Introduction – why we talk about Microaggressions

Have you ever witnessed a situation or act that you felt kind of violent but could not explain why, or have you ever been around someone who was telling you that an action was violent but you did not feel as such? If yes most probably you witnessed one of the types of microaggressions, something that if you don´t know it exist, you don´t see it, but when your awareness raise you see it everywhere. With this article we aim to define what are the microaggressions, to see how harmful they are and explore them in depth discovering which among them are actually micro forms of racism.

What are the Microaggressions?

Let´s dig directly into the definitions of microaggressions, both presented by Dr. Sue, professor at the Colombia University:

Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that sends degrading messages to certain individuals because of their group membership. (Sue, ¨Microaggressions in everyday life – Race, Gender and Sexual orientation¨ 2010)

Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults that target person or group. (Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007)

Already from those two definitions we can extract some of the characteristics of the microaggressions.

  • Microaggressions are brief – they can consist in a simple phrase or even one look that can go very easily unnoticed;

  • Microaggressions are frequent – they happen on a regular basis, often daily;

  • Microaggressions are directed at marginalized groups – similarly to discrimination, the most common are based on ethnicity (micro racism), gender (micro machismo) and sexual orientation (micro homophobia), but they can be directed as well at fat people or done based on age, etc.;

  • Microaggressions are normalized – they are deeply rooted, therefore often they can be done in an unconscious way, and without the objective to really harm someone;

  • Microaggressions contain degrading message – a message that, if analysed, can be seen as harmful, usually based on stereotypes, although on the first sight it might not be that clear.

There should be one more characteristic added, that is not clearly coming from those definition, but is very relevant and is present in the definitions of micro machismo in the work of Luis Bonino (1): microaggressions are a result of power relations. Bonino defines the micro machismo as “the subtle and imperceptible manoeuvres and strategies for exercising male domination power in everyday life, which threaten women's autonomy to varying degrees. Skilled arts, tricks, and manipulations with which men try to impose on women their own reasons, desires and interests in everyday life.”

Type of microaggressions

We can divide the microaggressions into three main categories: micro insults, micro assaults and micro invalidations.

Microassault is the most direct form of aggression, and the most similar to the old fashion sexism, racism or homophobia. Microassault are the explicit derogations, that aim to hurt the target groups, make them feel unwanted, threatened, or inferior, and because they have those clear objectives they are most of the time conscious. Microassault can be verbal – like calling a person ¨nigger¨ for example, behavioural – for example avoidant behaviour, like not sitting next to the black person in the public transportation, or environmental – like hanging Playboy bunny pictures in the male manager´s office. As you can see from the examples, that they are quite direct and for many people they are not micro anymore. They are included into the microaggressions type since there is still a lot of people who don´t see anything violent in those actions, and who has them normalized.

The second type of the microaggressions are microinsults, which are communications that transmit rudeness and insensitivity, often based on stereotypes, and they are very likely to be unconscious. Very often the messages they are so hidden that at first even the targets are not aware of them. Let´s analyse an example from the classroom, where we have a teacher complimenting a black student on their performance in school with the words ¨you are the credit to your race¨(2). The student was complimented, and should feel good about it, on the other hand the intentions of the teacher were as well correct, to acknowledge the progress that the student is making. Although if we would try to deconstruct the message we might actually understand that the teacher decided to compliment the student, because of the stereotypes he or she has about the level of intelligence of black people, and the hidden message they are passing is that “Black people are generally not as intelligent as white people.”

Some of the most common themes of hidden messages from United States:

  • Ascription of intelligence – assuming that some groups have better capabilities and level of intelligence

  • Second-class Citizen – communicating that certain groups are less worthy or less important – for example giving in the restaurants smaller tables in more isolated places for black people and best tables for white people.

  • Assumption of criminal status – assuming that person might be dangerous because of skin colour or ethnic background.

And there are many more different hidden messages that we are exposed to on a daily basis, and without a critical perspective we are learning them as true ones. The biggest source of this type of communication is TV, which has a very concrete way of presenting black people in movies or TV shows. Very often this group is represented by criminals, or doing physical work (often illegally) and with a low level of studies. If we are exposed to this on a daily basis it is very likely that we will assume it as normal and start replicating those types of stereotype. It is how our brain works therefore it is so important to learn how to decode critically the messages we are getting.

