The word “microaggression” may have caught your eye in a recent news article or a post in your Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr feed. This term was first used in 1970 by Dr. Chester M. Pierce, to refer to the brief, degrading comments made by white people to black people in everyday American conversations.
It has become known in today’s vernacular, thanks to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, to refer to brief, negative exchanges aimed at particular persons as a direct result of their membership to any marginalized group. Microaggressions affect people of color, people with disabilities, people who do not identify as heterosexual or cis-gender (meaning not transgender), and women.
What do microaggressions sound like…
In regards to race? A person of color being told by a white person that they speak English well — despite being born and raised in an English-speaking country.
Why is it harmful? This type of qualified, back-handed “compliment” implies that the person is seen as foreign in their home country, and that they cannot truly belong based on their appearance.
In regards to gender? A trans woman being told she is prettier than a cis-gender woman.
Why is it harmful? What may have seemed like a nice thing to say is actually reducing her to only her outward appearance, and tying her identity to her ability to “pass” as biologically female.
In regards to sexuality? Parents asking a same-sex couple to not display affection around their children.
Why is this harmful? It criminalizes love, and implies that same-sex relationships should be hidden because they are somehow “less than” heterosexual relationships.
In regards to having a disability? Telling someone to just work harder, since you know someone with a similar disability who can perform the task at hand.
Why is this harmful? It disregards individuality, personal struggles and boundaries, and offers no support in getting the task completed.
How can we more actively avoid microaggressions?
Often, microaggressions have innocent intentions, meaning the person giving the comment does not consciously realize the implications of their words. So what can you do to increase your self-awareness and tolerance at work, school, and in the world at large?
Never qualify a compliment: You’re pretty/smart/strong… for someone of that group! Compliments are wonderful, but if you question if your seemingly kind words may have an aggressive undertone, it may be best to keep the thought to yourself.
Ask questions! If you are genuinely curious about a person’s experience/speech/clothing, ask them. Do not make assumptions, but remember that asking thoughtful questions (without expectations of a certain answer) can help you expand your horizons and prevent a future microaggression while promoting a better understanding of a new culture.
Do your research! Learn about different cultures, sexualities, genders, languages, or whatever else may interest you, that may not be commonplace in your everyday life. The more you know, the less likely you are to slip and fall back on a bias, and the more likely you are to extend your social circle.
Kindness and understanding are of paramount importance in all aspects of life. Take a little time to learn about microagressions, biases, and humanity here:
This link is for blog posts written by Dr. David P. Rivera and Dr. Derald Wing Sue about how microaggressions are ingrained into common conversations and the problematic associations that they perpetuate.
This link leads to short posts about individual experiences with microaggressions and the effects of the comment.