How microaggresions single people out

We all have uncomfortable moments in life.

It may involve realizing we had a stain on our shirt all day, or accidentally pushing on a ‘pull’ door but those moments hardly ever cross the line from embarrassing to painful. However, when those cases are pointedly aimed at a particular group, because of color or identity, the line is crossed regularly. A comment made ‘in good fun’ could in fact be disturbing to the one addressed. Such actions are called ‘microaggressions.’

Dr. Derald Sue, a professor of psychology and education, classifies microaggressions  as “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations, or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Microaggression is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans. Micro-aggressions single a person out and make them feel inferior. They may be well-intentioned compliments, like “You speak very good English,” a touch of the hand showing approval, enunciating or explaining words you think someone else doesn’t understand, or they could manifest as clutching a purse or handbag when passing by somebody, not giving someone as much attention in a meeting, even blatantly ignoring them.

One form of microaggression is addressed by Nico Lang, called ‘mantouching.’

Mantouching is “an assertion of one’s masculinity, at the expense of the personal comfort of those around you.” Some men tend to touch women without their permission, intending it as a compliment. A slide of the hand around the waist, a kiss on the cheek – blatant invasions of personal space that many women do not actually feel comfortable with. A Cosmo survey reported that 1 in 3 women report being sexually harassed in the workplace sometime in their lives. But more cases go unreported, due to social pressure or fear of workplace retaliation. A general response is also to “Stop taking everything so seriously. It’s just a compliment.” Not only is this a problem in the workplace, but it happens at social gatherings, in the store, sometimes even on the street.

Casual racism’ is an other form of micro-aggression.

Nicole Chung is an Asian American, and was enjoying a holiday meal with her husband’s family, when someone casually asked, “Do people ever tell you that you look just like everyone on that show?” It’s a common Asian American microaggression that all Asians look the same. Nicole went through an agonizing inner dilemma of whether to point out the rudeness of the remark, challenge it, wait for someone else to speak up, or just pretend everything was okay and keep smiling. She choose the latter, and nobody else even seemed to notice; they went on with their dinner conversations. But Nicole still remembers it clearly. “When I think about the relative size and scope of microaggressions,” Nicole said:

“I can’t help but feel ashamed of my inadequate responses. If these are just small offenses, not meant to wound, why can’t I ever manage to shut them down effectively, ensure they aren’t wielded again and again against others?”

So if microaggressions are so problematic, why not do something about them? Dr. Sue has some advice on just how to do that.

First, be aware of your own biases and fears.

Did you judge that person because of their color or religion? Second, remember that other people experience life differently than you, especially if they have a different cultural background. Don’t assume everyone has your luck, bad or good. Third, don’t be defensive. We can come across as argumentative or even hurtful when we get defensive. Fourth, be open to discussing your own attitudes and how they might hurt others, or have in the past. Fifth, be an ally to those who are marginalized.

The next time you see man-touching, or hear a racially-ignorant comment, speak up. Say “hey,” “not cool,” politely correct their terminology, clear your throat, change the subject; just make it clear that it is not okay. You can do this whether or not you are part of the group being marginalized, and others who are will be grateful for your support. Standing with others is always easier than standing alone.

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