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Microaggressions: Seemingly Small Words and Actions That Can Be Insulting

Anytime your words or actions communicate something about someone’s race, status, appearance or any aspect that implies they are “different,” you could be committing a microaggression. Microaggressions are brief, common indignities. They could be intentional or not, but either way, they communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights toward people who are considered outside the “normative standard.” They could be directed toward people of color, women, people with disabilities, seniors or other groups. 

“The intent of the microaggression is not always to harm — people are unaware that their words and actions may hurt others,” said Akshay Lokhande, MD, a psychiatrist at Banner Health in Scottsdale, AZ. “But they are still hurtful.” 

The beliefs behind microaggressions are primarily assumptions about people based on stereotypes about their ethnicity, age, gender or race. People can develop these assumptions based on the influence of their families, or by what they’ve seen on the news, TV shows or online. “Microaggressions are often rooted in implicit bias, which are unconscious beliefs, behaviors or attitudes towards any social group,” Dr. Lokhande said.

Here are a few examples:

  • Verbal microaggression: Saying, “You’re one of the good ones.” This phrase implies that other people who are viewed similarly are not good.
  • Behavioral microaggression: Assuming a person at work is in a lower-skilled position, such as a cleaner or delivery person, because of their race or skin color.
  • Environmental microaggression: Not providing accommodations to people with hearing loss or physical disabilities.

Research has shown that, over time, microaggressions can significantly affect the mental health of the targets. Chronic microaggressions can lead to poor self-esteem, depression, workplace anxiety, sleep difficulties and body image problems. It may even cause PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder).

What are some different types of microaggressions?

Microaggressions can take a lot of different forms. Here are a few: 

  • Microinsults: These are subtle microaggressions that are often delivered as a comment with an underlying meaning or a backhanded compliment. For example, telling someone they speak English well could imply that you didn’t expect that of them. 
  • Microassaults: These are the most overt type of microaggressions — they are often intentional. “The person doing them knows they are harmful and derogatory,” Dr. Lokhande said. Using a derogatory slang term to refer to someone of a particular race would be an example.
  • Microinvalidations: These statements tell someone who is part of a marginalized group that their experiences of prejudice don’t matter, or that they are overreacting or being too sensitive about what was said. Saying, “I was just joking,” after being called out for a microaggression is a type of microinvalidation.
  • Nonverbal microaggressions: These are displayed through body language or changes in behavior such as turning away or avoiding someone, eye rolling when someone says they feel invalidated, or avoiding sitting next to a Black person on a bus or train.

How can you respond to microaggressions?

If you are a target, share with others how microaggressions make you feel. “It’s only when the problem is recognized and steps are taken to fix it that we will see any real change when it comes to microaggressions.  Most people are unaware that this problem even exists.” Dr. Lokhande said.

However, it may not always feel safe or appropriate to address microaggressions. Professor of psychology, Kevin Nadal created a list of five questions to consider in his book “Guide to Responding to Microaggressions.”

  • If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger? 
  • If I respond, will the person become defensive, and will this lead to an argument? 
  • If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person?
  • If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something? 
  • If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?

If you decide to respond, calmly let the person know how their actions affect others. You may also want to seek help from friends or colleagues who have had similar experiences. For workplace microaggressions, you may need to consult with your supervisor or human resources manager, especially if things don’t improve despite repeated conversations and reminders. 

If you are a bystander, you can speak up. Address the person who said or did something inappropriate, not the target. Point out how what they said or did could be perceived — often, people don’t recognize their behavior as aggressive. And explain that a safe environment is essential to everyone.

You can also practice micro-affirmations, which are words or actions that validate and support someone else. For example, if someone’s contributions are overlooked at work, you can point them out publicly.  

The bottom line

Microaggressions may not be intentional, but these words, actions and behaviors are hurtful. It’s crucial to understand them, so you don’t harm others with them without knowing it. 

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