Microaggression: Let’s Face it, We’re all Racists (on the inside)
January 22, 2015
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Black Lives Matter - Millions MarchPhoto Credit: Shira Bezalel

The silver lining to the heartbreak surrounding people like Michael Brown and Eric Garner is that it highlights an ugly truth: racism is alive and well, and there’s more work to be done to eliminate it. It’s not uncommon, at least in the United States, for people to believe that discrimination based on race is no longer an issue. We need to be reminded that this isn’t the case. While we’ve made huge strides over the past 300+ years – from the time of slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, on up through the civil rights movement of the 1960’s, and into the current century that witnessed the election of the first black President of the US – we clearly still have a long way to go when it comes to fair treatment of not only people of color, but all people.

Racism, like every form of oppression, is a complex issue. The aforementioned cases involved not only physical aggression toward people of color (albeit filtered through the murky lens of ‘in the line of duty’ justification), but also an attendant variety of racism, more subtle and covert, yet also quite powerful. This form of discrimination is called microaggression and will be the focus of this post.

If you’re reading this post, you are clearly someone who cares about ending racism.  Let’s honor the lives lost and families shattered by using tragedies like this as an opportunity to learn, heal and make other positive changes. Racism hurts people of color the most, but the reality is that it harms us all through a division and breakdown of our shared humanity. Everybody’s life would be better without racism, so I’m calling on all white folks out there in particular to start (or continue) taking a serious and compassionate look at oneself on this topic.

What is Microaggression?

First coined in the context of racial microaggression (Pierce, 1970), this term refers to “social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.” (Source: Microaggression Theory).

Derald Wing Sue, a preeminent scholar in microaggression theory, and colleagues at Columbia University, describe racial microaggressions as:

…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.” (Sue et al., 2007)

Unfortunately, acts of microaggression happen all the time, and so very sadly, can play a significant role in tragedies like Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Gardner.

macro-impact-microaggressions-derald-wing-sue-POCC_2014

Further examples of microaggression include the following statements made by a white person to a person of color:

-“Your English is so good” or “You are really articulate.”

-“What country are you from?”

-“I have a lot of friends that are ____________ (Black, Asian, Latino, etc.).”

I know, from a white person’s perspective, all of this doesn’t really sound that bad. But these kinds of comments can have a negative impact, albeit a different one for different people. They’re hurtful. Perhaps in a small way, but sometimes in a big way, especially when somebody’s predominant life experience has been about being marginalized, misunderstood, not seen, or heard. Over and over again.

For anybody who hasn’t seen it, I highly recommend viewing this powerful Buzzfeed post that highlights more examples of racial microaggression. You’ll have an even clearer idea of the concept after reading this.

We’re often taught that ‘racism’ is something of the past. After all, US citizens of color have the same legal rights and opportunities as anybody else (or so we’re told). For the most part, there isn’t the racism of the overt, heinous type that existed in our not-too-distant past that included things like slavery, lynchings, exclusion acts, segregation, and the lack of right to vote. Racism today is (usually) more hushed and veiled, ranging from the legal maneuvering that results in voter suppression (under the guise of preventing voter fraud), to the faint whisper of an unaware, yet well-intentioned comment like “He is really articulate.”

We’re all racist on the inside! The Roots of Microaggression

Microaggressive behavior starts from within, reflective of a bias or distorted way of perceiving another human being. It ranges from something as simple as viewing one to be “odd” (e.g., they eat “weird” food), to inferior (e.g., they must not be very smart if they dress or talk like that) and sometimes even criminal (e.g., racial profiling). These biases, hinging on the belief in some objective “norm,” rather than the reality of subjective heterogeneity, are learned early in life and can be triggered by very little information (e.g., seeing a black male wearing a hoodie in an affluent white neighborhood, as criminal justice professor Kevin Nadal, Ph.D. points out in the case of George Zimmerman).

Often, people aren’t aware of their own bias; rather, the perception is happening on a subconscious level. The vast collection of data from the Implicit Association Test supports this finding that all of us carry some hidden biases, regardless of what we believe on a conscious level. In other words, we might not think we’re racist, but our subliminal mind says otherwise.

