Saturday, August 04, 2007

Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life

"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. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities."

"In the world of business, the term “microinequities” is used to describethe pattern of being overlooked, underrespected, and devaluedbecause of one’s race or gender. Microaggressions are often unconsciously delivered in the form of subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones. These exchanges are so pervasive and automatic in daily conversations and interactions that they are often dismissed andglossed over as being innocent and innocuous. Yet, as indicated previously, microaggressions are detrimental to persons of color because they impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities (Franklin,2004; D. W. Sue, 2004)."


I know there will be more than a few white people reading this, already getting set to roll their eyes all over their heads because "now that they can't find real racism, they gotta go make up this 'racial microaggression' bull!" The term sounds juuuust a bit dramatic to me too, and I'm a black psychologist so trust me -- I have used my share of "weird" terminology. But before folks just reflexively dismiss this as "P.C., bleeding heart liberal, Rainbow Coalition" shenanigans, I hope they at least consider WHY such a phenomenon couldn't exist? It's easy to say, "oh that's just baloney," but tell me why it's baloney.

Receiving this article from
American Psychologist serendipitously occurred at the end of a week during which allegations of police brutality against a young black boy inspired many an exasperated citizen-neighbor to vent on talk radio shows and porches. More frustrating was hearing two black women, one from N.O. and another from Metairie, consecutively tell two remarkably disgusting and frightening stories about run-ins with local officers only to be followed by a white male police officer who was obviously feeling a bit demoralized and shocked that his fellow officers could do such a thing.

That was his sentiment at first anyways.

You could almost hear him processing his disappointment in some law enforcers' behaviors. Then he said, "Those stories are SO frightening and just awful, I have a hard time believing all of it." Granted, a normal reaction when most are given shocking news. That opinion then quickly became, "I really don't think everything in those womens' stories were true." But why?

Aside from the issue of how white people feel they can give authoritative answers regarding the existence of discrimination, a minority who alleges discrimination has to bear the burden of proof to be believed, yet frustrated white people are often let off the hook with maybe an anecdote and data that's usually more perception ("Mexicans are moving in all around here") than fact ("Three Latino families moved into 3 houses in a1000-home subdivision - and 2 of those 3 families are actually the American born descendants of mid-century Puerto Rican immigrants").

Anyway, this article nicely lays out what racism looks like these days, and why most white people can't see it. Are minorities overly sensitive about race? Probably. Most people who've endured traumatic things get touchy when one mentions or does something related to such a painfully negative situation. (So even if you think it's all just in our heads, this should at least answer that age old question: '
Why are you people so angry?") The main audience of this article is counseling professionals, but anyone who can read or have it read to them will learn something beneficial (in my opinion). If not, then ask yourself why the odds are such that you are right; and then maybe even consider why it is impossible for racist interactions to occur so much?
"Most White Americans experience themselves as good, moral, and decent human beings who believe in equality and democracy. Thus, they find it difficult to believe that they possess biased racial attitudes and may engage in behaviors that are discriminatory (D. W. Sue, 2004). Microaggressive acts can usually be explained away by seemingly nonbiased and valid reasons."
And yes, please consider it without switching the focus to nefarious reasons this "liberal doctrine is being forced upon us in this election cycle!!"

More Excerpts from American Psychologist, D.W. Sue et al., 2007:
Microinvalidations are characterized by communications
that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts,
feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color. When
Asian Americans (born and raised in the United States) are
complimented for speaking good English or are repeatedly
asked where they were born, the effect is to negate their
U.S. American heritage and to convey that they are perpetual

When a Latino couple is given poor service at a restaurant
and shares their experience with White friends, only to be
told “Don’t be so oversensitive” or “Don’t be so petty,” the
racial experience of the couple is being nullified and its
importance is being diminished.

