Let’s Talk About Microaggressions

Are you trying to be a better ally? Are there times you find yourself reading an anti-racist book, listening to a podcast, or even reading the NAFC blog, when you come across a phrase that you don’t completely understand? Perhaps you’ve even heard a phrase multiple times, but you do not quite have a firm grasp on what it means. It is critical that we all understand the language of anti-racism. When we aren’t clear on the concepts, we are less capable of turning the mirror toward ourselves and identifying our own racist behavior. No matter how many books we read and how dedicated we are to “doing the work”, if we don’t have common language and a clear understanding of anti-racist concepts, we risk unintentionally hurting our friends of color.

Last spring we started what we hope will be a helpful series of essays defining, explaining, and unpacking phrases and concepts used in anti-racist work (see my May 6 piece on Gas-lighting Racial Gaslighting | Newtown Allies For Change). 

Now, let’s talk about microaggressions.

A microaggression is a statement, action or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group. This is usually directed towards a racial or ethnic minority. These are the brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to POC from the white people in their lives.

Let’s focus on the word “unintentional” in this definition.

Why? Because microaggression is not blatant, in-your-face racism, enacted by people carrying confederate flags. Often, it’s the “nice” white people who are the biggest perpetrators of microaggressions. These “nice people” do not even realize how they are mistreating Black people around them. However, the person who is the target of the microaggression feels the sting every single time. They may even understand that we weren’t trying to hurt them. But we did, and that is why it is important to focus on the microaggression and not the intent behind the action.

There are many different types of microaggressions. One of the most common types is verbal micro-aggressions. Often this comes across as a comment or question that is hurtful or stigmatizing. One member of the NAFC Facebook page recently shared about an encounter she had where she was a victim of a verbal micro-aggression.

Colette Baptiste-Mombo writes: “I was having a conversation with someone last week while waiting at the Southbury library for the final Democratic vote tally. At the tail end of our conversation, the person thought that she was giving me a compliment, only she did not realize that she was not. She remarked, ‘You are very articulate, and very well spoken.’ I couldn’t help but think to myself…well why wouldn’t I be?” Colette went on to explain that this woman likely would not have said this phrase to another white woman. Why? Because when you say something like “you are articulate” or “you speak English so well!” to a Black person, you are suggesting that Black people in general are not articulate. You are assuming that this person is an exception rather than the norm. Colette also pointed out that this is a type of “soft-bigotry of low-expectations”. When white people judge, expect, and assume that BIPOC are not articulate or able to express themselves well as a rule, then it stands out when someone breaks that expectation.

Microaggressions are not only verbal. Below is a partial list of different kinds of microaggressions which ethnic and racial minorities face every single day, along with an example.

·       Behavioral microaggressions: This can look like ignoring someone of an ethnic minority in favor of a white person. Recently in the news Sesame Place was called out for characters ignoring Black children and instead paying extra attention to white children. This is a prime example of a behavioral micro-aggression.

·       Environmental microaggressions: These occur when the environment in which an ethnic minority lives is hostile. An example of this is what took place in largely Black spaces during the Civil Rights Era. Large statues of Confederate officers were erected in cities nearly 100 years AFTER the South lost the Civil War. Each time they passed by, these statues would serve as reminders to all of those who were once enslaved that they were still the ones not holding the power. 

·       Invalidations: When someone makes a comment towards someone else which invalidates the experiences of a marginalized group. When someone says, “I don’t see color” in a response to someone’s reaction to a microaggression, they are absolutely invalidating a group’s experience

·       Micro-insults: This falls in the category of verbal micro-aggressions. However, it looks more like, “You are so pretty for a _____” or “Wow, you people must be so proud of ____”. This is very much like the example which Colette shared above: A soft bigotry which assumes the worst in people leading to surprise when they “rise above” that low expectation. Another member of the NAFC group, Nicole Maddox, shared an example of this recently. While she was at a grocery store, she was having what she thought was a lovely conversation about Duke’s basketball team with the man bagging her groceries. The older white male with whom she was speaking asked her how she knew so much about Duke and their basketball coach. Nicole shared that she had attended Immediately the man questioned how Nicole could have possibly gotten into Duke based on merit alone, stating “I thought you had to be really smart to go to Duke.”

Nerlande Foote, founding member of NAFC, also shared examples of various micro-aggressions she has faced throughout her life. Nerlande writes,

“Dealing with microaggressions are a frequent part of life as a Black woman. Comments intended to be complimentary tend to be the most prevalent in my life. I’ve gotten good at dodging strangers reaching to touch my hair. The well-meaning old bitty from TJ Maxx who asked if my hair was real became uncomfortable when I asked her the same. Impact over intent.

With the Crown Act in place, and the increased conversation surrounding the policing of Black hair, personally I have seen more awareness and can say no stranger has attempted to stroke my scalp in a while.

There are the comments that have stung, like being asked if I’m the mother of my son, WHO LOOKS JUST LIKE ME. The remarks that have me raising my eyebrows. ‘When did you come to this country?’

The male pharmacist who asked where my ring was when I was picking up a Plan B! That was a doozy. My shock had me giving a snappy, yet lackluster response of ‘It’s at home!’ and 8 years later that microaggression wrapped in misogynoir stayed with me. Depending on the mood, these comments can ruin your entire day. We’ve become so used to them that unless explicitly called out (which should happen) the offender typically does not know what they said that was wrong.”

So, what should allies do when we hear or witness a microaggression? We cannot simply rely on the person who was targeted to speak up for themselves. In fact, it should not be their job to do so. It is exhausting and it simply opens that person up for more aggression and conflict as the aggressor is sure to deny that there was an intent behind the action. When we witness a microaggression we need to speak up and educate people that they are being racist. They should understand WHY their question, comment, or behavior was hurtful. In the best of cases, that person will learn something new. Maybe they will begin to grow and become a more conscientious human being.  At the very worst, you will have deflected the attention off of the BIPOC and onto yourself. You will become the target. You will also show yourself to be someone who can be trusted to speak up and defend. You will show yourself to be an ally, not just in name, but in action.

After sharing her experiences, Nerlande gave the best advice for how allies should react when witnessing microaggressions:

“Call them out. Every time.”