Nina, an African-American woman, was walking her twin white daughtersto play in the park.
The girls happened to love playing in the sand box. Nina was usually sits right in front of them. Suddenly a woman asked: "Are you the lucky nannyof these lovely twins?"
Nina replied promptly: "Actually, I'm the lucky mom of these two lovely girls".
The question made Nina feel "less than" because the woman saw her as a stereotype. Nina was stung by this racial microaggression, which happens to her all too often.
Have you ever witnessed a racial microaggression like the one Nina experienced? Or unintentionally committed one yourself?
What are racial microaggressions?
Racial microaggressions are comments or actions that cause harm to people of color, either towards individuals or a group. They're a form of discrimination that can be done with malicious intent or unintentionally.
Racial microaggressions include:
stating or implying that people of color are violent, dangerous, uneducated, or inferior to others
treating people of color as objects rather than as people
disrespecting the cultural values or practices of people of color
Check out the video below on how microaggressions can affect people.
Racial microaggressions: contexts
Racial microaggressions can happen in 3 different contexts:
Verbal — a remark that offends a marginalized group or person
For example: asking a person of color, "Where are you from?"
Behavioral — acting in a way that harms and discriminates against a marginalized group or person
For example: a store owner following a person of color around the store. It hints that the person is dangerous and does not belong here
Environmental — when institutions are systemically biased against particular groups of people
For example: when a college campus only has buildings with names of only white people
A cab driver intentionally passes a person of color and picks up a white passenger instead. What is the context of this microaggression?
Racial microaggressions: types
Experts classify racial microaggressions to have 3 types:
Microassaults — when people behave in a discriminatory manner (often conscious but without the intent to offend)
For example: telling a racist joke or imitating a person's accent, then ending with, "I'm joking!"
Microinsults — discriminatory messages that are meant to be heard as a compliment but they convey a negative racial stereotype (often unconscious)
For example: telling a Latino person, "Wow! You speak English really well!" as if expecting them not to be able to
Microinvalidations — comments or actions that void people's feelings, thoughts, and experiences (often unconscious)
For example: asking a person with an Asian background, "Where are you really from?" implying they don't belong or they're a foreigner
In a discussion about racism at work, your colleague says, "I think there's only one race: the human race! I don't see color." This statement reflects a:
The effects of the microaggressions are anything but "micro"
The harm caused by racial microaggressions is multiple and deep:
Mental health problems: trauma, prolonged stress and anxiety, feelings of exhaustion, depression and thoughts of suicide
Physical health problems: may contribute to worsening type 2 diabetes and heart problem, headaches and difficulties sleeping
Decreased engagement and productivity at work/school: may lead to dropping out of school, decrease in participation and ability to study, mistrust of peers and staff, loss of self-esteem and ability to thrive
What to do if you catch yourself making a racial microaggression
If you notice yourself making a racial microaggression or if you are being called out, here are some steps you can take:
Take a break — try to breathe, pause, and step back. You made a mistake, and now you need to correct it.
Make an effort not to get defensive — if you make it about you, you'll devalue the other person's feelings.
Make the other person feel heard — listen to what they have to say about how they feel.
Sincerely apologize — say you're sorry and show that you recognize the impact and harm your comment caused without overdoing it.
Take follow-up action —get in touch with the other person later and convey your respect and concern for them.
Be your own teacher — reflect on what you said that upset the person and try to understand it on your own time.
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