A microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. Rather than an overt declaration of racism or sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhand comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult. For example, a person might comment that an Asian American employee speaks English well. Another might ask where an American Indian student is from. A woman may cross the street when she sees an African American man walking toward her at night.
These individuals may not have intended to offend anyone, but the comment or action still reminds the person who receives the microaggression that they are not fully accepted or trusted in their community. People are often well-intentioned, and they want to consciously promote equality, but unconsciously they may act differently.
The term was coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the subtle insults he witnessed between white students and African American students. The work of Jack Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner also added to the idea. The term had a resurgence in 2007 when Teachers College Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue began to popularize the idea through his writing. Since then, the construct has spurred tremendous conversation, research, and debate.
In the workplace, being asked to run and get coffee sounds cliche, but this actually does happen. The target can be a person of color, female, LGBTQ, or other marginalized people. Another good example is assuming that an older employee is incapable of managing technology and lacks versatility with new tools. The workplace can be rife with slights and snubs directed at people who appear different.
Sometimes a microaggression may appear to be a compliment, You speak English very well. They are seemingly innocuous and nothing to fret over. However, microaggressions carry demeaning meta-communications, whereby the messages are hidden, and the targets of such concealed missives feel on edge as well as under scrutiny. This can create an environment filled with distrust, hostility, invalidation, and it can also mean lost productivity, ill health, and overall inequity.
According to Derald Wing Sue, any group in society may become targeted, including women, people of different gender identities, those with disabilities, religious minorities, among others. For example, a forthright white woman might be labeled a bitch just because she exercises assertiveness.
The concept of microaggression has its share of critics. Some argue that the idea has not accrued enough empirical evidence, and research does suggest that core premises of microaggressions and their connection to poor mental health do not have sufficient evidence—such as that most marginalized communities perceive microaggressions to be harmful or that subjective reports are reliable enough to study.
Some people argue that microaggressions foster a culture of psychological fragility and victimhood. If one believes that microaggressions and verbal statements are psychologically and even physically harmful, and therefore avoids them, the person's emotional strength may diminish. There is an assumption of ill will that could prevent the free flow of dialogue in settings from academia to psychotherapy.
Even if researchers and experts argue over the existence of microaggressions, this cannot erase the emergence and popularization of the concept, which underscores the importance of recognizing, defining, and studying the impact of subtle racism on those in marginalized communities.
Xenophobia is the fear of people who are different. We inherently feel uncomfortable around what is unknown. People sometimes think that the unfamiliar will harm us, spread disease, and upend our comfortable worldview. We prefer to avoid different people, and avoidance is not wrong, it does not signal racism.
People experience guilt when racism is brought to the fore. Who wouldn’t feel guilty that large groups are marginalized? A person can feel guilty when he is born with certain advantages, and he can try to deny this truth by evading it. Remaining blind and indifferent might ameliorate guilt, even though it may be healthier to acknowledge those privileges, educate himself, and change his behavior."
Some bullies intimidate others through covert behaviors, making interactions hard to detect. In the workplace, a bully may leave others out of an important meeting. This omission may affect the decision-making process. Such a move can also maintain a mono-culture within the workplace, ensuring the bully’s control over other points of view. The word aggression is highlighted here, as bullies are inherently aggressive.
Just being aware of microaggressions is a start. We live in a society that has inherited and promotes bias against people who are different. To be more conscious of microaggressions and avoid having them, one can explore their biases, reflect on the connotations a remark might have, review common interactions, and engage with people from different communities.
If you were called out for being microaggressive, here are some guides to handle the situation. We can all learn a lot about subtle biases that you may not be aware of.
• The person, who called you out, cares enough to say something.
• Being defensive will not help, and virtue-signaling will not either.
• Apologize for the bias and explain that you want to understand better.
• Listen with empathy and compassion.