Microaggressions: Socially Acceptable Oppression

Examples of microaggressions.

Pearl Biggers

Examples of microaggressions.

Pearl Biggers, Staff Writer

In our society, oppression is now rarely a direct act. Same-sex marriage is legal. Women can vote. A store worker cannot serve a customer last based on their race. The days of blatant persecution within our nation are, arguably, diminishing; but now oppression comes in a different, subtler, and far more deceptive form. Concealed within comments like, “I don’t mind gay people, I just don’t really want to see them on T.V.,” or “You don’t act that (insert race here),” oppressive persecution has been wrapped and packaged in a passive aggressive gift box. But the sentiment remains the sameI am better than you for reasons neither of us can change. Such comments have a term: microaggressions.

In his book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Essentially, a microaggression is any subtle snub directed at a member of a specific group. The term “racial microaggressions,” was first coined in the 1970s by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce M.D., but, by dropping the modifier “racial,” was later expanded to include other populations. Microaggressions come from those with a sense of privilege, who make such comments to maintain that sense. They are designed to keep certain groups down and are subtly oppressive.  

Microaggressions differ from blatant bigotry in that they are far more accepted in social situations, and often more difficult to perceive. For example, use of the n-word in a derogatory manner by a white person to a black person would be classified immediately as direct racism. But a comment like, “I don’t even see you as black,” qualifies as a microaggression. This invalidates the recipient’s identity and experiences, but if they object they could seem overly sensitive. A common example in classrooms and the workplace is a male teacher or employer referring to all male students or employees as Mr. __, but all females by their first names (or vice versa depending on the situation). This shows less respect for the female students/workers and demeans their capabilities as a valid part of the environment.

According to Sue’s work, microaggressions appear in three forms– the microassault: an explicit derogation, whether verbal or nonverbal, such as name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions; the microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity, subtle snubs unknown to the perpetrator, or a hidden insulting message to the recipient; and the microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.

Sophomore Samantha Palmer, who is Chinese, Japanese, and Caucasian, has experienced this first-hand. “Any time math is brought up, I get a lot of confusion over the fact that I’m not super amazing at it,” she said. “People assume I want to be a doctor.” But according to Palmer, if she objects, she is immediately classified as overly sensitive. “I don’t have a problem telling people that when they say things like that they’re stereotyping and that it’s racist, but when I do people say I’m being too touchy.”

Palmer is also the coordinator of Miramonte’s Rainbow Alliance. This gives her a heightened awareness of the microaggressions against the LGBTQ+ community that she witnesses on a day-to-day basis. “People say a lot of stuff like ‘that’s so gay’ or ‘don’t be gay’ or ‘no homo’ and they don’t understand that it’s wrong and offensive,” she said.

What makes microaggressions so dangerous is the frequency with which they go undetected. Microaggressions can be made so unconsciously that perpetrators are rarely aware that they might be offending someone. But any form of microaggression still registers with as making the recipient feel alienated.

If it is so difficult to be aware of perpetrating a microaggression, then what can you do to solve the problem? The solution lies in education and communication.

Try to be aware of the issue, learn about microaggressions. It is important to maintain a level head. Pointing out to someone that they may be biased will rarely be well-received. We have a long history of prejudice within our society. As such, it is very likely that we are all prejudiced in some way, so come to terms with that; and think twice about what behaviors of yours might be a narrow-minded social construction.

When dealing with microaggressions, the “P.C. Debate” often arises. That is to say, the debate over whether or not our culture has become too greatly based upon being politically correct. Are people too obsessed with victimhood? Aren’t “microaggressions” just social and conversational nuances that will always be a part of our lives, and shouldn’t we just accept that? With the rise of a budding cultural awareness of microaggressions, there inevitably arose groups of individuals, primarily on the Internet and social media, who react disproportionately to the idea. That is, people who use the term excessively and where it might not otherwise be used. As a result of this, just as inevitably, there is another far more common group of those who feel strongly that microaggressions are a joke, and that the concept is unnecessary. But the term has a psychological basis. It was coined by a psychiatrist in a time way before it was trendy to be politically correct. It is thereby impossible that the concept of the microaggression is merely a pesky fad. The term is mainly used by psychologists, and has only recently reached the mainstream level of perception.