What are microaggressions? How can they harm us? Is it worth addressing? And, more importantly, how do we minimize the impact they have on us and cope effectively?

According to the APA (American Psychological Association), microaggressions are “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or situational indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights or insults, especially toward members of minority or oppressed groups (some examples of these marginalized groups include, racial minorities, religious minorities, people with disabilities, women, LGBTQ+ community).”

Microaggression embodies a particular type of problem that can make them hard to combat; it can sometimes be intentional (e.g., purposely calling a transgender person “she-male”), or implicit. They are often the latter, and their unintentional nature can make it hard to address and perpetuate the issue. Oftentimes, they come in the form of an apparent compliment, by well-intentioned individuals that are unaware of their bias and the implications of their statements. This core difference between microaggressions and other forms of more overt prejudices can leave us at a loss as to how to respond effectively.

It is important to remember that these messages, though subtle in appearance, have a lasting negative impact on a person’s psychological and physical well-being; especially when someone is experiencing them regularly. This problem is exacerbated when even the helping community (doctors, teachers, counselors) unknowingly perpetuates the problem themselves, by being unaware of the biases they hold. Research has shown that repeated exposure to these forms of prejudice can leave a target person or a group feeling angry, inferior, powerless, and alienated, hypervigilant; with time they create more harm than other more overt forms of discrimination. Moreover, they are not only limited to verbal forms of expression but can also include messages delivered via TV, social media, cultural symbols and monuments, non-verbal forms of communication, etc. Some of the most common everyday examples include:

Asking a person of color where they are “really” from, conveying the message that they are foreigners in their land, or making assumptions of their homeland solely based on their appearance (assuming only white people are from the US)

  • Complimenting a Person of Color on their ability to speak English when English is their first language.
  • Holding stereotypes, such as assuming that Asian Americans must be good at math.
  • Expressions like, “that is so gay.”
  • Body language indicating discomfort (such as making minimal eye contact)
  • Assuming one person represents a whole group
  • Expressing surprise at someone’s performance (assuming they would not do well due to their gender or ethnicity)
  • Asking a bisexual person if “they’re really bi” because they are dating someone of the opposite sex.
  • Stating that a person is being “too sensitive” when they point out a microaggression is a form of invalidation as well.
  • “You’d be prettier if you lost some weight” or “you’re pretty for a -insert minority group here- woman.”
  • “I don’t see color.” (Failing to acknowledge and validate the difficulties that POC often face, or implying that their experience is no different than anyone else’s)

Microaggressions can present themselves in many ways, and this is by no means a comprehensive list of examples or, situations. The most significant aspect is to believe those on the receiving end, learn from it, do not get defensive, and make repairs whenever they communicate that they feel uncomfortable, disregarded, insulted, or invalidated. Seek to understand their experiences, especially those that are different from you. People in minority groups are constantly receiving messages of their “otherness”, whether on how they are treated or what is being communicated to them. When we have not personally experienced this, it can be hard to see and recognize, yet it starts by acknowledging that our own life experience is not a universal one and that others can naturally be facing challenges that are invisible to us yet significantly painful to them.

 

RESPONDING TO MICROAGGRESSIONS

In this article, we will help provide some tips and suggestions on how to manage micro-aggressions when one is on the receiving end of the spectrum. However, it is important to mention that the responsibility in decreasing and managing these interactions should not fall on the targeted individual. People who experience microaggressions can already feel alienated and hurt, the burden of education should not befall them as well. Therefore, it is pivotal for everyone to take responsibility for their education and continuously work on doing better while acknowledging that no one is exempt from partaking in these internalized biases and unintentionally causing harm.

Furthermore, being part of a marginalized community does not exclude a person from engaging in a microaggression against another group and/or people belonging to their same identity; no one is immune to internalized biases or engaging in discrimination. For example, a woman can still be sexist. The bottom line is we all can hold harmful stereotypes if these go unchallenged.

Inevitably, when belonging to a minority we will encounter difficult or uncomfortable moments where we are faced with a microaggression. So, how can we navigate these encounters?

We may have an initial, normal reaction to wonder whether the comment was unintentional or meant as a compliment. We may also feel confused as to whether we should address it, and if so, what should we say? Should we leave? Is it worth the effort, or the confrontation? Can we educate the other person?  It’s important to normalize these thoughts and feelings as these interactions can be sending mixed messages; our emotions can also range at the moment from indifference to confusion and ambivalence, all the way to anger, indignation, and sadness.

Therefore, response interventions will also vary depending on who the perpetrator is, and what is occurring at that moment. For example, is the situation public or private? What is the relationship with the aggressor? What are the power dynamics at play? Will there be greater consequences if I address this? Do I have the emotional energy needed right now? Part of assessing our response is considering these important contextual factors, we are never obligated to address the other person at the expense of our energy or wellbeing and can always choose to process our emotions and experiences in other ways. Don’t feel pressured to respond and draw empowerment from knowing you have a choice and pick your battles!

 

Some questions can help you identify a course of action.

  • Is my physical safety in danger?
  • If they become confrontational or defensive, will I be able to manage it? Do I have the emotional energy?
  • What is my relationship with this person? Will it impact the relationship?
  • If I stay quiet, will it impact my self-respect? Will I walk away feeling unsatisfied with myself?
  • If I don’t respond, does it shape my self-image? Does it impact my values?
  • How much does this matter to me?

