What are microaggressions and why do they matter? Microaggressions are everyday interactions, whether verbal or otherwise, that intentionally or unintentionally reinforce a person’s or group’s inferior status. Often these are unintentional negative slights of bias towards traditionally socially devalued groups.
They can take the form of jokes, such as “what do you mean you’re not good at math? You’re Asian!” or “what do you mean you can’t cook? You’re a woman.” They can also take the form of seemingly innocent comments, but depending on the context, the subtext of the message reinforces that discriminatory or alienating belief. For instance, asking where someone is from, at face value, is a pretty innocent question. However, if that question is only being directed towards people of color, the subtext becomes that that person is somehow less American or assumes they are a foreigner, reinforcing the idea that white is the standard American race. Another example is asking a mother if they will stay with the kids instead of working, but not asking the same question to fathers. Microaggressions can also seem like complements, but only at the expense of discriminating against a target group. “You’re so articulate, you don’t sound black.”
Microaggressions can also invalidate current and historical discrimination and undermine the challenges for those in traditionally socially devalued groups. “Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough,” “do you really have a mental illness? Do you really have a disability? You seem so normal,” “when I see you, I don’t see color,” “all lives matter.”
Microaggressions can also appear in the workplace, related to the organization and its hierarchical structure. This can devalue employee contributions, and create feelings of inferiority. This can include management not making the effort to learn and properly pronounce employee names, or claiming not to have time to respond to everyone’s emails, ignoring messages from subordinates but promptly responding to their supervisors. Pearn Kandola has a great 4-minute video on workplace microaggressions, here.
Microaggressions devalue individual and group identities, creating hostile and invalidating work climates, lowering work productivity and educational learning. This can create both physical and mental health problems to the recipient. To combat this, we all need to be more conscious of the things we say and do. Additionally, we need to be willing to speak up when we hear microaggressions from others. With that said, this doesn’t mean always aggressively denouncing and assuming bad intent. Often these microaggressions are unintentional and the person saying it simply needs to be educated as to why their action or statement is discriminatory. If we are to progress towards a more inclusive tomorrow we need to both assume good intent and not be silent bystanders!