Nasreen D'Agostino portrait

Written by Nasreen D'Agostino

Youth Education Officer, EqualiTeach

“You Don’t LOOK Like You’re Gay!”: Understanding and Challenging Microaggressions. 

Although the term ‘microaggressions’ has been around for some time, it is emerging more regularly in conversations as people increase their efforts to engage in discussions surrounding bias and privilege as a result of movements such as Black Lives Matter. Therefore, it seems more pertinent than ever to understand what this word really means and the harm that microaggressions can cause.

What is a Microaggression?

The term “microaggression” has been defined by Columbia professor Dr Sue to refer to,

brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (Sue DW, et al., (2007). 

In other words, microaggressions are remarks, questions and actions which are based on assumptions about marginalised groups. Microaggressions can be based on many aspects of someone’s identity, including gender, age, sexual orientation, disability, religion and race. They can be masked as compliments but are often laced with negative undertones. They can be experienced at work, school, whilst shopping, receiving health care and even at the dinner table among family members. Microaggressions can ignite feelings of alienation, hurt and frustration in those who experience them because they are so frequently and casually deployed. 

Microaggressions can be packaged in such a subtle way that they can be seen as innocuous, and dismissed as less harmful than more overt acts of prejudice. However, microaggressions are founded upon a the very same set of generalisations and assumptions that underpin overt acts. For example, saying to someone ‘you don’t look like you’re gay!’ is linked to assumptions about Lesbian, gay and bisexual people and an idea that there is only one ‘set way’ of being gay. People who express microaggressions are not necessarily doing so with bad intent, but that is not a get out of jail free card. It is important to accept that microaggressions are harmful, to interrogate underlying biases and to explore how they can influence attitudes and behaviours towards marginalised groups or individuals. 

What are some common microaggressions that people face?

Let’s look at five common microaggressions and examine the assumptions and stereotypes they perpetuate, and what could be said instead: 

1/ To a disabled person: “I think you’re so inspiring!”

🗶 This can be patronising. Disabled people do not need to be uplifted, validated or given constant reassurances.

Say nothing! Treat disabled people with the same dignity and respect you would treat non-disabled people and that is all that’s needed. 

2/ To people of colour: “Where are you actually from?”

🗶 This can seem like an innocent question but when consistently asked to people of colour it is a constant reminder that you are not accepted as being really British by your white counterparts. This can make people feel othered and as though they do not belong.

People may wish to share their heritage at a time that is appropriate and when they feel comfortable to do so. Everyone has a history and family background to share, so consider who is being asked the question and why it’s being asked. 

3/ To someone with a ‘foreign’ name: “Don’t you have a nickname, I’m never going to remember that”

🗶 This is extremely damaging, especially when directed at young people. Since so much of our identity is wrapped up in our names, having this stripped away is extremely hurtful. 

Always take the time to learn how to pronounce new names. Write names down phonetically if you are finding a name particularly hard to remember or pronounce. 

4/ To a female colleague: “You look so young!”

🗶 Not only can this undermine your colleague’s authority, but it also assumes that the most desirable characteristics a woman can have are those linked to her appearance, rather than those linked to her skills and character – in a professional setting this is particularly damaging. 

It is fine to compliment someone’s skills or ideas but refrain from commenting on looks as this is very personal.

5/ To people of colour: “You’re really articulate!”

🗶 This comment implies that most people of colour are not articulate, well-spoken or educated.

It is fine to compliment someone’s skills or ideas but commenting on the way someone speaks is unnecessary.

What are the harms of microaggressions?

Some who are sceptical of the validity of microaggressions claim that it is just people being ‘too sensitive’. However, research has shown that microaggressions, ‘although seemingly small and sometimes innocent offenses, can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipients.’ (Harris, 2015). Microaggressions can make environments seem hostile, thus affecting performance and wellbeing.

They can make people feel:

  • Frustrated
  • Drained
  • Uncomfortable
  • ‘Othered’
  • Alone
  • Angry
  • Lesser
  • Demoralised
  • Unwelcome
  • Patronised

No matter how seemingly confident or self-assured someone might be, being subjected to constant assumptions and put downs based on your identity is going to take its toll. 

How can I stop expressing microaggressions?

Since microaggressions are expressions of deeply held bias which people can often be blind to, it requires a willingness to reflect and engage to unearth them. With greater understanding and awareness of these biases, people can choose not to act on them. Here are some tips for thwarting microaggressions:

i) Be constantly aware of your biases and scrutinise them. This requires internal reflection and honest conversations with yourself which might make you feel uncomfortable at first.

ii) Stop and think before you comment on an aspect of someone’s identity. Bear in mind that microaggressions are often unnecessary comments which can be easily avoided as they serve no real purpose in conversation. 

iii) Don’t say or do things based on assumptions or bias. If you think that your comment or action may perpetuate a stereotype about a certain group of people, then do not act upon this impulse.

iv) Listen and be open if someone calls out your use of a microaggression. A commitment to unlearning microaggressions is a journey, not an overnight process, therefore demonstrating a willingness to increase your understanding and knowledge will benefit you in the long run. 

What should I do if I experience or witness microaggressions? 

  • Ask for clarification as to what was meant –Asking for clarification can help someone to go on their own journey and consider the underlying assumptions and messages in their question, comment or action. 
  • Share the impact of what has been said/done – help someone to recognise the perspective of the target and the detrimental impact of what has taken place.
  • Share your learning – we are all on a journey, speaking to someone about how you have previously got things wrong and the learning that you have undertaken can make the challenge less confrontational and support someone on their own learning journey.

The battle against microaggressions can be extremely draining for the target of incidents. Therefore, it is everybody’s duty to challenge inappropriate comments and behaviours, to reduce that burden, create environments where there are no bystanders and where everyone feels safe, included and supported. 

 

EqualiTeach offer staff training (delivered online via Zoom) on equality, diversity and inclusion, including covering topics such as microaggressions, unconscious bias and privilege. Find out more here or get in touch.

 

Bibliography:

Sue DW, et al., (2007), Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice, Abstract).

Harris, (2015), Vox.com, ‘What exactly is a microaggression?’ https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions 

Kendi, I (2019) How to be an Antiracist. London: Penguin Random House. 

Williams, T (2019) Psychology Today: Responding to Microaggressions: Safety First. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culturally-speaking/201909/responding-microaggressions-safety-first

Wood, J and Harris, F (2020) Diverse Education: How to Respond to Racial Microaggressions When They Occur. https://diverseeducation.com/article/176397/

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