Stories of racial microaggressions have been making the news as brave non-white people share their harmful experiences with others, oftentimes in work settings. But they’re easy to overlook as more overt forms of racism dominate the news cycle. Today we’re analyzing how microaggressions play a major role in interpersonal and systemic racism.
Microaggressions are defined as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Blavity). Microaggressions can be racist, sexist, homophobic, etc, and any combination of these, too (remember our conversation on intersectionality), but we’re centering this conversation on racial microaggressions.
For those that identify as white:
• Reflect on the last time you saw a racial microaggression happen. Have a conversation with that individual using the resources below.
• Consider – what microaggressions have you experienced related to your identity? How did they feel? How do you wish to be perceived instead?
For the sake of our non-white readers, I won’t be listing any examples in this article, but you can read lists of examples on Vox, NYTimes, Psychology Today, Fortune, Teen Vogue, Buzzfeed, Instagram, and CNN. Read these and Google “examples of racial microaggressions” so you can see more. Do not reach out to a non-white person to give you examples of microaggressions.
Because of the word “micro,” many people (re: non-white people) consider instances of microaggressions to be brief and relatively harmless. But there is nothing micro about microaggressions. Many psychologists refer to the impact of microaggressions as “death by a thousand papercuts” for those that experience them on a regular basis (NYTimes). If macroaggressions define more overt forms of racism (JSTOR), microaggressions are more accurately subvert acts, a way to undermine or corrupt someone, which makes them all the more sinister, especially when people use them intentionally to get away with racism in public settings.
[Microaggressions] really chip away at your self worth, and it’s harder because the instances seem so small.Avery Francis, HR Expert for the Independent
The Impact of Microaggressions
But the impact of microaggressions is anything but small. In fact, studies have proved that the impact of microaggressions is almost as mentally and emotionally damaging as macroaggressions (full study here). Another study found that Black teenagers in the United States face microaggressions multiple times a day, most frequently online, which often leads to depression (Blavity).
It’s difficult to isolate the impact of microaggressions alone on broader health outcomes. But in this fascinating article from NPR, psychologists look at correlations of various health indicators after more overt forms of racism on different populations throughout the world and find consistent data that indicates how damaging stressful, traumatic experiences can be (NPR). The aggregated impact of racism, from the systemic to interpersonal, is being referred to as a term called weathering, which refers to the way the constant stress of racism can lead to premature biological aging and worse health outcomes for Black people (SELF Magazine). Although microaggressions certainly play a part in weathering, we’ll discuss weathering in full at a later date.
But remember, we don’t need statistics to validate harm. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, puts it simply: “At the end of the day if somebody says something racist to you, it’s racist. And if it hurt your feelings, it hurt your feelings, so it doesn’t really matter what we define it as” (NPR).
Addressing Racial Microaggressions
As conversations around race grow in offices and around dinner tables, microaggressions have more of a chance to come out of the shadows. But it puts non-white people in a difficult position. Not only do we have to reckon with the emotional impact of the microaggression itself, we have to choose how to respond– knowing our disadvantaged position in these scenarios. We have to consider how responding could further enforce false stereotypes about our race. We have to gauge whether we could be provoking more racial aggressions, even bodily harm. We also have to consider how staying silent will enforce this behavior in the future, and cause further suffering.
With privilege comes the responsibility to intervene on behalf of someone harmed and address racist interactions directly. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology and education professor at Columbia University in New York City, offers a way for anti-racist allies to intervene during a microaggression in an interview with CNN. Resources for responding to racial microaggressions as a non-white person that highlights these considerations are available in the Harvard Business Review and Advancing Justice website.
Make the Invisible, Visible
According to Sue, the perpetrator is often unaware of their actions. As an anti-racist ally, you must, at minimum, make sure they are aware of the harm they caused (CNN). Diane Goodman, a social justice and diversity consultant, offers this format in the NYTimes:
“I know you didn’t realize this, but when you __________ (comment/behavior), it was hurtful/offensive because___________. Instead you could___________ (different language or behavior.)”
Educate the Perpetrator
Ensure they understand that regardless of the intent of what they said, it’s the impact of their words that matters (CNN).
Disarm the Microaggression
Move the conversation past a problematic to communicate that it’s offensive. According to Sue, you’ll be “modeling good behavior to other people present, and you can have a later conversation with the person about why his joke was inappropriate” (CNN).
…if you’re a person with privileged identities and you want to be a true ally, maybe you do have to do that homework. Maybe you do have to engage in those uncomfortable emotions because you know that it’s your job and responsibility to have those conversations so that other people of color or women or LGBTQ folks won’t have to have those conversations for you.Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice for NPR
It’s important as we do this work that we don’t focus only on the blatant forms of racism. So much of macro systemic racism is reinforced by micro-actions, and racial microaggressions play a major part. As we do this work we must take accountability for microaggressions, and use our privilege to call them out however we can.
• Racial microaggressions are common and brief and subvert forms of racism.
• The impact of racial microaggressions is as damaging as macroaggressions.
• Microaggressions contribute to the cumulative stress that non-white people experience as part of living with racism.
• It’s important that we leverage our privilege to dismantle microaggressions in our workplaces and other social spaces.