Microaggressions – what we say and do not say impacts others

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines microaggression as a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group. The definition expands to explain that the poignant aspect of microaggression is that when we commit them, we do not recognize or label the behavior as a microaggression. A key part of the definition is that microaggressions are often committed unintentionally or unconsciously. So, it can be hard for people to accept they have committed a microaggression.

What we say

Microaggressions that we say show up in three ways:

  • Microassaults – Microassaults are the most recognizable microaggression and people performing the microaggression are probably aware of the assault. It can be name calling or saying something that they know is offensive or derogatory.
  • Microinsults – A microinsult is closely related to a microassault in the sense that it is based on an offensive or derogatory statement, but people may not recognize that it is a microaggression. An example is saying that a member of a marginalized group was only promoted or admitted into an institution because that person is a member of a marginalized group, and not because the person was the most qualified to do the job or earned a place into the institution.
  • Microinvalidations – Microinvalidations invalidate the experiences, thoughts, and feelings of marginalized people. Some forms of invalidation may be saying that racism is a thing of the past. It does not matter who gets the credit as long as the solution is good. Stop complaining so much or being so sensitive.

What we do not say

Environmental microaggressions also exist. These microaggressions show up on the systemic level rather than the individual level. Environment microaggression is not allowing marginalized groups to be represented in the environment. For example, a company, television show, management team, or group of decision makers can contain no, or few, members of marginalized groups.

Environmental microaggressions lead to what we do not say to people in marginalized groups. That is, if we exclude marginalized groups from the conversation, we do not have the opportunity to talk to them about their perspectives, insights, and experiences.

However, even when they are part of the environment, if we do not ask for or dismiss their input, it is also a microaggression. A common way that this microaggression shows up is asking other people how they think a person feels or thinks about something without asking the person directly. For example, asking someone other than the person if they think something you said was offensive or if they think the person would be interested in an opportunity. It is a form of microinvalidation to exclude people from the conversation, particularly if they are the topic of the conversation.

Microaggressions against people, although mostly done unintentionally, has crippling effects on people’s mental health. People who experienced microaggressions frequently reported feeling depression and other debilitating emotions, such as frustrations and self-doubt, at a higher percentage than people who did not report experiencing microaggressions on a regular basis.

It is possible that everyone has committed a microaggression against someone at some point because the behavior is mostly unintentional, and we are unaware that we are committing a microaggression. But it is important to be aware of the effect our words and decision has on others so that we can always send the message that we intend others to receive.

By Paulette Tiggs