If you decide to act, either as the person experiencing the microaggression or a bystander, these are some options you have at our disposal: 1) stop the conversation 2) educate the perpetrator 3) validate and provide acknowledgment to the one being targeted (as an ally) 4) seek support from peers 5) seek help from someone in a position of authority 6) a combination of any of the above

 

Here are some scenarios with potential responses:

Scenario 1. A black man walks into an elevator, a white woman sees him, creates distance, and clutches her purse.

  • Bring forth the underlying message being communicated (black men are dangerous), make it explicit. You can say something like “I’m black, but that does not make me dangerous” or, “are you afraid to be here with me?”. This creates awareness of the dynamic happening at the moment and forces the perpetrator to consciously confront their behavior and/or assumptions.
  • As an observer, you can also intervene by asking for clarification and challenging the non-verbal communication of the other person “Why did you move to the other side? You look uncomfortable, what made you react like that?”

Scenario 2. A friend comments about a person of color “they only got accepted because of affirmative action.”

  • Directly express your values and disapproval of what is being said. “I find that offensive and I don’t agree with it, please don’t make those comments”. This will directly stop the microaggression from continuing and can potentially prevent further attacks toward the target.
  • Non-verbal communication can also express disapproval of what is being said, things such as, shaking your head, looking away, walking away from a conversation, or making a disappointed sound.
  • Redirect the conversation, “let us talk about something else”, “I don’t want to go there”, “let’s just focus on what we’re doing instead”.

Scenario 3. Someone jokes about drugs then refers to the Hispanic student “you probably know, you’re Colombian.”

  • Directly offer to educate “Not because I’m Colombian does it means I am a drug dealer, that is offensive.”
  • Highlight the fact that it is a negative stereotype being perpetuated “That is a negative stereotype that you’re continuing right now, no one likes negative stereotypes to be made about them or their identities”.

 

Other quick, simple responses:

“I don’t find that funny.”

“I don’t get the joke, please explain it to me.”

“I don’t agree, I’m happy to explain why.”

“How do you think this is landing for me?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“I know you didn’t realize this, but when you __________ (comment/behavior), it was hurtful because___________.”

“I used to do/say/think that too, but then I learned____________.”

 

Always aim to deliver this assertively, without falling into aggressive or passive demeanors. For example, hold eye contact and stop yourself from laughing awkwardly and reaffirming their behavior. Disarm the perpetrator and question them, but only talk about the behavior and not the person itself. This will most likely make them uncomfortable (people fear being seen as racist, sexist, homophobic, etc.) and that’s part of the learning process for them. If they become defensive, approach the topic in a gentle, yet assertive manner; acknowledge their discomfort and the fact that they most likely had good intentions, while also making room for your feelings and thoughts about it. Highlight the importance of having these difficult conversations (it is a privilege to not be able to notice microaggressions). And overall, just keep it short, information is easier to process and embrace when it is not extensive.

 If the situation becomes too stressful or confrontational, do not hesitate to seek support from leadership or anyone in a position of authority. Report the incident and create exposure, this can help promote change while at the same time sending a clear message that these behaviors and comments will not be accepted or tolerated.

Finally, prioritize making room for self-care. Psychological and physical well-being can fail to exist without active behaviors to create it and sustain it. Even more so when the environmental circumstances prove to be challenging. Ultimately, it can help buffer -to some extent- the continuous exposure to these painful exchanges. Some options include counseling with culturally sensitive providers, having a support network of people that understand and validate your experience, community or religious leader that can provide guidance and advocate if necessary, expressing your feelings in a creative way (music, writing, drawing), engaging in social activism (whether at your place of work, community or university), creating healthy boundaries, and learning breathing exercises (useful when intense feelings get overwhelming).

In summary, when faced with a microaggression start by deciding how you want to proceed and if you have the emotional energy to do so, think about what the ultimate goal is (it may be to uphold your values). Second, think about the context and the relationship, who is the person on the other end? Third, if you decide to proceed, challenge their statement, cut them off, educate them if possible. In the process, allow yourself to feel what you feel, however it comes, make sure you validate your own experience (anger, sadness, disappointment, indifference, confusion, shock). Lastly, take care of yourself!

Microaggressions can undoubtedly create a climate of hostility and invalidation that is subtle and only being experienced by the minority. And even though we can learn how to personally respond and take care of ourselves, ultimately, I hope that the responsibility to do better is taken on by all of us (sometimes the voices of allies can be heard louder than the oppressed). When we collectively work to eliminate these interactions, we are actively aiding in the creation of a more inclusive and accepting campus community, thus, making it possible for everyone to experience a feeling of belonging regardless of their race, religion, sexuality, gender, or identity.

 

RESOURCES

A list of resources at the University of Denver that can be utilized for institutional and/or individual support.

Counseling Center: https://www.ucdenver.edu/counseling-center

CARE Team (includes Case Management, Conduct, Auraria Police, Lynx Crossing – on-campus living, SCCC, and legal counsel): https://www.ucdenver.edu/student/health-wellness/care-team

Center for Identity and Inclusion: https://www.ucdenver.edu/offices/diversity-and-inclusion/our-offices/center-for-identity-inclusion

Office of Disability Resources and Services: https://www.ucdenver.edu/offices/disability-resources-and-services

Office of Equity: https://www1.ucdenver.edu/offices/equity

LGBTQ Student Resource Center: https://www.msudenver.edu/lgbtq/