With the spotlight shining brighter than ever on injustice against people of color and the vociferous outcry from those who desire to see that injustice end, it has become glaringly evident whom should be classified as racists and how they behave…well, sort of.
As obvious as overt racism is, the complete definition of racist behavior isn’t always black and white. There are gray areas galore where prejudice is concerned and a distinct hotbed of confusion is the area of microaggressions – which are defined by the merriam webster dictionary as comments or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally express a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).
Teeny tiny seedlings of veiled non-acceptance that sprout larger racial issues in the aforementioned gray areas, microaggressions can be difficult to address let alone eliminate. Like most micro (as in miniscule) elements, microaggressions -a moniker coined by Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce, MD in 1970 to describe insults and slights he had witnessed against black people- can be tough to spot with the naked eye or recognize with an untrained ear. These everyday expressions are equally as commonplace and as they are out-of-place but their casual subtlety can leave both the culprit and the recipient clueless as to their literal meaning, and therefore somewhat blind to the subsequent damage they can cause.
Microaggressions hide racism in plain sight, just in prettier clothes
There are plenty of receipts to back the accuracy of the expression “flattery will get you everywhere”. Since most people revel in statements or experiences that feel like praise and resemble approval, compliments provide a suitable yet sneaky hiding place for microaggressions to exist.
According to Rachel Sussman, a psychotherapist and relationship expert in NYC, compliments help people feel seen and acknowledged…It makes them feel really good about that person who complimented and about themselves”
That desire for acknowledgement is the vehicle Microaggressions use to sneak their way into kudos since they appear to offer recognition, even if only momentarily. When the very sentiments meant to recognize and elicit feelings of appreciation become intertwined with awkward expressions rooted in cultural prejudice, they serve no positive purpose and only cause harm in the long run.
Microaggressions feel like compliments but cut deeply and bleed heavily
Microaggressions are aptly described by psychiatric professionals as “death by a thousand cuts”. Exposure to this softer side of discrimination has been proven to negatively impact healthcare outcomes for oppressed communities.
Research conducted by the NCBI directly link microaggressions to elevated levels of depression and trauma among minorities. Emotional wounds ranging from fatigue and anger to physical conditions like high blood pressure and heart disease are rampant race-based ailments seen for example in the Black community. Magdalena Cadet, MD NYC Rheumatologist, Associate Attending NYU Langone sites “Long term stress on the mind and body can be toxic and result in an increase in heart rate, high blood pressure and a higher incidence of heart disease in African Americans. Increased blood sugar levels, type II Diabetes, joint aches and arthritis are also possible hazards.”
The increased probability of stress-related health issues coupled with a culture of mistrust towards healthcare providers give microaggressions a great deal of power over the well-being of POC. A path to minimizing these feelings and practices is crucial for achieving genuine racial equality and a paralleled quality of life for all.
Covert racism compounds overt discrimination
While often considered harmless on the surface, primarily by those who aren’t frequently on the receiving end, research shows that microaggressions not only impact the physical and psychological well-being of disenfranchised groups, they create disproportions in health care, education, and employment. Dr. Sue contends that “microaggressions reflect the active manifestation of oppressive worldviews that create, foster, and enforce marginalization.” Meaning: these seemingly small biased behaviors lead to large scale social disparity.
Microaggressions stack the system against people of color
The consistent blood flow of inequity provided by microaggressions feed more than the emotional and physical suffering experienced by POC. Microaggressions contribute significantly to the larger issue of systemic racism. In his essay for UAA.org Dr Sue illustrates how microaggressions can “influence the standard of living and quality of life for persons of color”. He points out that despite “White American males constituting only 33% of the population” they occupy a tremendous amount of real estate where positions of societal power are concerned including:
- 80% of tenured positions in higher education
- 80% of the House of Representatives
- 80-85% of the U. S. Senate
- 92% of Forbes 400 executive CEO-level positions
- 90% pf public school superintendents
- 99.9% of athletic team owners
- 97.7% of U. S. presidents
This imbalance of authority and subsequent wealth are the direct result of continued discriminatory actions that marginalize non-white individuals. Shifting balance is a difficult feat when then ones tipping the scales can’t bring themselves to take ownership of their unfair practices.
