A few weeks ago I stumbled onto a website called The Microaggressions Project and then promptly forgot about it. Returning to it tonight I looked over the “About” page, which had the following paragraph at the top:
This project is a response to “it’s not a big deal” – “it” is a big deal. ”It” is in the everyday. ”It” is shoved in your face when you are least expecting it. ”It” happens when you expect it the most. ”It” is a reminder of your difference. ”It” enforces difference. ”It” can be painful. ”It” can be laughed off. ”It” can slide unnoticed by either the speaker, listener or both. ”It” can silence people. ”It” reminds us of the ways in which we and people like us continue to be excluded and oppressed. ”It” matters because these relate to a bigger “it”: a society where social difference has systematic consequences for the “others.”
A little later on they define what “microaggressions” are, a term that was originally coined to speak about racial experiences. From the essay “Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice,” which appeared in American Psychologist, Vol. 62, No.4:
“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.”
One example of this could be a White couple walking down the street and having a Black man pass by them on the sidewalk. The woman clutches her purse tighter against her body, the subconscious idea being, of course, that Black men are prone to crime and should not be trusted.
As an Asian-Canadian I’ve experienced microaggressions plenty of times. I’ve had someone ask me if I was half-White [I am clearly not] with their rationale being that my “English was very good.” It can be an everyday occurrence for non-White people [I deign to use the word minorities, since I do believe that balance is turning the other way], and begs the question: “Why is this such a big deal?”
Writer of the aforementioned article and author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, Derald Wing Sue, PhD, has observed that microaggressions have actually 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.”
In other words, a Black or Latino man being stopped for a “random vehicle check” by police could be upset, and may even be accused of overreacting. Maybe they should simply be used to this and not let it bother them. The truth is that it makes them feel, even if only subconsciously, like second-class citizens. It’s true in a case as blatant as this one, and in an as subtle an action as hanging a Confederate flag or having a Native American stereotype as a high school mascot.
To broaden this to the scope that The Microaggressions Project seeks to attain, microaggressions can include people saying to a person with Asperger’s, with no ill-intent whatsoever, “That you seem so normal!” It can be a 17-year-old girl being told by her gynecologist that just because she has access to birth control pills doesn’t mean she can just sleep around.
Microaggressions work in every direction. It’s like going to a Vietnamese restaurant and being given a fork and spoon instead of chopsticks because you’re White and not Asian. Microaggressions are built on assumptions and can make people painfully aware of who they are. They are rarely meant to offend, but often do.
It truly is a shame that so much of the time we send out microaggressions without so much as a second thought, and then defend ourselves by deeming the offended to be “too sensitive.” While we won’t always be aware of how our words or actions can harm others, we can at the very least listen to the people being hurt, and in doing so try to lessen the presence of microaggressions in our society.