Microaggressions are a delicate subject. These insensitive or ill-informed statements and questions may not be as overt as harassment of the past, but they still make an impact on their recipient. So what exactly is a microaggression, how can you avoid it, and what are the most common microaggressions that a person of color, a member of the LGBT community, or a differently abled person encounters every day? Let’s find out.
Steering Clear of Toxicity and Microaggressions
We live in a society where outright racist, sexist, ableist, and anti-LGBT sentiments are being called out en masse. Equality is the norm, or at the very least, the coveted ideal. Sadly, discrimination and inequality still exist. Nowadays, biases and discriminatory remarks are taking on a more sinister form: microaggressions.
Microaggressive comments are small, seemingly inconspicuous comments — intentional or unintentional — that reinforce oppressive biases. The term was coined in the 70s, by Professor Chester Pierce of Harvard University. He used the term to illustrate the offhand and dismissive comments that Caucasians use on African Americans. Women, members of the LGBT+ community, and differently abled individuals are also victims of offhand, microaggressive comments.
Types of Microaggressions
1. Microassault — This often takes the form of outright name-calling and other disruptive behaviors such as shouting, groping, and imitating. This is the most obvious and outright offensive form of microaggression.
2. Microinsult — This form of microaggression is a bit subtler. The person who delivered the microinsults may not even be aware that they are saying something questionable, and the target may not be fully aware of what exactly it was that made them feel uneasy. An example of this is the usage of the word “gay” in a demeaning fashion, or a male boss/higher up referring to a female coworker as “baby”, or “sweetie.”
3. Microinvalidation — This refers to the blatant or inadvertent exclusion, devaluation, or nullification of the experiences and reality of the target. An example of this is the statement “All Lives Matter” in response to the “Black Lives Matter” movement. This form of microaggression is a blatant attempt to render the target voiceless. The most insidious part of microinvalidation is that the targets are pressured to ignore how they feel so they can fit in or avoid being perceived as too sensitive.
Types of Microaggressions Based on Targets
- Race — Racial microaggressions are different from outright acts of bigotry, but their effects are just as insidious. Well-meaning statements such as “Wow, you speak (dominant language) so well!” subtly reinforce the idea that the target is not a part of the dominant culture. These statements dismiss the target’s personal identity and experience.
- Disability — Individuals with physical disabilities or mental illnesses often find themselves hearing statements such as, “Get a hold of yourself,” or “You look so normal.” Statements such as this shame and invalidate the experiences of the target.
- Gender — Derogatory terms such as “b**ch” are commonly used to refer to women who assert themselves, and surveys show that the majority of the population still don’t trust females in high-ranking positions.
- Sexual Orientation — Using the term gay as a synonym to lame or saying “no homo” after expressing affection to someone of the same gender makes the target feel like their sexuality or identity is wrong or unnatural.
- Religious belief — Comments on religious garments (e.g. “It’s so hot, why are you so covered?”), or outright dismissal of the target’s religious beliefs (e.g., making fun of a Jewish person’s decision to not join Christmas celebrations) are examples of religious microaggressions.
Why Should It Matter?
— Luna (@luneylucie) January 10, 2018
Language has long been used as a vehicle for oppression, and our language shapes how we see the world. Unfortunately, our language still carries words and phrases that normalize archaic dichotomies that perpetuate inequality.
Contrary to what most people might think, awareness of microaggressions doesn’t necessitate the “policing” of other people’s behavior. Instead, the point is simply awareness and compassion. After all, being aware of harmful behavior is the first step to eradicating these inequalities.
The term “microaggression” is not a call to one’s righteousness. It is a call to one’s mindfulness: the acknowledgment that certain adjustments and changes need to be made to make everyone feel valued, welcomed, and included in society. Like in any other circumstance, people have to choose mindfulness and self-awareness for themselves. No one else can do it for them.
21 Microaggressions We Should All Avoid
1. “Where are you actually from?” / “What are you?”
While this statement may have innocent intentions, it actually invalidates the experiences and personal identity of the target. Acknowledge the nuances of people’s experiences by not assuming that a person’s nationality is tied to how they look physically.
2. “I’m not homophobic. I have lots of gay friends.”
Having gay friends doesn’t automatically mean that you’re not homophobic. It only means that you’re friendly. Don’t invalidate someone’s emotions by using this argument. If a gay person calls you out on a hurtful or offensive remark, listen.
3. “I had no idea you were gay!”
To say this implies that the person’s sexuality is somehow not valid because it doesn’t fit a certain stereotype.
4. Talking down to disabled people.
Talking slowly to blind people is an example, as is talking down to individuals in wheelchairs.
5. “So who’s the girl/boy in the relationship?”