White Americans tend to believe that minorities are doing better in life, that discrimination is on the decline, that racism is no longer a significant factor in the lives of people of color, and that equality has been achieved. More important, the majority of Whites do not view themselves as racist or capable of racist behavior. Minorities, on the other hand, perceive Whites as (a) racially insensitive, (b) unwilling to share their position and wealth, (c) believing they are superior, (d) needing to control everything, and (e) treating them poorly because of their race. People of color believe these attributes are reenacted everyday in their interpersonal interactions with Whites, oftentimes in the form of microaggressions (Solo´rzano et al., 2000). For example, it was found that 96% of African Americans reported experiencing racial discrimination in a one-year period (Klonoff & Landrine, 1999), and many incidents involved being mistaken for a service worker, being ignored, given poor service, treated rudely, or experiencing strangers acting fearful or intimidated when around them (Sellers & Shelton, 2003).


Charlotte / TM said...

A very though provoking post. In addition to racial bias I firmly believe there is class bias in this country. I really try to be respectful to all races and all classes. Someone who mops the floors is as deserving of respect as any doctor, lawyer or professional of any kind. I think my growing up poor has made me more sensitive to "class" than most. I despise pomposity and entitlement. Even more, I despise those who espouse broad-mindedness and liberal thinking in theory when, in practice, it just ain't there.

No, in general, I don't think minorities are too sensitive about race. Just as I don't think I'm too sensitive about class and gender.

gregp said...

How does one determine that a "dismissive look or gesture" is the product of racism, rather than the product of someone being an ass in general? I'm white and I get bad serice and rude looks all the time. Is it racial microagression if the African-American clerk at the gas station refuses to make eye contact with me and mumbles? What if it's the white clerk?

If I get good service or have a positive interaction with a white person with whom I have some business, am I getting special treatment? What is the baseline for a non-racially-aggressive interaction?

I don't doubt for a minute that these kind of racist micro-moments happen every day; I see them most days, in fact. But I have to take note of complaints about "dismissive looks" and rude service -- these are endemic to our culture, no matter what the racial makeup of the participants.

At what point does giving a minority the same poor service given to a white man pass from poor service to racism, and vice versa? Can minorities in this country rise to a point where they can be treated with the same disdain as I'm treated by DMV workers without it being racism?

It strikes me that "Racial Microaggression" might be a way of saying "It's never going to get any better," or perhaps the establishment of a permanent moving target. At best, it seems self-conscious and unhelpful for everyone.

E.J. said...

Nothing puts things in perspective more than having experienced it yourself. That said, who am I as a man to tell women to stop complaining about childbirth or having breasts in August.

There are certainly times minorities get rude service, and we see it as plain old rude service. Other times it's more obvious. But when your grandma got the same rude service in the colored line long before it was chic and popular to be utterly unhelpful to customers, racism tends to scroll through your head as the possible cause.

Granted, interpreting a look as a racial-microaggression is more difficult than being regularly asked (nearly always by one who is white) "where do YOU keep the flour" while just minding your business in Winn Dixie -- while wearing a suit. But why is it not possible to "know that look" as prejudice when you can "know that look" on your spouse's face means you're back on his or her shitlist.

And why is it so hard to keep the conversation from switching back to some shortcoming of minorities or of the concept of racism without having exhausted the list of plausible reasons of why it is so far-fetched that white people DO engage in such behavior.

Not only do whites do it; minorities do it to other minority groups too. I suspect though, that minorities, and anyone chronically marginalized would spend less mental and emotional energy wrestling with whether or not this is just an excuse for [insert unsubstantiated opinion of choice here]

gregp said...

So the argument seems to be "we just know, and you'll have to take our word for it"?

I don't find it far-fetched at all to suppose that whites engage in casual racism day in and day out; I admitted as much. But I've always been suspicious of language and the effect it can have on behavior, and as you yourself said in your post, "racial microaggression" sounds both dramatic and vague enough to encompass a variety of behaviors that may or may not be racist.

My point is not to deny or reclassify racist acts but to try and draw a distinction between racial acts and acts of being an asshole. There are different societal and personal consequences for both, one more serious and far-reaching than the other and far more difficult to eradicate.

I'll admit that I am personally frustrated by this kind of concept, or by being told that I gave someone a "racist look" with no way of denying it; according to the original article, I may not even realize that I am committing such acts of micro-aggression. Keep in mind we're not talking about overt acts here, but "subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones."

