Microaggression: The modernity of racism

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“Where are you ACTUALLY from?”

“I am not racist, I have black friends.”

“I don’t see color, I don’t care if you are blue or purple.”

“How do you speak English so well?”

 Above are just some of the many examples of racial microaggressions people of color (POC) face regularly. The POC student is praised for speaking English perfectly when their white counterpart receives no special reaction despite both growing up in same education system. In a society that openly stands against explicit racism, microaggression has become the very element that still contributes to preserving the racial imbalance in our society. What exactly is microaggression? Microaggression is the term that is commonly used to refer to indignities used to communicate negative, derogatory and hostile attitudes towards marginalized groups whether intentional or unintentional. The term ‘microaggression’ was coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s. However, over the years the theory and concept have been updated and amplified by various other psychologists.

Microaggression has a long history with stereotypes, since it is usually rooted in stereotypical assumptions or as a reaction to those beliefs. Microaggressions are so deeply entangled in our daily lives that many do not even notice them. These are veiled ignorant comments or gestures that demean minorities under the pretense of compliments, remarks, or jokes. However, one must not mistake microaggression as just insensitive jokes or rude behavior since those acts are only subjected to someone regarded as belonging to a minority group due to their ethnicity, race, sexuality, gender, or anything else. Psychologist Derald W. Sue, who has written two books on microaggression, defines the term as “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Racial microaggression is very prevalent even in today’s time and environment; it can be found from classrooms to workplaces. Most times, neither the victim nor the offender realize the subtle racism they are expressing or exhibiting. Either party fails to realize how it is contributing to the corruption of our culture and civilization, essentially preserving the inequality into the future. It is not only white people who express microaggression towards people of color; studies show that people of color use these stereotypes and indignities towards themselves, which end up heavily influencing their action and its consequences. Psychology professor Claudia Steele, PhD from Stanford University, stated that research shows black women perform worse academically when they are primed with stereotypes regarding their race, gender, and particularly their identity as black women. In a test, those who were informed about stereotypes of black women being inferior in intelligence, statistically had worse results than those who were not informed. This is a prime example of why these stereotypes, assumptions, and comments should not be treated as merely ignorance since they play a significant role by negatively impacting people of color’s position in any social setting.

When I say racial microaggression in workplace, it is not always verbal comments. One of the prominent controversial topics is wearing ‘appropriate’ hair to work. It is impossible to define what type of hair is appropriate since human beings are different people with different ethnicities, backgrounds, skin tone, and hair. Most if not all work places define ‘appropriate hair’ as straight and flat hair, which supports Eurocentric features and opposes typically type C hair common among black people. Race-based hair discrimination is definitely not a new topic; it has been used to discriminate against black people for ages. For instance, the Pencil Test in South Africa, in which a pencil was pushed through a person’s hair to see how smoothly it comes out, was a way to determine race during the apartheid era. It was a way for them to determine white people from black and colored people, since white people’s hair is traditionally flat and straight, which would let the pencil pass smoothly unlike afro hair. Black hair is always referred as ‘unprofessional’. It is 50% more likely for black women to be sent back home because of wearing a hairstyle fit for black hair; 80% of the times they are forced to alter their hair to fit social norms.  Black hair is also known to carry and represent black history and culture. Cornrows, a popular protective hairstyle among black people, were not only used to minimize daily hair manipulation but also to hide food. During slavery, many African women braided seeds or rice in their hair before being taken. They would also actively braid foods in their children’s hair to ensure they will eat after they are separated from their mothers. Therefore, when westernization excludes their hair from the narrative of civilization, they are contributing to erasing history and culture.

The concept of ‘Aversive racism’ is very relevant when discussing racial microaggression. Avert racism can be described as the opposite of the traditional Overt racism, which is identified by overt hatred and discrimination against racial groups or ethnic minorities. The theory of Aversive Racism comes from social psychologists Jack Dovidio, PhD of Yale University, and Samuel L. Gaertner, PhD of the University of Delaware (1986). Through several studies and investigations, they learned that white people who consciously believe in equality and are against racism often project racist behavior especially in ambiguous circumstances. Aversion racism can be referred to white people’s aversion to being seen as prejudiced, given their conscious adherence to egalitarian principles.

Racism is a complex and interlinked system in which ‘Colorblind ideology’ does not work and exists only to hide ignorance. The Colorblind ideology is the concept of an ideal society where one’s skin color is insignificant and is never acknowledged due to distribution of equality for everyone under the law. One fails to recognize that this ideology lets society deny the reality of racism and its horrible outcomes. As long as the imbalance between racial positions exist, one cannot simply ignore it or act neutral. Even to this day, black and colored people are facing consequences of racist acts committed hundreds of years ago. Black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have been passing on intergenerational trauma from generation to generation due to the brutal acts of racism their ancestors faced. Intergenerational trauma is more common than one thinks and basically can be transmitted through the projection of fear from generation to generation. These traumas have serious and concerning effect on BIPOC’s mental and physical health.

American sociologist Michael Kimmel said, “Privilege is invisible to those who have it.” We all have implicit biases whether we admit it or not, which makes us blind to the sufferings of others. Thus, it is quite necessary for everyone to acknowledge and understand their privilege. So before one just blurts out ‘I do not see color,’ they need to think how their statement might be invalidating and discrediting the experience and feelings of people of color.

Microaggression is a modern prejudice. Its greatest power lies within its invisibility. It can be passed off as satire, while being extremely discriminatory. It contributes to structural racism more than one can imagine. There is no ultimate goal than to abolish racism, but it is not as simple as it sounds. As a step forward towards a progressive and better future, it is essential to make these invisible microaggressions visible. People need to acknowledge them and recognize their derogatory nature. There are many arguments about the seriousness of microaggressions, and a lot of contradictory claims that people are just being oversensitive. There has been lots of criticism concerning the entire issue too.

“The theory in general characterizes people of color as weak and vulnerable, and reinforces a culture of victimization instead of a culture of opportunity”, says Kenneth R. Thomas, PhD of the University of Wisconsin Madison, while commenting on Derald W. Sue’s 2007 American Psychologist article. It is smart to note, Thomas is white. Despite criticism and backlash, the focus of the issue does not change. It is important to make people aware of how much harm these encounters inflict. Only then, we as a society might be finally civilized.


Afra Sampreety, student


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