This reinforces heteronormative dynamics in a non-heterosexual relationship.
6. “What she’s trying to say is…”
Some men have the habit of snatching the floor from a woman as she explains herself. Do not be one of those men.
7. “So when are you going to get a sex change operation?” / “Have you had a sex change yet?”
First off, it’s called a “sex reassignment surgery.” Second, would you be comfortable if someone asked questions about your genitals from the get-go? Not so nice, right? Then why do people think it’s okay to ask a trans person something so private? If a trans person wants to disclose this information to you, they will. Another important thing: the moment a trans person discloses that they are trans, respectfully ask for their preferred pronouns and keep them in mind for your next conversation.
8. “So what’s your real name?” / Using a trans person’s birth name instead of their chosen name.
Asking/doing this is disrespectful and a dismissal of their struggles and identity. If you know a trans person’s birth name, do not disclose it without their permission.
9. “You look so happy! Are you sure you’re depressed?”
Mental illnesses manifest themselves in different ways. This statement implies that the person’s condition is not legitimate because it does not fit a certain stereotype.
10. “I don’t see color.”
Using this phrase in the context of racial issues is incredibly insensitive. It invalidates the history and current struggles of minorities. Acknowledging the challenges that people of color have to live through on a daily basis is the first step to addressing the problem of inequality. Unless you’re describing a color vision deficiency, there’s no real, valid reason to say this phrase.
11. “This position is open to anyone, regardless of race.”
A Florida university posted campus police outside a sociology class titled “White Racism” after the professor was flooded with harassing emails and messages — some of them openly racist https://t.co/PFd7Zs8o4s pic.twitter.com/dbJ5j2ML8r
— CNN (@CNN) January 11, 2018
Like #10, this statement is denying the existence of systemic racial inequality.
12. “I need a gay best friend!”
This reinforces harmful stereotypes. Hollywood often presents a cookie-cutter representation of homosexuality. Subscribing to these ideas is harmful and demeaning.
13. “I’m not trying to be racist/homophobic/sexist, but…”
A disclaimer won’t change the meaning of what you’re about to say.
14. “You just need a positive mental attitude!”
Subtext: “What you’re going through is not a real condition.”
15. “She’s a piece of work.”
— The Hill (@thehill) January 8, 2018
This phrase is often used to negatively refer to an outspoken, competitive woman. Proving its sexist undertones, these same characteristics when paired with a man would never bring this phrase to mind.
16. “Her mood changes so fast. She’s so bipolar.” / “I like my room clean. I’m just OCD like that.”
Diagnosing people behind their backs, or using legitimate mental illnesses to refer to undesirable behaviors is akin to undermining the nuances and intricacies of suffering from a mental illness.
17. “I don’t have a problem with gays, as long as they don’t flirt with me.”
This sounds less like an expression and more like a threat. Think of it this way: would you say this if a person of your preferred gender mistakenly flirted with you without knowing that you were in a relationship? If your answer was no, then why this aggression towards gay people making the same, understandable mistake?
18. “Bisexuality isn’t real.” / “You’re going to figure it out eventually.”
These statements are direct affronts to the validity of a bisexual person’s sexuality. Unfortunately, even gay people can be guilty of microaggressions towards members of the bisexual community.
19. “Don’t you feel oppressed?”
Muslim women wearing hijabs are often the butt of these comments. This is an automatic assumption about a person’s lack of agency. Instead of asking loaded questions, you might instead consider politely asking about a person’s experience being Muslim or the religious significance of wearing a hijab.
20. “Are you Chinese?”
Race is a bit more complex than outward appearance. It is a lived experience. Some individuals have lived in America all their lives and thus identify as American. Some may identify with their birth parents’ identity. Others may feel like they’re a mix of both. The point is, trying to summarize someone’s racial background through their physical features is oversimplifying the complexity of racial identity.
21. “Don’t be so sensitive.” / “Don’t take everything so seriously.”
Subtext: “If you felt offended, too bad because it doesn’t matter to me.”
Colleges in the US have started to examine the effects of microaggression on people. Watch this video by the New York Times below:
When you read about microaggressions, it’s inevitable that you’ll find comments dismissing how people feel about certain statements. While this dismissal is understandable — the idea of checking one’s privilege can be uncomfortable — we have to work through this discomfort in the name of equality. Comedian Louis CK said it well, “When a person tells you that you hurt them, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.”
A microaggressive statement does not necessarily make a person racist or sexist. What actually defines a person is how they act after they realize they may have participated in a microaggression. Do they become defensive, or do they treat it as a chance for them to make the world a safer, better place for everyone?
Have you been the target of a microaggression? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.
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