What Is a Microaggression? Why Unintentional 'Put-Downs' Are so Damaging—and How to Hold Yourself Accountable
It's time to recognize your unconscious biases and work to actively challenge them.
On June 1, actress Samantha Marie Ware, took to Twitter to call out her Glee costar, Lea Michele, following a tweet from Michele mourning George Floyd, a Black man who wrongly died at the hands of police—and whose death triggered a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement, leading to protests around the world.
In her tweet, Ware wrote about the "traumatic microaggressions," from Michele that made Ware's "first television gig a living hell," and "question a career in Hollywood."
Another social media account named "Overheard While Black"—this time on Instagram—features a series of comments that Black people have heard and shared, often paired with the hashtag "#microaggressions." The comments shared seem shocking at first—until you realize they're really (unfortunately) not that shocking at all:
But microaggressions aren't anything new—and they're not your average, run-of-the-mill insults, nor are they less hurtful than other insensitive comments, as their "micro" name might suggest. Instead, these very pointed remarks, showing a person's biases toward marginalized groups, can be extremely damaging to the victims who receive those remarks—and to society as a whole.
Still, many people aren't widely aware of microaggressions or the damage they can do—and as the antiracism movement continues to gain steam, those implicit biases (as opposed to explicit racism) are becoming more important to catch and correct. Here's what you need to know about microaggressions, how damaging they can be, and how to hold yourself accountable in your own conversations.
What are microaggressions, exactly?
The term "microaggression" was originally coined in the 1970s by Chester Pierce, MD, a former professor of psychiatry and education at Harvard University, according to the American Psychological Association (APA). It’s since been studied for decades by various psychologists, including Derald Wing Sue, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University. “Microaggressions are everyday slights, indignities, and put-downs directed, generally to people of color, by unintentional individuals who are unaware that they are engaging in a demeaning type of action,” Sue tells Health.
Sue created a type of classification system for racial microaggressions, published in 2007 in the journal American Psychologist, per the APA, in which he describes the three different types of these microaggressions:
- Microassaults: Conscious, intentional actions or slurs to indignify a person of a different race, gender, class, or ability.
- Microinsults: Verbal and nonverbal communications used to subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity to demean a person's racial heritage or identity.
- Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or reality of another person.
When Sue started his work 20 years ago, he and his research team focused on racial microaggressions, but gradually expanded it to include gender, class, and disability microaggressions. “Microaggressions can be directed at any socially devalued group in society,” Sue says. “Any group that is marginalized can be the subject of microaggressions. The dynamics that define them are the same but the themes are different.”
Microaggressions are tied to unconscious biases—that is, social stereotypes about certain groups of people that you form during your life that you may not be aware of, Ronald E. Hall, PhD, a professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University, tells Health. “They’re nothing that’s going to break any laws or raise any eyebrows in some people,” he says. “Some of the people who engage in this behavior aren’t even aware that they’re committing a transgression.”
How can being subject to microaggressions impact people?
Microaggressions may seem merely annoying or ill-informed, but they go deeper than that—and they can cause lasting damage. “Microaggressions often have unintended harmful consequences for minoritized individuals, including further marginalizing them and silencing their voices,” Amy Bonomi, PhD, MPH, a professor of human development and family studies at Michigan State University, tells Health. When those microaggressions happen at work, they “reinforce dominant paradigms and compromise organizational climate and effectiveness,” she says.
On a personal level, those microaggressions can also cause serious health consequences. “It can be very stressful,” Hall says. “Some people learn how to overcome them but, for many people, it’s not possible and the stress accumulates over time.” That stress can even eat away at your telomeres (the protective DNA-protein complexes found at the ends of your chromosomes) and make you more vulnerable to serious health issues like cancer, Hall says.
“Over years and decades, the damage from these things takes its toll if you don’t learn how to assimilate them in a healthy way,” Hall says. Sue agrees: “They are really quite damaging to the mental health and physical well-being as well as contribute to a lower standard of living,” he says.
What should you do if you're the victim of microaggressions?
As people of color, it's important to recognize that this isn't your work to fix, but there are ways to deal with the inner turmoil microaggressions can cause, and things you can say to people who commit these microaggressions. Hall recommends first acknowledging that this has happened to you, and understanding that these comments don’t make up who you are. “Do not allow others to define your existence,” he says.
Then, he recommends channeling those comments and using them as motivators. “I lived in Minneapolis for several years and I’ve had encounters with the police there,” Hall says. “Now, any time I don’t have the energy to complete a certain task, I go back to those racist comments and aggressions and use it as a motivator.”
Hall also urges people to talk to a mental health professional if they find they’re regularly the subject of microaggressions. “Seeking help with mental health is important,” he says.
And, of course, it’s perfectly OK to call microaggressions out when you are a victim. “Start with how the microaggression made you feel, and may have made others feel,” Bonomi says. “Offer the opportunity for restorative justice, through reflection, perspective-taking, and opportunities for repair.” It’s important not to shame someone here, but to try to turn it into a teaching lesson, she says. “Shaming is not effective in helping individuals change microaggressions that they may be unconsciously conveying,” Bonomi says.
How can you hold yourself accountable for microaggressions?
It needs to be said that those committing these microaggressions are (mainly well-meaning) white people, and because of that, it's paramount (and sometimes most difficult) for white people to understand and correct these microaggressions.
"It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it's scary to them," Sue previously told the APA. "It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes, and feelings that harm people of color."
But, the most important thing for people to acknowledge is that committing microaggressions can happen to anyone and everyone, even when people don’t realize they’re committing them, Hall says. “Be mindful that we all have unconscious bias and have the potential to unintentionally engage in microaggressions,” Bonomi says. Understanding that you have unconscious biases that can contribute to your idea of what’s normal and not is also crucial, she says.
You can also commit yourself to practicing equity every day to try to mitigate the impacts of unconscious biases and reduce the odds that you’ll commit microaggressions, Bonomi says. That can include expanding your social networks and circle of trust, trying to think about what it may be like to be in other people’s shoes, and finding stereotypes and replacing them with counter-stereotypes in your mind.
Reading is also important, Hall says. On the subject of race, he recommends checking out books like White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism and his own book, The Color Complex: The Politics of Skin Color in a New Millennium to try to understand where these racial microaggressions come from, and how to stop them.
All of this, of course, can be difficult for some people to stomach, but Sue says that it’s important to understand that you are the product of your environment. “None of us are immune from inheriting the racial biases of our forebearers,” he says. And because of that, you're probably going to make a mistake at some point. "Know that you will likely engage in blunders,” he says. “But it is important that, when you commit those microaggressions that you don’t get offended but ask, ‘What did I just do or say that upset you? I want to learn.’ Be open to exploring and learning." And overall, that's the best thing for those who have benefited from privilege to do right now: listen, learn, and correct when necessary.
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