It appears that bias or prejudice, like so many aspects of psychological functioning, is the result of some combination of biology and culture (i.e., nature and nurture).  For example, implicit bias can be found in non-human primates, like rhesus monkeys, suggesting that it runs deeper than simply cultural conditioning.

And, some amount of bias can be seen as a normal and adaptive expression of early childhood development, whereby young people have a preference for their immediate family members over strangers.

While we can see the pitfalls of stereotypical or biased thinking, the mind’s ability to make snap judgments provides some evolutionary benefits in the form of vigilance; if you can quickly surmise that you’re in danger, then you’re more able to protect yourself.  And, obviously, this tendency can become problematic when our inferences are inaccurate (as demonstrated by Officer Darren Wilson’s actions toward Michael Brown).

This biological predisposition toward bias is then further shaped by environmental experiences, including by the information (or misinformation) that comes our way.  For example, if we live in a safe, nurturing, open-minded family and community, we’re more likely to have what psychiatrist Henri Parens refers to as “benign” bias. In contrast, if we’re exposed to hurtful experiences, like trauma (which can be defined much more broadly than it usually is), then the bias can shift to a “hostile/malignant” variety.

This makes sense to me. If you observe babies, you can see how their level of attachment to their primary caregiver is the strongest, but you can also see their openness and curiosity to others, including strangers. In other words, while there is some bias toward the parent, it’s not an all-or-nothing equation.

While George Zimmerman acted on bias, we can assume that he experienced some kind(s) of trauma in his life that made him more susceptible to acting out. I honestly don’t know much about his life, but since pretty much all people living today experience trauma – whether mild, moderate, or severe – I feel comfortable making this assertion.

While any kind of traumatic or hurtful experience is negative, it’s the lack of healing from the trauma that creates the biggest problem.

Accordingly, since we can’t do much about our genetic wiring, we need to focus our efforts on factors we can change – our culture and psyches. We can work on eliminating microaggression by engaging in initiatives and endeavors that help us:

  • Unlearn the erroneous conditioning that leads to prejudiced thoughts and behaviors
  • Heal from trauma of any kind
  • Support clear thinking about other the diverse array of human beings throughout the world

In summary, anybody raised on the planet earth is subject to biased, unclear thinking about human beings in general, and especially those we perceive as “different.” Depending on many factors – like the community you live in, the family who raises you, and the media you come into most contact with – you will get a greater or lesser dose of this conditioning. But, the fact remains that you will get a dose.  And, it should be noted that bias is not limited to the out group; it’s common for people to internalize negative messages from the culture and have that color their view of those who are similar (e.g., a woman who sees men as superior in certain domains).

My Personal Experience

As a white person, there is no way that I can fully understand the experience of a person of color. I may be aware of some aspects of my white privilege, but it’s inevitable that a lot of my social advantages, especially the subtle parts, will be experienced as just “normal” to me (i.e., completely off the radar). For example, on a recent trip with my spouse who is non-white, I felt no tension whatsoever with boarding our plane in the nick of time. My spouse, on the other hand, was worried about the consequences of not arriving early. I couldn’t really understand this until we talked about it later, how I took for granted the slack that is likely there for me as a white person arriving late to something.   It’s not like I consciously thought “I will be able to talk my way onto the plane if there’s an issue,” but that sense of entitlement was there on a subconscious level. This is but one simple example, but the fact remains that I’m benefitting from this type of privilege all the time, whether I’m aware of it or not.

I grew up in a very liberal part of the northeast, in a town nestled in the heart of what’s known as the “happy valley.” That town, Amherst, Massachusetts, is known to be a hotbed of progressive thinking, despite having a fairly small population (under 40,000).   Much of its diversity comes from the 5 colleges in town and nearby, although the latest census figures show that the vast majority of the population is still white (77%). Despite this, it’s a very liberal place, with a high percentage (over 40% of adults) holding advanced academic or professional degrees (which isn’t a guarantee of liberalism, but does increase the odds). There probably aren’t many more places in the US that are more liberal than Amherst, yet even here, where everybody is trying (and I believe, doing) their best, there’s plenty of confused thinking about things like race. Despite my liberal roots and best efforts at not perpetrating racism, there is absolutely no way of escaping some ingestion of misinformation about people who are not white, and accordingly, acting this out on a subconscious level.

