Understanding racial microaggressions

A couple of weeks ago, we held our second justice, equity, diversity, and inclusion seminar in the college on racial microaggressions. Most folks have heard of or have some idea of what a racial microaggression is, but few understand how racial microaggressions work, the broad array of aggressions, and the harm rendered. That is, unless you have been and are a victim of racial microaggressions.

Before I dive in, let’s do some framing. As discussed in our inaugural blog on race and race-making, we understand that race as a sociopolitical construct was developed and promoted by European colonizers as a means to justify their superiority as well as their violence against people of color. In the U.S., this racial justification was used to affirm violence including the enslaving of Africans and the stealing of indigenous land. Given this race creation/development story, we understand that racism is tied explicitly to white supremacism, and only oppresses and harms people of color.

So with this context, I’ll offer this definition of racial microaggressions from psychology scholar Derald Wing Sue and colleagues: “Racial microaggressions are 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.” Within this definition, as noted, we see that racial microaggressions (as a form of racism) only harm people of color. Another element I want to highlight is that microaggressions are often unconscious or unintentional. This means that the intention of the (usually white) person wielding the microaggression doesn’t matter. This can be a hard pill to swallow. I’m often asked, “What do you mean intentions don’t matter?” in these discussions. What I mean is that our focus on racial microaggressions should be on the harm done, not on what the person doing harm meant or whether they meant to do harm. Oftentimes, the offender doesn’t mean any harm, but there is harm nonetheless.

Sue and others have done extensive research on racial microaggressions and have put them into three primary categories: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are explicitly racist comments and acts. They include using racial slurs or other demeaning racist comments. I want to note the irony of naming these egregious acts micro-assaults. What is micro about using a racial slur? How do the concepts of “micro” and “assault” fit together?

The second category is microinsults. These tend to be what folks think of when they think of a microaggression. These comments include asking an Asian American, “Where are you really from?” or veiling the insult in a compliment, like telling a person of color, “You’re so articulate!” in surprise, with the inherent surprise suggesting, “I didn’t think you would be articulate based on a stereotype I have of you.”

The third category is microinvalidations. These are comments used to dismiss the lived experiences and historical context of people of color. Microinvalidations often follow microinsults in short order if the offender is called out. If it’s suggested that a person microaggressed, they often come back with, “I didn’t mean it like that!” Or, “you’re being too sensitive!” This rebuttal denies the experience of the person of color who just pointed out what you said was racist and harmful.

To combat racial microaggressions, you can intervene when you see or hear one used against a person of color. And, if someone points out a racial microaggression that you’ve used, be sure not to get defensive and/or invalidate their experience. Instead, apologize, and promise to learn and do better.