What exactly is a microaggression?

Originally on vox.com by

An Asian-American student is complimented by a professor for speaking perfect English, but it’s actually his first language.  A black man notices that a white woman flinches and clutches her bag as she sees him in the elevator she’s about to enter, and is painfully reminded of racial stereotypes. A woman speaks up in an important meeting, but she can barely get a word in without being interrupted by her male colleagues.

There’s a name for what’s happening in these situations, when people’s biases against marginalized groups reveal themselves in a way that leaves their victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted: microaggressions.

You may have heard the term if you’ve read up on psychology, the academic field where the term was born, or if you’ve spent time perusing Twitter and Tumblr, where it’s had a recent resurgence.

The renewed embrace of the concept has aggravated some who think “microaggressions” simply describes situations in which people are being much too sensitive. At the same time, it’s also provided a common vocabulary for those who want to put a label on the specific type of daily indignities they face. And in a society in which explicit racism is frowned upon (and thus, not a daily problem for most people) but implicit biases are going strong, there’s probably more use for it now than ever before.

The word “microaggression,” like the behaviors it describes, is probably going to be with us for some time, so it’s worth understanding what it means.

What makes microaggressions different from other rude or insensitive actions or comments?

Microaggressions are more than just insults, insensitive comments, or generalized jerky behavior.

They’re something very specific: the kinds of remarks, questions, or actions that are painful because they have to do with a person’s membership in a group that’s discriminated against or subject to stereotypes. And a key part of what makes them so disconcerting is that they happen casually, frequently, and often without any harm intended, in everyday life.

This is how psychologist Derald W. Sue, who’s written two books on microaggressions, defines the term: “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

As he explained in the video below, which provides an overview of the concept, microaggressions often appear to be a compliment or a joke, but contain a hidden insult about a group of people (as in the example above, about the Asian-American student’s English, or when a lesbian is told, “You don’t look like you’re gay!” )

How do microaggressions actually harm people?

Research has shown that microaggressions, although they’re seemingly small and sometimes innocent offenses, can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipients. This toll can lead to anger and depression and can even lower work productivity and problem-solving abilities.

Plus, they can affect a work or school environment, making it more hostile and less validating and perpetuate stereotype threat (the fear of confirming existing stereotypes about one’s group, which can have a negative impact on confidence and achievement).

None of this is hard to imagine if you simply consider how it would impact your life if you felt like you were subject to a constant stream of insults and slights and were always bracing for or recovering from an offense. It’s not just about being upset, though: some researchers have found that microaggressions can even cause physical health problems.

Are microaggressions the same as racism, sexism, and homophobia?

They are based on some of the same core ideas about people who are minorities or are marginalized in America (for example, that they’re not smart, that they don’t belong, or that they make good punchlines), but microaggressions are a little different from overtly racist, sexist, or homopohobic acts or comments because they typically don’t have any negative intent or hostility behind them.

Sue explained in his video primer on the topic, “People who engage in microagressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good, moral, decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.”

“It (is not) the overt racists, the white supremacists, the Klan, the skinheads,” he told USA Today. But, he clarified, in some ways, this makes them all the more dangerous. The outright bigots, he explained, “are less likely to affect the standard of my living than individuals who are well-intentioned — educators, employers, health care providers — who are unaware of their biases.”

In this way, microaggressions are closely tied to implicit biases, which are the attitudes, stereotypes, and assumptions that we’re not even aware of, that can creep into our minds and affect our actions (also known as, “thoughts about people you didn’t know you had.”)

A person with implicit bias against black people might have trouble connecting “black” with positive terms on the Implicit Association Test, a computerized test designed to measure how closely we associate certain topics in our minds. It’s fair to guess that that same person might be someone who gets a little nervous — and shows it — when she first sees a black man in the elevator she’s about to enter. So, more than expressions of conscious prejudice or intentional bigoted statements, you can think of microaggressions as implicit biases come to life in our everyday interactions.

And yes, just like we all harbor various prejudices, we’ve all probably subjected someone to a microaggression at some point in life.

What do I do if I want to avoid subjecting people to microaggressions?

In short: make an effort.

It’s not very hard to put some thought into the biases you might hold, become curious about the way your words and actions are perceived by others, listen when people explain why certain remarks offend them, and make it a habit stop for a beat and think before you speak, especially when you’re weighing in on someone’s identity.

In his video on microaggressions, Sue offered five suggestions for things individuals can do to avoid them:

  • Be constantly vigilant of your own biases and fears.
  • Seek out interaction with people who differ from you (in terms of race, culture, ethnicity, and other qualities).
  • Don’t be defensive.
  • Be open to discussing your won attitudes and biases ad how they might have hurt others or in some sense revealed bias on your part.
  • Be an ally, by standing personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

Bonus tip: Peruse the many examples of microaggressions that have been chronicled in articles, in academic research, and using social media. Once you hear about how they affect people, chances are, you will be more aware of what they look like, and suddenly much less likely to repeat them.

For more information and microaggression examples, please click here.