The Subtlety of Microaggressions  |

The Subtlety of Microaggressions 

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
February 23, 2019

Microaggressions can describe behaviors or comments that was subtle, inflict insult or injury on individuals, based on their identity with a certain group. It is a term to describe brief and common verbal, behavioral, or implicit messaging that slight or insult a certain group. Well often not intentionally malicious, microaggressions can have a deep, negative impact on people. 

It has been used by Columbia Professor Derald Sue to describe “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostel, derogatory, or negative resource lights and insults toward people of color.”  It was originally identified and termed by Psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s. He described microaggressions as acts done with little conscious awareness of their effects and suggested meanings behind the behaviors. The insidious impact of such messaging throughout life create a marginalized experience for people with certain identities in particular. 

Minority groups often face these forms of insults almost in daily life.  The term was initially developed to describe the impact of the suppression on people of color. Since then, the term has been broadened to also encompass such experiences encountered by women and other minority groups. 

Microaggression is described as messaging that is explicit or implicit in suggesting another person’s inferiority as a result of their identity with a particular group. The group may be identified by ethnicity, disability, sexual identity, gender, or social status.  These microaggressions can be damaging by invalidating the person or a group’s identity and the reality that they experience. It can often be demeaning and suggesting that they do not belong.

According to advocates of the microaggression theory, it should be defined according to the victim’s experience and feeling, rather than the intent of the perpetrator of the behavior, since intentions are often not malicious. 

Here are some examples of common microaggressions in our society:

  • Making racist or sexist jokes
  • Demonstrating surprise at a person of color’s level of insight or intelligence
  • Telling an Asian person they speak good English
  • An assertive progressional woman is labeled a “bitch”, and a male counterpart is viewed as “strong”
  • A gay couple holding hands in public are told not to flaunt their sexuality
  • Asking a biracial person, “What are you?” 
  • Asking a Hispanic person if they speak English
  •  mispronouncing an ethnic last name
  • Assuming a woman is in an administrative rather than leadership position
  • Assuming a person of color is in a janitorial position
  • On forms, being asked to select A male or female option only
  • Assuming a male is a doctor and female is a nurse
  • Woman clutching her purse as an African American male walks by

While critics may downplay the importance of microaggressions, these subtle behaviors contribute to broader, more macro-level prejudices. Trends of such microaggressions leads to bigger issues related to implicit biases, which can have negative impact at a societal level. It becomes not only about hurt feelings on an individual level, but contributes broader systemic challenges related to discriminatory treatment of minority groups.  Research suggests that microaggressions can have a powerful impact on the wellbeing of minority groups as well as the opportunities they are provided with.  These micro behaviors can impact such groups’ quality of life and standard of living. It contributes to inequities created and sustained in many areas of our culture.

Continued insight, education, and awareness can help reduce the occurence of microaggressions in our society.  If individuals took accountability to understand their own participation in such behaviors and comments, it could have a broad impact overall.

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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