Lee: Understanding microaggression

BY ASHLEY LEE | OCTOBER 04, 2013 5:00 AM

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As a racial minority, I’m often told I think too much about race. I’ve been characterized as a paranoid, racially conscious black person who is inept at recognizing “real” racism. Indeed, this is frustrating, considering it is mostly members of the dominant group who decide whether my experiences as a woman of color are valid.

Racism has changed over time. What was once equated with Jim Crow is now subtle and ambiguous. It most commonly takes the form of a microaggression.

According to the American Psychological Association, “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.”

A few common types of microaggressions are the myth of meritocracy — the idea that anyone can overcome racial barriers if they work hard enough — and the assumption of second-class status.

A person committing a microaggression may tell an African American they “don’t see color” or that they’re over-thinking an experience perceived to be racist. A white female may tell a black colleague she understands racial oppression and equate it with gender oppression. Someone may ask a lesbian if she’s attracted to women because of the ignorant assumption she might have been mistreated by a male.

The Psychological Benefits Society also notes that microaggressions “reflect a person’s inner thinking, stereotypes, and prejudices. They are difficult to recognize because they are brief, innocuous, and often difficult to see.”

These social offenses and indignities may not pose a physical threat, but they are a threat to both the aggressor and the target’s mental health.

The American Psychological Association claims racial microaggressions “lead to increased levels of racial anger, mistrust, and loss of self-esteem for persons of color [and] prevent white people from perceiving a different racial reality.”

When people of color say they’ve been the target of racism, acknowledge their feelings. Do not dismiss or trivialize the experiences in a marginalized group just because it may be comparatively “not so bad” as the problems faced in other countries.

This summer, I expressed both my appreciation for living in America and my discomfort in celebrating the Fourth of July knowing my ancestors were enslaved. Of course, my peers were angry and argued I should not talk about race on America’s anniversary. Instead, I should be grateful I live in one of the best countries in the world.

Quite frankly, their assertion is unreasonable. Part of my identity is knowing I am a descendant of slaves. On the other hand, my white peers have the inherited identity of being the descendants of immigrants who ultimately benefited from the color of their skin. I can understand why some of them would urge me to not see race.

Microaggressions are not limited to race. Members of the LGBTQ community, religious minorities, and other underrepresented groups excluded in the dominant culture can be targets of microaggressions as well.

There is no doubt whether Americans have plenty to be grateful for. However, this should not be an excuse to trivialize a person of color’s realities and not confront racism. Minority groups are still slighted in a nation that encourages Christian, patriarchal, heterosexual, cisgendered, able-bodied, and white supremacist values.

To ask disenfranchised groups to not challenge these standards and be grateful they live in a country that often excludes them is to deny the inequalities that coincide with being a minority.

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