And, the confusion of course is not limited to race. Let’s face it, we’re all ignorant to some extent. We each have our blind spots when it comes to clear thinking about other human beings in general, and those we perceive as “different,” in particular. (And, when I use the word ignorant, I’m trying to use it in the most objective, non-judgmental fashion as it all stems from erroneous learning and misinformation that is unavoidable.)

We can be clear thinking in some areas, and foggy in others, like the feminist who is homophobic, the racial leader who is sexist, or the environmentalist who is ageist.

To study preconceived notions, pause for a moment and think about how you view the following people. Just note what immediately comes to mind in terms of thoughts, feeling and images, whether positive or negative. Try to let go of any self-judgment and just pay attention to what arises in you, whether comfortable or not:

-Black people (people of African heritage)

-White people

-Latinos and Latinas

-Asian folks

-People with native/indigenous identities

-The poor

-People with affluence

-People with disabilities

-People who have strong, fit physiques

-People carrying extra weight

-Heterosexuals

-LGBTQ folks

-The elderly

-Young people

-Christians

-Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other non-Christians

-Women

-Men

We all have our biases; sometimes negative, and sometimes positive. Unexamined, these create chasms of presumption, miscommunication, and misperception. The impact of microaggression is significant. It makes people feel smaller, limiting their ability to engage in the world in a fully powerful way. It creates unhealthy disconnection and perpetuates inequities of a tangible sort. At a minimum, these mental errors can create hurt feelings. Beyond that, they can lead to lack of opportunities (e.g., being passed over for promotions; denial of an apartment lease; dilution of voting power), and at worst can be deadly, as evidenced by the examples in the media as of late.

We’re all good people

Since it’s impossible to avoid ingesting some of the biased ways of viewing other people, it’s important to cultivate compassion for ourselves and others around this subject.

Nobody asks or desires to be deluded. Yes, there are pay-offs to perpetuating ignorance and oppression (some “win” at the expense of others losing), but anybody in their right, most human mind, would never consciously choose to treat another person poorly.

Just like the authors note in the title of their book, “Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People,” it’s important to remember that people are essentially good and that we all carry bias, too. You may feel some (or a lot of) guilt when reflecting on things like racism and other forms of oppression. Of course, that’s understandable. But, don’t stop there. Open yourself to the array of other emotions that may be there and think about how much better our world would be if everybody was treated and thought about with respect.

So, where do we go from here?

By all means, I don’t have all the answers. I wish I did. But, from my humble perspective, I would like to highlight the following strategies that have been helpful to me and others I know.

As Beverly Daniel Tatum, psychologist and President of Spelman College, has noted, there’s a difference between ‘active’ and ‘passive’ racism and while few of us are consciously, active racists, if you aren’t working against the system of advantage that racism provides, then you’re essentially on the passive side.

 1.) Identify your areas of bias:

It’s hard to change something if you’re not aware of it to begin with. Try to increase your consciousness around areas of bias by taking some of the Implicit Bias Tests run by Harvard University. Be easy on yourself when it comes to the results. Remember, this stuff is unavoidable.

 2.) Understand your privilege:

We all have privilege in certain contexts and lack of privilege in others. It’s easier to notice the places where we have less power, but it’s important to look at both sides. For example, like all females, I’ve experienced sexism. But, I’m also white, with all the privilege that brings. This is often is invisible to me, unless I stop and think about it and/or talk to other non-whites about their experiences. It’s important to let go of any defensiveness you feel with regards to privilege. Remember, it’s not personal.

3.) Learn about the histories of those who are “different”:

Read books and articles, or take some classes that explore the rich histories of all people. Learn about their strengths and struggles and how global forces shaped their lives and opportunities (or lack thereof) over the years.

Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States, is a great place to start in terms of garnering a broader history of our own country.