The culprits can’t accept culpability
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them,” declares Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University. This inability to accept responsibility for behaviors that exhibit racial bias is one of the driving forces behind systemic racism. Dr. Sue adds, “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.”
The bliss of ignorance in which many white people exist exceeds their incapability to admit microaggressions. This oblivion often progresses into a desire to completely ignore the presence of race altogether, which does nothing to mitigate the problem. Though well-meaning in theory, saying “I don’t see color” is not a helpful mindset or a reasonable solution to eliminating microaggressions and racial prejudice. Pretending there is no color does not negate uncomfortable feelings about racial inequality nor excuse any biased thoughts or behaviors which most people are guilty of at some one point or another.
Hating on race is wrong but so is ignoring it
“I don’t see color” is an expression often used [by white people] to defend against any accusation of prejudice and to exclaim support for racial diversity. The idea of colorblindness when applied to racial bias may look good on paper but in reality is quite counterproductive. Several Sociologists experienced in racial diversity research agree that diverting from colorblindness is a more viable passageway to antiracism and that acknowledging color is an important component of antiracist activism.
Another reason researchers find the idea of colorblindness an ineffective tool for racial awareness is that it can minimize the cultural differences and experiences of racial groups, and even challenge the validity of the struggles people of color face. This type of confusion added to a lack of education on historic racial atrocities, especially where black history is concerned creates the perfect breeding ground for microaggressions.
Is that praise or a put down?
Microaggressions can be complicated to spot and even more difficult to address because of their deep roots and even deeper placement within the psyche of those who commit them. It often requires laser focus on both conduct and context to decipher whether or not an act of microaggression has taken place. Dr. Sue advises: “The first step in addressing microaggressions is to recognize when a microaggression has occurred and what message it may be sending. The context of the relationship and situation is critical.”
Once racial bias, whether intentional or accidental, has been established the burden of situation management falls on the recipient and will also require keen awareness and a precise plan of action. Any actual rectification however will rely heavily on the reaction of the microaggressor in question.
Don’t sound so surprised
People of color are constantly reminded of the aspects of their identity make them different and are repeatedly faced with curiosity based on surprise due to contradicted stereotypes. The astonishment over an individual’s demeaner, education, appearance or lifestyle -especially because they are a person of color-is an emotion that must be redirected if not totally rejected. The desire to question or comment on someone’s intellect, aesthetics or characteristics based on their race is one that must be suppressed. Masking curiosity (riddled with hidden undertones of disbelief) with flattering statements is inappropriate at best and racist at worst.
Jonathan Kanter, a clinical psychologist and director of the Center for the Science of Social Connection at the University of Washington signals, “It’s uncomfortable, but [white people] have the privilege and safety of getting to choose to think about race on their own time and in their own environment. People who actually have to experience it don’t get that choice,”.
Exclude race and color from compliments
Commendation should be based on character traits, achievements and efforts; never color or racial origin. The intent of authentic accolades should be to reward someone for positivity with verbal recognition. “A good compliment doesn’t have to be related to one’s appearance… says Sussman. “People just want to be recognized and appreciated for the good that they do,”
Scientific research shows that compliments ignite the same parts of the brain triggered by receiving a cash reward. Microaggressions disguised as compliments don’t have anywhere near the same effect and actually leave behind devastating scars. The emotional damage caused by actions and the often surprisingly
insensitive comments associated with microaggression are far reaching, long lasting and detrimental to the progression of people of color and the improvement of their quality of life. Consideration is key when moving to eliminate these practices.
Though microaggressions can be somewhat of a minefield to navigate, these 9 subtle insults are probably best to always avoid. It is important to remember however, that identifying and deciding on responses to microaggresive behaviors don’t always lie in the literal actions/statements themselves but more the intent and tone of the person committing/verbalizing them.