Also keep in mind that your garden variety asshole will pickup on physical traits to justify his disdain; if you're fat, he'll insult you because you're fat. If you're gay, because you're gay. Etc. If such a person insults you because you're black, is that still racism, in the same way that that the inability to rent an apartment or get a cab is racism? The same way that the Gretna Bridge incident was racism?

There's the crux of it: in a time where police turn away desperate families at gunpoint, where whole black neighborhoods are slated for demolition and probable white redevelopment, when we see institutional racism and forced displacement on a grand scale, I now have to worry about racist tones and/or gestures ad the fact that they "they impair performance in a multitude of settings by sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients and by creating inequities", i.e. make people feel bad.

Can we prioritize a little? Maybe get to the racist tones after some other business has been taken care of?

gregp said...

also (forgot this):

You write "But why is it not possible to 'know that look' as prejudice when you can 'know that look' on your spouse's face means you're back on his or her shitlist" and "I hope they at least consider WHY such a phenomenon couldn't exist? It's easy to say, 'oh that's just baloney,' but tell me why it's baloney."

You're asking people to prove a negative, which isn't cricket. I can't say, "I believe there are aliens among us" and challenge you to prove why there can't be; I have to prove that there are.

If such a phenomenon exists, you have to prove it, and, to be frank, you have to do better than "We know it when we see it."

TJ said...

GregP, I think you should ask yourself why you are so invested in disputing the validity of the racial microaggression theory. If you really think about it, you are actually demonstrating racial microaggression by expending so much energy disputing the validity of someone's perception that some of the negative social interactions s/he has had with white person likely stem from subliminal racial biases.

After living more than three decades as a black female in predominantly white environments, I have come to realize that most of the racism I've encountered is more of the microaggression variety, like the ex-boss who'd have one-on-one lunches with everyone on his team (even the damn admin) but not me (this happened over the course of a year), or the moving company owner who counter-sued me because I had the "audacity" to sue him after he refused to pay for $800 in damages his employees did to my refrigerator, even though he has readily paid similar claims and went so far as to tell the judge that he didn't think he should have to pay, although he couldn't really explain why to her. While one can say "yes, this guy was being an asshole," the fact that he hasn't acted this way with the rest of his customers (who are likely all white given that his business targets the Uptown & Mandeville markets) his actions and the lengths he went to "make a point", both beg the question "Why me?", and I'm confident the answer isn't that he has a bias against women who are tall.

To paraphrase Justice Stewart, who was referring to pornography, but his words are applicable to this discussion, "I may not be able to define them (meaning racial microaggressions), but I know them when I see them"

Puddinhead said...

Holy crap. There is absolutely no hope. None whatsoever.

E.J. said...

I've been too busy the last couple days to respond to a question from GregP. I've also been thinking about the answer.

Question was: "So the argument seems to be 'we just know, and you'll have to take our word for it?'"

Answer: Precisely. The same way the doctor has to take your word about where on your body it hurts.

Anonymous said...

Anyone who believes themselves to be good, moral, and decent will be in denial about their biases. Everyone has biases to some extent or another. Howwever, keeping an open mind about the possibility of being biased is not a bad thing.

Ms said...

Hi there, I just read this article and came across your blog while looking for an online version. It's good to get another person's opinion. I personally loved it and was surprised that in my time in white antiracist trainings and political circles that I've never been exposed to this language. I know that racism and other forms of oppression play out in subtle and unconscious ways but hearing this described clinically was new to me. It was actually a huge relief - I don't mean to collapse differences between different forms of oppression so I hope this is not taken that way; one of the main things on my mind in reading this article was the similarities with sexism. I feel that the subtle, often unconscious ways that men undermine women are often more difficult for me to deal with than blatant disrespect because they leave me wondering "am I blowing this out of proportion?" and less able to advocate for myself or get support. I think it's a very important conversation so I hope that research into race and microaggression continues.

E.J. said...


Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts. If you read this, and are still in need of an electronic version of the article, let me know by posting another comment here.