4.) Engage in practices that foster healing and presence (vs. reactivity):

Psychological, spiritual and educational programs can help raise awareness and unlearn biased ways of thinking about oneself, others, and the world in which we live. For some, it’s about contemplative practices like psychotherapy or mindfulness meditation. For others, it’s a different method that works, like participating in a community group such as AA or Al-Anon. Doing good internal change work leads to more consciousness and flexibility in thinking (a good antidote to knee-jerk bias), regardless of what you’re focusing on in those milieus.

In addition to what I learn in my ongoing training as a psychotherapist, I feel fortunate to be part of a peer-counseling network (RC), that is all about unlearning biased thought patterns, with a priority placed on anti-racism work. You do have to make an effort to unlearn this stuff as it runs deep, that’s why it’s good to have deliberate “practices” that you can come back to on a regular basis. Think mental floss.

5.) Respectfully interrupt ignorance when you see/hear it:

Whether it’s a racist, sexist, classist or other type of hurtful expression, we all see and hear about things that are a bit “off.” It can feel scary to say something to a co-worker, friend, or acquaintance that challenges their thinking. But, it can also feel empowering and may be helpful to the person on the receiving end. It’s important that this is done with kindness and respect, as it’s unlikely to be heard if done in an attacking manner. Remember, people are good and they/we also have bias.

5.) Make an effort to connect with all people, not just those you feel “comfortable” with:

We see the true human being that defies stereotypes when we get to know them on a personal level. Needless to say, you want to try to do this with as much awareness as possible. If you’re going into an exchange with a feeling of superiority or inferiority, that will make it more difficult to have an authentic connection. Try to address these feelings/thoughts as best you can ahead of time so that you can see yourself primarily as one human being connecting with another.

6.) Support and/or join organizations and movements striving for equality:

The ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union); NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People); Amnesty International; NOW (National Organization for Women); and HRC (Human Rights Campaign) – are but a few examples of large organizations working directly on civil rights issues related to various constituencies. There’s great work being done on a smaller scale, too, in every community. Seek these out. Any attention put on good causes, however imperfect they may be, is useful energy spent.

These are but a few ideas to help with unlearning the biased thinking that can manifest as microaggression. I’d love to hear from others about what they think would be helpful. Peace.

Further Reading / References:

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201010/racial-microaggressions-in-everyday-life (Author: Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., Professor at Columbia University, Teachers College)

http://spottheblindspot.com/the-iat/ (Learn about the Implicit Association Test which essentially shows that all people carry some degree of bias)

http://www.cnn.com/2014/11/26/us/ferguson-racism-or-racial-bias/ (Author John Blake, CNN – The New Threat – Racism Without Racists)

http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/communique/2012/07/microaggressions.aspx (Author: Kevin Nadal, Ph.D., Professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY)

http://www.pbs.org/race/000_About/002_04-background-03-04.htm (Interview with Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman College, “Race: The Power of an Illusion)

http://www.unlearningracism.org/writings.htm (Writing on Unlearning Racism, by Ricky Sherover Marcuse)

http://www.understandingrace.org (RACE – Are We So Different? A Project of the American Anthropological Association)

http://www.pewresearch.org/key-data-points/race-in-america-key-data-points/ (Race in America: Key Data Points, Pew Research Center)

http://bigthink.com/videos/the-roots-of-racism-in-rhesus-monkeys (The Roots of Racism in Rhesus Monkeys, Dr. Laurie Santos, Professor of Psychology, Yale Univ)

About this Contributor: Kim Pratt, LCSW, is a passionate advocate of personal growth and healing.  She has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past 10 years, and in private practice as a therapist to adults of all ages since 2007.  Prior to her clinical career, she worked in the information technology sector in the SF Bay Area.  She is a proud spouse of 14+ years; co-parent to two beautiful non-human beings; a longtime practitioner of mindfulness meditation; and an aging jock. Her formal education was received at UC Berkeley (Masters in Social Work) and the University of Michigan (B.A. in Anthropology), where she also played varsity tennis (Go Blue!).


  1. MICRO-AGRESSION IS FAKE

    • Infinimineralax,

      While we welcome all points of view here, could you please elaborate on why you believe ‘micro-aggression is fake’? There’s compelling empirical and anecdotal evidence stating otherwise.

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