Racism 101: Microaggressions

Shade, slights, and subtle jabs from racists.

I still remember precisely where I was standing (in the hallway of the Fortune 500 company where I worked at the time) when one of my cis-het white male colleagues said to me, à propos of absolutely nothing: “Lisa, I have to tell you, you’re so well-spoken.” My brow furrowed in puzzlement. “Um…thank you?”, I replied, the rising inflection of my voice and tilt of my head communicating my confusion. 

“What had brought about this declaration?”, I wondered silently. On the surface, I continued the conversation in my best professionally code-switched voice, but inside I was, frankly, irritated. Because once again I had been “gifted” with one of those insults masquerading (albeit ineffectively) as a compliment.  Once again I would have to self-soothe, take a deep breath, and carry on working with a racist. Once again—it happens almost daily to most people of color—I had been subjected to a racial microaggression. 

So what exactly are microaggressions, you ask? 

The term microaggression was coined by Chester M. Pierce M.D., a Black Harvard psychiatrist. He defined microaggressions as the subtly demeaning insults and non-verbal put downs often used against minoritized people.

Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., author of Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, expands the definition as follows: 

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Dr. Sue also subdivides microaggressions into microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. More on those later. 

An important nuance is that “micro” refers to the (mis)behaviors occurring in one-to-one situations, as opposed to on a “macro” or systemic level. Micro does not mean that the behaviors are unimportant, or miniscule in their impact. 

Part of what makes microaggressions so toxic is their subtlety. People sometimes have difficulty in recognizing—or admitting—that a microaggression has taken place. And it’s hard to address what is not confessed. 

So how can you tell if you’ve been a micro-aggressor or micro-aggressee?

Here are some examples of what microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations look like in real life:

Microassaults are intentionally discriminatory behaviors. 

Examples:

  • Using racial epithets.
  • Mocking someone’s accent.
  • Flying/displaying the confederate flag.
  • Crossing the street to avoid a person of color.
  • Telling a racist joke then saying, “I was just joking.”
  • Touching a Black person’s hair without permission.
  • Clutching your purse whenever a Black person walks close to you.
  • Passively allowing racist behavior to take place unchecked. Inaction is an action.

Microinsults are discriminatory comments or actions that are often, though not necessarily, unintentional.

Examples: 

  • Any “compliment” that ends in “for a (insert ethnicity)”. E.g. You’re pretty for a Black girl.
  • Telling a person of color that they’re “so intelligent”, “so articulate”, “good at speaking English”, etc. This assumes that their excellence is a surprise, and that certain accomplishments and positive characteristics are the domain of white people.
  • Assuming PoC are “the help”, or the most junior person on a team.
  • Describing a (usually female) colleague or acquaintance of color as “spicy” or “angry”.
  • Telling a Black person that they were “lucky” to get their job. (The implication being that the PoC is a diversity hire and did not “earn” their role. Interestingly, this often comes from the nepotism hires, but…that’s fodder for another post.) 

Microinvalidations undermine or negate the experiences of marginalized people.

Examples:

  • A white person telling a Black person that “racism does not exist in today’s society.”
  • A white person telling a Black person “I don’t see color.”
  • Mistaking people of the same race for each other.
  • Nullifying or denying people’s lived experiences with racism:
    • “Are you sure they meant it that way?” 
    • “Are you maybe being a little sensitive?” 
    • “I’ve never experienced that (ergo it cannot exist).

Theory aside, it will come as no surprise to any person of color reading this that I have been micro-aggressed more times than I can remember. All Black people have. Here are just a few of my personal examples: 

  • Being told to sit at the back of a bus because “You’re not special.” (Yes, this is still happening.)
  • The boss who when making presentations would introduce the entire team by name, but “forget” to introduce me.
  • Being seated at the worst table in a restaurant.
  • Being asked to move to another table so that a group of white people could have our table.
  • Explaining to a white person that my hair “shrinks” when it gets wet and them telling me that there is no way that that can happen–based on their total of zero experience with Black hair.
  • Myself and my other Black colleague being mistaken for each other. 
  • Being the only Black person in an office, knowing and remembering everyone’s name, or at least their face, and having colleagues with whom you worked for years walk right past you like they never met you.
  • Having a salesperson suggest that I shop at the back of the store where items are more affordable.
  • Being followed around multiple stores. (This is microaggressions 101. Are you even Black if you haven’t experienced this?)
  • Being asked “Where are you from? No but really: where are you from.”
  • Getting an A+ on a paper…but then having the professor suggest that I could not possibly have written it myself.
  • Being “taught” by a white French student how to dance to reggae because “I wasn’t doing it right.”
  • Being compared to a monkey. 
  • Being compared to a troll. Yes: an under-the-bridge troll.
  • Having multiple people put, or try to put, their hands in my hair.
  • Having a neighbor tell me that her dog was barking at me because of my hair.
  • Having white and white-adjacent colleagues express astonishment that I have a Masters, or really that I have achieved anything at all.
  • Being the most qualified person and no matter what being overlooked in favor of younger, white colleagues.
  • Being ostracized and/or bullied by “model minority” colleagues.

This is not a definitive list, of course, but I hope it provide some fodder for your mind to chew on. Again: we can’t address what is not confessed. So get honest with yourself, and do better.

Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll provide tips for how to commit fewer microaggressions, and how to effectively respond when they occur.

Copyright 2021
Lethicia Kevine Foadjo

Like what you read? Show it some love! Leave a like/comment, follow me on social media, and support my work.

Unless otherwise stated, text and images ⒸLisa Hurley/@happyhappyphoenix

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *