Microaggression: Conscious and Unconscious Indignities

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Multiracial individuals may experience microagression.  Image by Geert.

Multiracial individuals may experience microagression on a daily basis, from many different sources. Image by Geert.

Have you experienced ignorant or hurtful offhand comments about your ethnic or racial background, gender, or sexual orientation?  Or have you made such a comment out of ignorance?  Or perhaps you overheard a comment that someone intended to cause offense? We can call these small comments that contain implied put-downs “microagressions.”

Derold Wing Sue and the Concept of Microagression

Although psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD coined the term in the 1970s, Derold Wing Sue began using it in 2007 – saying, “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

Later, Sue applied the same concept to gender and sexual orientation. A recent project at Fordham University found that students today widely experience racial microagression.  Ignorant statements such as “What ARE you?” aimed toward a multiracial individual, to blatant exclusion on the basis of race (stating someone moved away from an individual because they “smell like rice“) were cited in an article by Heben Nigatu, who covered a photography project on microaggresions on BuzzFeed.

Other recent  examples 0f microagressions submitted by individuals and categorized as being based on race, ethnicity, health, sexuality, mental health, and body, among others, can be found on the Microagressions Project Tumblir site.  Posters report comments such as “I feel like Spanish…is a poor-people language...” and  “… actress is pretty attractive for a fat person.”

Classification of Microagression

Sue’s 2007 article listed several classes of microagression, from “Alien in Own Land” such as when a native-born American of color is assumed not to speak English, to “Environmental microaggressions” such as  “A college or university with buildings that are all named after White heterosexual upper class males.” Actions by a majority group, such as turning away or failing to make eye-contact with minorities may be interpreted as dismissive and are termed “microinsults.”  Minimizing perceived discrimination is termed “microinvalidation.”

Conscious and Unconscious Microagression

Some comments on the Tumblir site betray an unconscious mindset, such as the assumption that an Asian-American must be an immigrant.  Sue himself recounts a time when he was one of two minorities on an airplane who were asked to move to the back to redistribute weight.  Other white passengers, who boarded later, were not asked to move.  When he pointed out to that the flight attendant was asking minorities to “move to the back of the bus, “she indignantly denies the charge, saying she was merely trying to ensure the flight’s safety.”  As the American Psychological Association article noted, “she was acting with bias—she just didn’t know it.”

Other times, such comments are made intentionally and purposefully,  as a passive-aggressive expression of disdain.  Sue describes conscious microagressions, termed “microassults,” as “explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.”  

A Call for Awareness

Nigatu quoted the photographer in the Fordham University project as not wanting to dismiss ignorant comments as simply ignorance,  “it is about showing how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent and unsafe realities onto peoples’ workplace, home, school, childhood/adolescence/adulthood, and public transportation/space environments.”

Some individuals with  little experience with diversity, may make off-putting, ignorant statements without intended malice, while other individuals may have learned to wield microassults as intentional weapons. Whether we live in an ethnic enclave, small town, or a metropolis, the Fordham University project demonstrates that reflecting on remarks that we and others make may sometimes uncover hidden assumptions and agendas.  Other times, the person making the comment is just a jerk.

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