And keep reminding yourself there are many good reasons you're probably NOT blowing some messed up situation out of proportion,


Anonymous said...

GregP: "So the argument seems to be "we just know, and you'll have to take our word for it"?"

E.J.: "Precisely. The same way the doctor has to take your word about where on your body it hurts."

I think both of you are getting it wrong. I think the problem here is that at the individual level, alleged racial microaggressions can always be explained away by appeal to an ad-hoc hypothesis (e.g., "the guy was having a bad day, and you just happened to come along then"); but however, at the aggregate level, the pattern becomes pretty clear.

In the end, the chronic victim of microaggression has to deal with a large number of uncomfortable, ambiguous situations that their experience shows are most likely racially motivated; but for a large number of those situations, it's all but impossible in practice to establish how or whether race was a factor.

This ambiguity at the level of individual situations is in fact, as I recall, one of the things that makes racial microaggressions so stressful: the victim's uncertainty about whether the unpleasant incident they find themselves in is racially charged.

Anonymous said...


"In the end, the chronic victim of microaggression has to deal with a large number of uncomfortable, ambiguous situations that their experience shows are most likely racially motivated; but for a large number of those situations, it's all but impossible in practice to establish how or whether race was a factor.

This ambiguity at the level of individual situations is in fact, as I recall, one of the things that makes racial microaggressions so stressful: the victim's uncertainty about whether the unpleasant incident they find themselves in is racially charged."

Well, what if you put that same WHITE individual in a room full of MINORITIES, in which they would have to be fully conscious of all their acts? Such as maybe.. a seminare where the WHITE individual was a speaker & trying to sell a product. OR maybe.. the WHITE individual has lived in a predominantly minority environment their entire life.

I'm quite sure, there would be not one instance of MICORAGRRESSIONS to note at all.

I'm sure ANONYMOUS is very WHITE & it's always entertaining & revealing how in general, WHITE people always attempting to believe that racism isn't alive and breathing.

In fact, there should be a study on why WHITE individuals seem to have this inherent need to be politically correct, or percieved as overwhelmingly civilized or superior.

A reoccurring perspective in my mind to that observation is because I think they have as a whole, this inherent feeling, or knowing of inferiority unconsciously. There is the perpetual need, or urge to always validate and prove to themselves that they are worthy, or just as worthy.

Any thoughts on that theory?

27 Yrs / Black Male / Born in a Non-Slave State / Now residing in the Last Legal Slave State /

Anonymous said...

Excuse my mispellings.

I forgot to ad after the point that that WHITE indvidual would be very CONSCIOUS of their acts if they were the only NON-MINORITY in a given situation, or environment. This would prove that MICOR-AGGRESSIONS are real and most likely, most of the time, UNCONSCIOUS in nature.

E.J. said...


I think ANONYMOUS 1's comments were in support of the existence of racial microaggressions. S/he was just stating that it's sometimes hard to label individual occurrences as such.

I don't think it's right to label any group of people as having "inherent" psychological tendencies based on their race, so I wouldn't say that white people have a need to overcome some sort of inherent inferiority complex. I think when white people reflexively poo-poo allegations of discrimination, it does stem from a need to distance themselves from or make sense of the obvious benefits white people as a whole have gained from discrimination. I liken it to Americans' downplaying or ignoring how our country has benefitted from exploiting other nations.

E.J. said...

ANONYMOUS 2: Just curious...what is the last legal slave state you referred to?

Arthur said...

Nice job pre-empting some of the replies.

If it weren't a problem, there wouldn't be a discourse about it, and the concept would not have been created to begin with. It does occur, and you know its race when you dress just like every other "white" person on campus, and you're otherwise a healthy, normal human being, but when people walk by, they cough at you, they invade your personal space, stare at you.

I'm looking forward to reading Dr. Sue's book, will be getting it soon. I only hope its advice for dealing with the problem won't be talk it out with the perpetrators, because I sincerely believe that would be a strategy doomed to fail. Those who have been targets know of the problem, those who haven't been will condemn it and call it nonsense.