By Katelyn Skye Bennett | Editor-in-chief
“Don’t be so sensitive. Why are you offended at everything? Grow some skin.”
Let’s do a little empathy roleplay.
Perhaps your name is Robert, but you go by Bob because your abusive father went by the full name of Robert. Yet every time you start a new job or go to the doctor, they call you Robert. What is your gut reaction to this? Even when you correct others, they do not always listen. How does this make you feel? Do you speak up every single time? Why or why not?
Folks who have transitioned but are misgendered or called their deadnames may relate to Bob’s example on some level, yet there are many other small ways unrelated to names through which we can cause harm, whether intentionally or not.
These are called microaggressions. They may be unintentional, and they may not seem significant by themselves, but they’re a form of trauma, and their effect over time is deleterious.
To put it in the words of Elizabeth Hopper, microaggressions are “a subtle behavior – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect.”
Microaggressions, Mental Health, and Minimized Dreams
Let’s look at another example.
Say you are discouraged from pursuing your educational or career dreams because your teachers or boss is dismissive, your family “jokingly” insults you when you bring up your hopes, and others repeatedly make false assumptions about you.
This could result in you growing discouraged and potentially losing scholarship opportunities because you don’t feel you are good enough to pursue them. It could result in you entering a career you hate because you feel like it’s the only option. These are just a couple examples, but imagine their impact both on yourself and on your community!
You may now be stuck in a low wage job because college seemed unattainable, which impacts your family’s income and opportunities down the line. Your mental health could be affected. Your city could be deprived of a quality dentist or therapist or teacher because you were pressured into a different career instead.
It’s not the individual act of your boss making one comment that leads to this, but rather the built up impact from them over time, and from other strangers and friends over time, whether through indirect insults, assaults, or invalidations.
Of course, you have value no matter what others say, and your work is worthy too, no matter where you end up. But a world without microaggressions would allow everyone to be their full selves, and it would be brighter for it.
It’s on us to consider what’s behind our words and actions, even the ones that don’t initially seem problematic.
Of course, this is not solely an individual issue. Our implicit biases, or assumptions, point to a deeper issue shaped by our socialization, larger than just us.
Some common examples of racial microaggressions include people of color being followed in stores by customer service representatives or stared down by public servants, the underlying assumption being that melanated people are not trustworthy or peaceable.
Other examples include the popular request to touch someone’s coily or kinky hair and the attempt to do so without any consent.
The University of Minnesota put together a helpful list of common examples with explanations, including imitating accents, assuming that a person of color is a service worker, and saying, “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
The list, adapted from a psychology article also includes “complimenting” someone on how articulate they are, saying someone is beautiful for a (fill in the blank), saying you’d date them except that they’re Black, and more.
Conditions of a Hostile Environment
Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits racial discrimination and harassment within a work environment, providing another tangible illustration.
LegalMatch further explains the three main requirements of a hostile workplace, including this first one: “The harassment must be both ‘severe’ and ‘pervasive.’ One offensive remark, or mere teasing, usually will not suffice. However, these [two] factors operate on a sliding scale: the more severe the harassment, the less pervasive it has to be, and the less severe, the more pervasive it must be.”
Microaggressions may not be severe individually. They may not be obvious to everyone. But they are pervasive, creating hostile spaces for people to inhabit. When you face microaggressions at work, when shopping, at the park, in your place of worship, in class, and from your neighbors, the whole world can feel oppressive.
Rather than those at the end of racial microaggressions “growing some skin” and dealing with these forms of harassment their whole lives, it is the responsibility of others to watch their words and actions and examine the implicit biases or assumptions behind them.
Implementation: Two Brief Exercises
- Harvard created a tool to examine your implicit biases in relation to race, gender, ability, faith, age, and sexuality, among other things. Take a couple minutes to do one of the quizzes now as an act of self-reflection.
- Read this two minute article from Pfizer which breaks down three forms of microaggressions and suggests how to prevent microaggressions.