Making microaggressions visible is key to addressing the impacts

Microaggressions represent major stressors impacting the overall health and wellbeing of people in targeted groups.

While stress is a common experience for many of us, people in target groups (for example, people of color and women) must also navigate what some call “microaggressions.” In his book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, author, psychologist and multicultural scholar Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as the intentional and often unintentional slights and insults experienced by members of these marginalized groups. Examples include being ignored, overlooked, stereotyped and the subject of jokes—and having members of majority groups trivialize, minimize and explain away the impacts of these kinds of comments and behaviors.

Microaggressions are stressful because they remind people in target groups of the harsh realities of oppression. You may be moving through your day with grace and ease and wham: a microaggression is experienced as an emotional assault. The corresponding feelings often include shame, trauma, rage and hopelessness. Far from trivial slights and hassles in day-to-day life, microaggressions represent major stressors impacting the overall health and wellbeing of people in targeted groups. For too many the impacts are chronic and cumulative beginning in childhood and extending into adulthood.

Most of us can recognize more blatant forms of racism, sexism, heterosexism and other obvious, intentional and hateful acts. But microaggressions are often subtle, hidden, unconscious and even well-intentioned. According to Dr. Sue, making microaggressions visible is an important part of addressing the stress and impacts related to these issues. Here are several examples of microaggressions based on race, gender and sexual orientation:

Race microaggressions impacting people of color:

  • Asking a person of color where they’re from, implying they’re not really “American”
  • Saying “I don’t see color”
  • Self-segregation and avoidance of people of color
  • Assumptions of inferiority and lower intellect
  • Judging communication styles, accents and dialects as “wrong”
  • Exoticizing women of color
  • Assuming boys and men of color are criminals and dangerous
  • Asking people to speak for all of “their people”
  • Saying “those people” when referring to certain groups
  • Saying “colored people” instead of “people of color” and minimizing the historic and current significance of these terms
  • Punishing children of color in schools more harshly for similar behaviors displayed by white children
  • Saying that we’re in a “post-racial” society and that racism is a thing of the past
  • Saying “it’s not about race, it’s about class”
  • Denying, minimizing and invalidating the experiences of racism of people of color (for example, saying “it’s so much better now” or “it’s no big deal”)

Gender microaggressions impacting women:

  • Having one’s value tied to physical appearance
  • Sexual objectification
  • Calling older women “hags” or “cougars”
  • Sexist jokes (for example, ditsy blond jokes)
  • Use of sexist and exclusionary language (for example, he/him/mankind)
  • Rigid gender roles
  • Being treated as second-class citizens (for example, valuing, promoting and funding boy’s and men’s sports more than sports for girls and women)
  • Saying that women are too emotional
  • Expecting or demanding that girls/women act feminine and “ladylike”
  • Claiming “reverse discrimination” when a woman is hired in a traditionally male-dominated field
  • Denying that sexism exists (for example, saying “men don’t stand a chance anymore”)
  • Commenting on girl’s and women’s bodies
  • Policing girls and women based on how they dress and dress codes
  • Denying, minimizing and invalidating girl’s and women’s experiences of sexism

Heterosexist microaggressions impacting LGBT people:

  • Over-sexualization (for example, seeing LGBTs in a narrow way and reducing them to their sexual experiences rather than seeing them as whole, complex human beings)
  • Believing people who are gay are child molesters or “recruiters” of children into a “gay lifestyle”
  • Using the word “lifestyle” to describe one’s sexual orientation and identity
  • Blaming people who are gay for the AIDS epidemic (rather than blaming the virus)
  • Avoiding LGBT people because of fear of “catching something”
  • Asking people personal questions about their sex life and/or family life
  • Using demeaning language and slurs (for example, “that’s so gay”)
  • Believing and saying that people who are gay are “abnormal”
  • Saying that it’s just a phase that people need to get over
  • Saying “I don’t mind if people are gay, but why do they have to flaunt it?”
  • Blaming people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender for the destruction of families

Dr. Sue provides many more examples of microaggressions and the impacts of these major stressors on women, people of color and those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender. Additional information can be found at The Microaggressions Project website which includes blogs of actual microaggressions people in target groups have experienced based on race, gender, sexual identity, religious and other differences.

Whether we are in target groups based on these identity areas or want to be supportive allies, Dr. Sue provides throughout his book what he calls “The Way Forward” with suggestions for coping with microaggressions and working for positive change. He also suggests strategies for educators, counselors and mental health professionals to address these issues and their impacts with the populations they serve.

Michigan State University Extension provides resources and workshops focused on issues of social and emotional health and wellbeing—as well as ways to address issues related to microaggressions and other areas of diversity and multiculturalism.

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