What Are Racial Microaggressions?
The term racial microaggressions, was first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, MD, in the 1970s. But the concept is also rooted in the work of Jack Dovidio, Ph.D. (Yale University) and Samuel Gaertner, Ph.D. (University of Delaware) in their formulation of aversive racism - many well-intentioned Whites consciously believe in and profess equality, but unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous situations.
Racial microaggressions are the brief and everyday slights, insults, indignities and denigrating messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned White people who are unaware of the hidden messages being communicated. These messages may be sent verbally ("You speak good English."), nonverbally (clutching one's purse more tightly) or environmentally (symbols like the confederate flag or using American Indian mascots). Such communications are usually outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators.
Many social psychologists suggest that most people harbor unconscious biases and prejudices that leak out in many interpersonal situations and decision points. Getting perpetrators to realize that they are acting in a biased manner is a monumental task because (a) on a conscious level they see themselves as fair minded individuals who would never consciously discriminate, (b) they are genuinely not aware of their biases, and (c) their self image of being "a good moral human being" is assailed if they realize and acknowledge that they possess biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.
Three types of current racial transgressions are described below:
• Microassaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions: using racial epithets, displaying White supremacist symbols - swastikas, or preventing one's son or daughter from dating outside of their race.
• Microinsults: Verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person's racial heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he/she got his/her job, implying he/she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system.
• Microinvalidations: Communications that subtly exclude negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.
Research suggests that microinsults and microinvalidiations are potentially more harmful because of their invisibility, which puts people of color in a psychological bind: While people of color may feel insulted, they are often uncertain why, and perpetrators are unaware that anything has happened and are not aware they have been offensive. For people of color, they are caught in a Catch-22. If they question the perpetrator, denials are likely to follow. Indeed, they may be labeled "oversensitive" or even "paranoid." If they choose not to confront perpetrators, the turmoil stews and percolates in the psyche of the person taking a huge emotional toll. In other words, they are damned if they do and damned if they don't.
It should be noted that the denials by perpetrators are usually not conscious attempts to deceive; they honestly believe they have done no wrong. Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow Whites to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. Therein lays the dilemma. The person of color is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger, and an overall draining of energy.
Many racial microaggressions are so subtle that neither target nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is happening. The invisibility of racial microaggressions may be more harmful to people of color than hate crimes or the overt and deliberate acts of White supremacists such as the Klan and Skinheads. Studies support the fact that people of color frequently experience microaggressions, that it is a continuing reality in their day-to-day interactions with friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and employers in academic, social and public settings.
They are often made to feel excluded, untrustworthy, second-class citizens, and abnormal. People of color often describe the terrible feeling of being watched suspiciously in stores, that any slip up they make would negatively impact every person of color, that they felt pressured to represent the group in positive ways, and that they feel trapped in a stereotype. The burden of constant vigilance drains and saps psychological and spiritual energies of targets and contributes to chronic fatigue and a feeling of racial frustration and anger.
Racial microaggressions have powerful detrimental consequences to people of color. They have been found to: (a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. "Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation" (John Wiley & Sons, 2010)
Racial Microaggressions Examples
According to psychologist Monnica T. Williams "The Confederate Battle Flag is itself a microaggression(link is external). Supporters use the flag to celebrate the courage and valor of their Confederate ancestors, however it also serves as a painful reminder to those of us with a cultural memory of the horrors of slavery. Keep in mind that the leader of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, had this to say about my people: “African slavery, as it exists in the United States, is a moral, a social, and a political blessing,” and “You cannot transform the negro into anything one-tenth as useful or as good as what slavery enables them to be.” Despite the fact that the Civil War ended 150 years ago, African Americans as a group continue to suffer due to our stigmatized minority status..."
Symbols such as the Confederate Battle Flag serve as environmental microaggressions, subtle forms of racism, that contribute to the ongoing distress and traumatization of African Americans. African Americans may endure microaggressions in many forms over the course of a day or a lifetime, and the cumulative toll contributes to stress and unwellness, that can increase susceptibility to more serious conditions, including posttraumatic stress disorder.
The picture above is of President Donald Trump and the White House’s spring 2018 intern class. What do you notice? The lack of diversity? This photo is a reminder that diversity in government (an institution) isn’t an issue only at senior levels; it starts at the bottom.