How Our Beliefs and Attitudes Can Harm
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, non-verbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate a belief that they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment (Sue, 2010, Psychology Today, p.1).
Basic Mechanism of Microaggressions
- We are socialized in families, institutions, communities and societies in which there exist fixed beliefs and attitudes associated with race, sexual orientation and religion, as well as many other social identities and groups.
- None of us is exempt from learning or “inheriting” the biases of our surroundings. Therefore, we may be socialized into racist, sexist, and heterosexist attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors.
- Because most of us like to think of ourselves as overall good, moral, and decent human beings, the realization that we may possess a biased worldview can be very disturbing, so we may deny, diminish, or avoid viewing our beliefs and attitudes accurately.
- Even when outside of our immediate awareness, our attitudes may lead us to actions that unintentionally oppress and discriminate against others.
Characteristics of Microaggressions
- Subtle, unintentional, and indirect: usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals whom are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group.
- Can be communicated verbally and/or behaviorally.
- Arise from unconscious/ingrained and biased beliefs and attitudes.
- Usually are “explained away” to avoid embarrassment or deny a self-disclosure.
- Are more likely to occur when people pretend not to notice differences and thus believe and react as if oblivious to their actions.
- May appear innocent, but have long term emotionally and psychologically damaging consequences on the recipient.
Forms of Microaggressions
Conscious, overt, intended to be clearly derogatory
More likely when offender is
• in the presence of others who share their beliefs and tolerate offender’s actions, or
• able to be anonymous
Usually unconscious, seemingly unintentional
Verbal or behavioral
Subtly rude or insensitive, “hidden” message
Usually unconscious, seemingly unintentional
Communication that negates thoughts, feelings or reality of target group
“We’re all one color…everyone’s an immigrant.”
May be unconscious, seemingly unintentional
Characteristic or feature of a place, event or institution
Sends message of microassault, insult or invalidation
A financial Budget that is deficient in women’s programs
Posting of public messaging that depicts only one race, gender or nationality
- As in “old fashioned” biological racism, people of color are oppressed, denied rightful privilege and targeted for other types of harm by contemporary and more covert forms known as modern, symbolic and aversive racism; all terms that describe particular styles and mechanisms of discriminatory behavior.
- Four psychological dilemmas have been described to apply to those targeted by racial microaggressions:
- Clash of racial realities: The racial reality of people of color is not fully appreciated by white Americans, despite any beliefs to the contrary.
- Invisibility of unintentional expression of bias: Perpetrators of a microaggression are usually sincere in the belief they did not act with racial bias and may appeal to the ambiguity of a situation for rationalization.
- Perceived minimal harm of racial microaggresssions: When individuals are confronted with their microaggressive behaviors, the perpetuator believes that the victim has overreacted out of oversensitivity or pettiness.
- The Catch-22 of responding to microaggressions: The action of both responding and not responding to microaggressions takes an emotional/psychological toll on victims (damned if I do and damned if I don’t).
Microaggressions across Identities
Although microaggresssions are generally discussed through the lens of race and racism, any marginalized group within our society is susceptible:
- Gender (e.g., Whistling/catcalling at women = hidden message: a woman’s body appearance is for the enjoyment of men; you are a sex object).
- Sexual Orientation (e.g., Using the word “gay” to describe something undesirable or using gender pronouns to disparage someone or something = hidden message: being gay is linked to negative/undesirable characteristics).
- Religious or Spiritual (e.g., wishing strangers “Merry Christmas” = hidden message: Christianity is the dominant religious status).
- Disability or Physical Difference (e.g., Telling a person with a disability or physical difference how much you admire their courage. The hidden message: it must be so hard and awful to be you).
- Social Class (e.g., Describing lower class individuals as “trash” or “white trash” = hidden message: people of a particular socioeconomic or cultural background are unsophisticated and of no inherent value).
You can take action
- In the words of Asian-American author Dr. Derald Wing Sue (2010), the first step in eliminating microaggressions is to make the “invisible”: visible. Individuals must become aware of the range of messages, values, and beliefs that they have internalized and how these may unconsciously guide their interactions with oppressed/target groups and how subtle, unconscious bias can manifest in their own behaviors and interactions.
- Raising awareness of microaggressions begins at the individual level:
- Individuals must become aware of the biases/stereotypes they have internalized about people of differing races, sexuality, nationality, age, etc.
- Individuals must become aware of their own sexist beliefs and behaviors as a result of their own biases and stereotypes.
- Take responsibility for your own microaggressions:
- Remain vigilant and stay aware of your own biases and fears.
- Keep in mind the effect of your words and behaviors on individuals who differ from you.
- Remain open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they may unintentionally impact others in subtly demeaning ways.
- Recognize and avoid being defensive.
- Be an ally: stand up and speak up against all forms of bias and discrimination.
- Education (see resources below as a starting point).
Microaggressions Sources and Resources
Nadal, K.L. (2008). Preventing racial, ethnic, gender, sexual minority, disability, and religious microaggressions: recommendations for promoting positive mental health. Prevention in Counseling Psychology: Theory, Research, Practice and Theory, 2(1), 22-27
Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation. Hobeken, NJ: Wiley
Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact.
Hobeken, NJ: Wiley
Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in every day life. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com
Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions: More than just race. Retrieved from: http://www.psychologytoday.com
Composed by Owen Wyatt, LMHC