There is a third type of the microaggressions, called microinvalidation, which comprehend communications or clues that exclude, deny or nullify the thoughts, feelings or reality experienced by certain groups. The best example that can illustrate this type of microaggression is to make someone feel alien in their own land. It is a very common example of microracism, to compliment black people born in the country of incident, on their very good level of local language, or start speaking loudly and gesticulating more, assuming that they don´t understand the language. The hidden message is clear, that the person who is doing it, assumes that they are not holding the same nationality as they are, which leads to creation of distance and the feeling of their identity being rejected.

Are microaggressions really harmful?

Unfortunately, the microaggressions can be very damaging for the person’s body and mind, and its power lies in the continuity and the lack of actions from the side of bystanders. Imagine a fat woman, who is throughout her life exposed to many microaggressions – while on TV there is mainly one type of beauty shown, which is slim, and too often the fat ones are outsiders, unpopular etc. Possibly when she is eating out, she is exposed to judgmental looks, since most of us has the stereotype that if someone is fat it is because they eat a lot; then she hears comments from her friends who gain a kilo how terrible they feel about it and this is a tragedy that happened…and so on and so forth. The number of the microaggression that the fat person receives on a daily bases is impossible to count, and this list can go on for few more pages. But then what are the consequences of this? Normally they start as small and increase with time, they start with feelings of insecurity, maybe occasional sadness, then they provoke feelings of being different, abnormal, not belonging, shame, being powerless and many more.

Microaggressions are influencing both mental and physical health, and their impact is correlated with the intensity of the microaggressions and the existence of the minimalizing factors. One or two microaggression incidents most probably will not bring any harm, the person could not even notice it, or if they do notice, could take it as an isolated incident and don’t make a deal out of it. Microaggressions are harmful when they are frequent and constant, since they are provoking permanent stress, and there are tons of studies about the consequences of long term stress, which leads to depression, guilt, anger and a number of physical illnesses, which can lead even to death.

The stress that microaggressions are provoking is increasing due to the ambiguity and the lack of legal recognition. The victims lacks defence strategies due to the fact that microaggressions are not considered illegal; as well many times they cannot or fear to stand up and react since they are not always 100% sure if it was a real microaggression, they lack arguments or they are not sure of what the other person really meant, which anyway does not change the fact that the incident provokes stress and negative feelings.

There was a very interesting research done in the United States (Salvatore & Shelton, 2007), to test the consequences of the racism that is visible and the one on micro level. Researchers took 4 different groups, two composed of white Americans and two of black Americans and showed them the company´s hiring decisions, some people were exposed to explicitly racist context, and another the racist messages were very hidden. After the exposure all the people were submitted to ¨Stroop test¨, a measure of cognitive and mental effort functioning.

As the result it was concluded that white people were much more affected by the explicit racism, and among the black people their capacity of problem solving decrease much more among these who witness microracism. Researchers believes that black people developed the coping strategy to deal with racism, but the micro-racism, due to it´s ambiguity is ¨draining psychological energy or detracting from the task at hand.¨

Scientists came up with the interpretation that the groups of black people are already used to the racist incidents, they are not influenced by them that strongly, but what is provoking more stress is rather waiting for the racist incident to occur, being permanently altered, and the ambiguity that we talked about before, which is not being sure if the situation was a really racist incident or not.

Factors minimalizing the consequences

Not every person will have similar reactions and experience the same consequences after the same incident, since there are different factors that can minimize the effects, such as the identity development level, the social and family support, the level of empowerment, the tolls that the person have to deal with the stress and racial incidents, the level of understanding of how microaggressions work etc. It is important to understand what are the factors; since in there lies what we can do as youthworkers to actually offer the response to youngsters: how to deal with microaggressions.

So what can we do? On one hand, working with marginalized groups empowering them, offering the social support, not being a bystanders when we witness the racist incident, and on another hand, we should work on the visibility of the the different types of microaggressions and the consequences that they can produce.

(1) Luis Bonino, psychologist and the author of the concept of micromachismos which is one of the forms of microaggressions. Bonino Méndez, Luis (1998). «Micromachismos: la violencia invisible en la pareja». Consultado el 27 de noviembre de 2013

(2) Example taken from the book Microagressions in everyday life