning the casual degradation of anyone in a socially marginalized group (e.g. other minority groups, members of the LGBTQ community, people who are disabled, etc.).
Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional and delivered verbally, nonverbally, and environmentally. Regardless of intent and method of delivery, microaggressions communicate to people in marginalized groups that they are inferior to the dominant group.
In his article “Microaggressions: More Than Just Race,” Derald Wing Sue (author of over 150 publications on the subject) provided these examples of microaggressions:
- An Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking "good English." (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.) Verbal
- A White woman clutches her purse as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes by. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.). Nonverbal
- A black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite there being other empty and more desirable tables located at the front. (Hidden message: You are a second-class citizen and undeserving of first-class treatment.) Environmental
- An assertive female manager is labeled as a "bitch," while her male counterpart is described as "a forceful leader." (Hidden message: Women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.)
- A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).
- Whistles or catcalls are heard from men as a woman walks down the street. (Hidden message: Your body/appearance is for the enjoyment of men. You are a sex object.)
- A person uses the term "gay" to describe a movie she didn't like. (Hidden message: Being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.)
- Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)
- When bargaining over the price of an item, a store owner says to a customer, "Don't try to Jew me down." (Hidden message: Jews are stingy and money-grubbing.)
- A person talks very loudly to a person who is blind. (Hidden message: a person with a disability is defined as lesser in all aspects of physical and mental functioning).
Despite the obvious offensiveness of some of the above examples, numerous scholars and social commentators have dismissed the concept of microaggressions, saying they create a culture of victimhood and worse. Dr. Kenneth R. Thomas of the University of Wisconsin-Madison told the American Psychological Association Monitor that “the (microaggression) theory, in general, characterizes people of color as weak and vulnerable, and reinforces a culture of victimization instead of a culture of opportunity.”
Thomas is a white male, so some might dismiss his comments as being tone-deaf (out of touch, incapable of understanding). However, in her article “The Pseudo-Science of Microaggressions,” Dr. Althea Nagai (a research fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity who is of Asian descent) stated that research on college campuses concerning the prevalence of racial microaggressions has a few problems: 1) it rejects the methodology and standards of modern science, 2) it’s based on “a highly politicized agenda and places a social change agenda above objective social science research,” and 3) it’s premise is that microaggressions “can only be perceived by non-whites but are only committed by whites. In other words, whites’ perceptions are invalid.”
I know that microaggressions exist and can be harmful. I have different colored eyes – the right one is mostly brown and the left one is blue – and, over the years, so many people have made unflattering comments when they’ve met me like “you’re eyes are weird” that I’ve become sensitive about it and I brace myself to be offended when I meet people and they notice my eyes for the first time. I happened to mention this to a client and, when I arrived at her facility to train a group of employees for the first time, she told me on the way to the training room, “I know how sensitive you are about your eyes, so I told everyone not to say anything about them.” Well, thanks. And, she could have gone without saying that to me.
However, even though I’ve been on the receiving end of decades of mostly unintentional slights that have hurt my self-esteem and sense of belonging, microaggression purists would be quick to point out that, because I’m white and people with different colored eyes are not in a marginalized group, what I have experienced can’t be called microaggressions. That’s ok, I don’t need to label them as such. However, in my humble opinion, the insistence that microaggressions can only be perceived by people in marginalized groups (minorities, LGBTQ, disabled, etc.) and are only committed by people in the dominant group (whites, males) unnecessarily adds to the divisiveness that’s already tearing our country apart.
I know that, as a white person, I see things from a white perspective. And, even though I come from very humble beginnings, I know that I’ve always been privileged because I’ve always lived in a country that has a documented history of valuing white people over all others. However, at the risk of sounding tone-deaf myself and recognizing that members of marginalized groups are more likely to be the recipients of them, I think it’s safe to say that verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, and insults are capable of hurting everyone and that everyone should be aware of their capacity to cause destruction.
A good friend of mine tells me I’m too sensitive about the comments people make about my eyes and I should just make a joke when people say things that hurt. That’s one way to respond. Here are some other suggestions from the article “When and How to Respond to Microaggressions” in the Harvard Business Review:
- Let it go. That’s what I did with the previously mentioned client. I knew she meant well, and I really didn’t want to say anything right before I walked into a room where I was going to conduct training for three hours. After the workshop, I just put it in the “stupid things people have said to me” file and went on to the next thing.
- Respond immediately. According to the authors, an immediate response is also a risky one because people often get defensive when they are told they did something offensive and, if you’re not prepared, that defensiveness could throw you off balance. I would add that responding in the moment is probably a bad idea if it’s done in front of other people – having an audience usually increases the chances of not getting the response you want.
- Respond later. This approach also has its drawbacks, especially if you wait too long; however, it does give you time to think about what you’re going to say before you say it, which is usually a good thing.
If you do decide to respond, it’s important to focus on the behavior you found offensive and not label the person who engaged in the behavior. For example, saying something like “You’re such a racist” will only make the situation worse. Instead, say something like “As a black woman, I thought your comment that I should be chained to my desk so you’ll be able to find me was insensitive and I’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t make comments like that anymore.”
Of course, if you don’t feel comfortable talking to the person who offended you, you can always talk to your employer or human resources personnel.
If someone tells you that you said or did something hurtful, I suggest that you:
- Don’t get defensive or dismissive (such as saying “I was just joking” or “You’re being too sensitive”).
- Listen to their concerns and try to understand the impact you had on them.
- Acknowledge their feelings and that you understand your behavior created a negative impact.
- Apologize. This is not the same thing as admitting that you did something wrong – it’s communicating that you’re sorry that something you said or did had a negative impact on someone else.
- Try to let it go and move on. These things happen and it’s important to remember we’re human and we all make mistakes.
As much as we try, sometimes we will never understand each other. For example, I used to work with a Hispanic male from Delano, a farming community where nearly 80 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and 64 percent of the residents speak Spanish. One day, we needed a Spanish-language translator and I asked my coworker if he spoke Spanish. He was offended by my question and said, “You think because I’m Hispanic and I’m from Delano that I speak Spanish?” Yes, that’s exactly why I asked. While conducting research for this article, I saw my question to my coworker listed as an example of a microaggression against Hispanics in several articles. Honestly, after all I’ve learned about microaggressions, I still don’t understand why that question is offensive; however, it doesn’t matter if I understand or not – I won’t ask it again.
By the way, that former coworker (who was also my supervisor) said numerous things to me over the years that hurt including “If you think people are telling me how great you are, you’re wrong.” So, instead of focusing on who can technically be on the sending and receiving end of microaggressions, I think our time and energy might be better spent on remembering that everyone is capable of being hurt and to be more thoughtful and careful about how we interact with everyone.