Raising Awareness of Micro-Aggressions

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In recent months I have spent countless hours reading a variety of books on racial injustice, white privilege and white supremacy, the nature of biases and the importance of learning skills around having constructive conversations concerning racial issues.

As a white person, my levels of awareness for these and other topics related to racism has been extremely low. Part of this is the result of experiencing white privilege my whole life, never recognizing this phenomenon but rather simply living it because I am white in a society where my skin color influences my attitudes towards the world and my expectations for how I will be treated on a daily basis. I believe it is important for people of all races to take personal journeys of exploration in order to become more aware and have enhanced understanding of their own race and that of others.

I am also aware now that my friends and colleagues who are members of other races, primarily Black and brown races, have had very different life experiences than I have had, most of which have been unfair and traumatizing to them and their families, simply because of the color of their skin.

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One of the terms that has raised my awareness around racial injustice is microaggression. “Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal or behavioral indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. The term was coined in 1970 by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce  to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans.”

Psychology Today focused on the question, “Is subtle bias harmless?” They state that microaggressions are comments that contain demeaning meta-communications or hidden messages. You can read about the examples they shared here.

In the Ted talk Eliminating Microaggressions: The Next Level of Inclusion Tiffany Alvoid offers several important suggestions for avoiding microaggressions:

1. Make it a habit to pause before asking a personal question or making a personal comment to someone of another race.

2. Ask yourself if the comment is necessary, especially if it involves comparing someone to something. “You are really pretty for a Black woman.” Such a comment is a subtle put-down.

3. Consider what the impact might be on the person, not what your intention is. Most people who are using microaggressions are not intending to do harm. These intentions do not really matter if harm is being done.

4. Do a quick Google search if you are about to use a statement that somehow reflects on a person’s race to see if it might be a micro-aggression.     

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During these times where all of us are being exposed to new awareness around the many forms of racial injustice, I think we all have the responsibility to do our homework, to learn more, to be more self-reflective and to take more responsibility for our impact when it comes to the many ways we can be implicitly biased in either our words or our behaviors.

It takes work to pause and reflect on the possibility that something I am about to say might be a microaggression. I need to combat my own inner voice that says that I mean no harm with anything I say. Taking the time to pause and reflect reduces mindless spontaneity in my conversations. Because I am aware that I was raised in a culture that was prejudiced and negatively biased, it is now my job to become much more intentional in the language I use when interacting with someone of another race.

I have also learned that it is acceptable to ask somebody if something I just said might have been offensive. The more we extend kindness to each other, the more likely our conversations will be caring ones. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all strived to be kindness with our language?

 Invitation for Reflection:

  1. To what extent are you aware of how often you and/or others around you use microaggressions when speaking with or about others of another race?
  2. What are some examples of these microaggressions?  What might be the specific impact of each?
  3. Are you willing to commit to becoming more self-aware of microaggessions you may have used and eliminate them from your language?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute