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Microaggressions in America

Updated: Dec 1, 2020

Meaning behind the word Microaggression

As we gather to celebrate Martin Luther King Day, it presents a time to reflect on our country’s history, present and direction for the future. Microaggressions are the commonplace verbal, nonverbal, and environmental snubs, or direct insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their membership in a marginalized group. In many cases, these hidden messages invalidate the group identity, demean target personally, communicate they are lesser human beings by relegating them to inferior status and treatment, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, or threaten and intimidate. Microaggressions can be directed towards women, members of the LGBT community, persons with disabilities, religious minorities and more commonly people of color.

Immediate questions you may find yourself pondering are, aren’t microaggressions committed by racists or bigots and upon deeper introspection you should ask yourself, have I committed a microaggression against someone unintentionally.

White privilege allows for many well-intentioned White Americans to have inherited the racial biases of their ancestors and the perceived differences and stereotypes are projected onto others, often outside the level of conscious awareness.

Microaggression and Hidden Meanings

Racial Microaggressions:

• A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.)

• An Asian American, born and raised in the United States, is complimented for speaking "good English." (Hidden message: You are not a true American. You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.)

• A Black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite there being other empty and more desirable tables located at the front. (Hidden message: You are a second-class citizen and undeserving of first-class treatment.)

• A White Man or woman steps in front of a Black person in line, does not make eye contact or greet the person. (Hidden message: I am entitled to be here, and my needs come before yours. You are lucky to be able to be in the shared space with me, wait until my needs are met before you are serviced)

• Upon meeting a Black of Latino person, the White person begins to speak in colloquiums (Hidden message: I must dumb down my language so you understand me. You and your group are of lesser intelligence)

Gender Microaggressions:

• An assertive female manager is labeled as a "nightmare," while her male counterpart is described as "a forceful leader." (Hidden message: Women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.)

• A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men).

• Forward advances are made as a woman walks down the street. (Hidden message: Your body/appearance is for the enjoyment of men. You are a sex object.)Sexual Orientation Microaggressions:

• A person uses the term "gay" to describe a movie that she didn't like. (Hidden message: Being gay is associated with negative and undesirable characteristics.)

• Two gay men hold hands in public and are told not to flaunt their sexuality. (Hidden message: Same-sex displays of affection are abnormal and offensive. Keep it private and to yourselves.)

The most detrimental forms of microaggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group. These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, but they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment.

What Do Microaggressions Say About Us?

Microaggressions reflect the active manifestation of oppressive worldviews that create, foster, and enforce systematic marginalization. Because most of us consciously experience ourselves as good, moral and decent human beings, the realization that we hold a biased worldview is very hard to accept. The challenge to our self-identify feels threatening and uncomfortable, thus we prefer to deny, diminish or avoid looking at ourselves honestly. Systematic changes within our society will never occur if we are unable to have candid conversations about the challenges faced by people with a disenfranchised American experience. Systematic changes will occur incrementally, with awareness, ownership and commitment to resist microaggression and more overt acts of oppression.

What Do We Do Next?

• Allies are welcomed

Lend your voice when you see a microaggression and help your well intention counterpart to be enlightened to shift behaviors that negatively effect our community as a whole.

• Be self-aware

Take accountability of your personally bias, even when it’s challenging to acknowledge

• Eliminate the behavior

Once you have achieved self-awareness of your bias and microaggressions inflicted on others it is now the time to demonstrate a more inclusive environment for your children and community members who are watching.

Glynita Bell, LCSW, ABD, is a Professor of Clinical Social Work at Spalding University and is the Founder/Clinical Director of Heart 2 Heart Wellness Center in New Albany, IN.

Glynita Bell, LCSW


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