In light of national events in reaction to the murder of George Floyd, I wanted to share something I wrote for Mental Health Education Group in August 2019:
By Dr. LaShauna Dean, LPC, ACS, NCC, MAC
Mental Health Education Press Advisory Council & Guest Blogger
Last summer I was asked to train all of the employees at my university in diversity and inclusion, which got me thinking: what is the most important information I need our employees to know? Immediately, I knew that I wanted to talk about the subtle, more covert forms of racism, oppression, and discrimination faced by those who have minority identities (e.g. religious, sexual, gender, and racial minorities as well as those with various ability levels). Our society has come a long way from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s during which people of color, primarily African Americans, marched and protested for equal rights and treatment. However, we are now facing unprecedented covert divisiveness that threatens the very fabric of diversity in this country. So how do we address an enemy that is hard to identify, call out, and stop…the answer lies in understanding our unconscious bias.
Let’s look at an example of covert divisiveness from current events happening in media. Recently, President Trump told four women of various minority identities to “go back” to the countries they came from. At its base that statement is steeped in bias, primarily the bias that those women of color are not true Americans and should not have input into the politics of America. The truth is that three of the four women were born in this country, therefore are true Americans. So why would he make that comment? The answer can be found in a concept popularized by leading psychologist, Derald Sue, called microaggressions. 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” (Sue et al., 2007). The statements that President Trump made were not overtly racist, but they definitely shine a spotlight on his bias; the bias that only White Americans are true Americans, and everyone else is other.
Sue et al. (2007) further explained microaggressions typically fall into three types: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Microassaults are very similar to overt forms of racism and are “explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 274). Microinsults are less obvious and very subtle slights usually committed unintentionally by the aggressor. Lastly, microinvalidations are “communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color”, which seemed to be President Trump’s goal in making those comments about the four congresswomen (Sue et al., 2007, p. 274). Therein lies the danger of microaggressions, those statements did not have to be blatantly racist in order to achieve their goal: discrediting the political contributions of women of color who seek to change the balance of power traditionally held by White men. Overtime, comments like those made by Trump will plant seeds of doubt into the minds of people with similar biases about what a true American looks like, hence the insidiousness.
As I currently train over 600 employees about microaggressions, several themes have arisen from our conversations:
1. If you are not from a marginalized group, microaggressions can seem like political-correctness overkill. Here’s a video that highlights how people from the dominant as well as one minority group feels about microaggressions: https://youtu.be/QFSkLZzjx0w?t=6. In the video, a news anchor can be heard discrediting and invalidating the experience of microaggressions. On a deeper level, she is saying “your experience with racial inequities do not matter, get over it” which is a message many people of color and individuals from other minority status groups hear often. I’ve been told, “listen, slavery happened over 400 years ago, when are your people going to get over it”. That comment really affected me on the emotional level through the pain and hurt I felt and on the cognitive level through the dissonance I felt being Black in this country. What the person didn’t acknowledge and hence invalidated in that statement, is the constant strife and discrimination African Americans face daily which all leads back to slavery; so how could we possibly just get over it as it still affects us today. In reality, these everyday occurrences may, on the surface, appear quite harmless, trivial or described as “small slights,” but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups, and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in education, employment, and health care.
2. In responding to microaggressions, the person aggressed against is often left to deal with several conflicting emotions. They are questioning, “did that just happen because I’m black… or gay…or Muslim?”. While at the same time battling feelings of hurt and anger and generally not knowing how to respond. In the moment in which a microaggression takes place, the victim is often left speechless therefore does not offer any response except a startled expression. This does damage in two ways: one, it leaves the microaggressor clueless about the slight they just committed; and two, it leaves the victim with a feeling of helplessness or missed opportunity to speak up for themselves and their culture. Leaving the microaggressor clueless or unaware of the bias in their statement is really concerning as it is a missed opportunity to bring awareness to their comment and the bias underneath it and stops that opportunity to hopefully prevent future occurrences.
3. The power of being a bystander or witness to a microaggression is REAL. As previously mentioned in the points above, the victim of a microaggression is often left at a loss of words in the moment. However, a bystander who witnesses the microaggression has a unique opportunity to not only challenge the microaggression itself but also validate the experiential reality of the victim. Just imagine being on the receiving end of daily or weekly microaggressions and how exhausting it must feel to constantly hear lightly veiled attacks on an aspect of your identity. Overtime, those attacks can do real damage. A study done by Nadal (2012) found “… that people of color who encounter greater amounts of racial microaggressions are likely to exhibit a number of mental health issues, such as depression or negative affect as well as physical health issues such as pain or fatigue” (para. 5). Additionally, microaggressions were associated with greater anxiety and binge-drinking episodes in college students of color (Blume, Lovato, Thyken, & Denny, 2012). Your power to advocate and bear witness to a victim of a microaggression is essential. As a bystander, we are in a better position to challenge the microaggression without the negative emotions skewing the message we are attempting to send. So, speak out if you witness a microaggression and validate the person on the receiving end!
4. People don’t know how to address or speak out against a microaggression. Many of the participants in my trainings expressed their reluctance to address a microaggression for several reasons: not knowing exactly what to say, being fearful of retribution especially if there was a power differential, and lastly, being overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions in the moment that causes a defensive response to emerge. Luckily, Kenny (2014) provided concrete guidance on how to address microaggressions in ways that can lead to meaningful conversations. You can use any of the five strategies below to address a microaggression:
INQUIRE: Ask the speaker to elaborate. “Can you elaborate on your point?”
REFLECT: Mirror what the speaker is saying which can illuminate the unconscious bias. “So it sounds like you think…”
REFRAME: Create a different way for the person to look at the situation. “Have you ever thought about it like this..."
REDIRECT: Shift the focus to a different person or topic. “Let’s shift the focus to…”
REVISIT: Re-addressing the microaggressions even if the moment has passed. “I want to go back to something that was brought up…”
A professor of mine used to always ask, “what’s the so what factor?” For me, the so what factor is how can we reduce the dynamics that seek to divide us in this country? One way is to acknowledge that we all have implicit bias that may affect our interactions with others on a daily basis. It is important for us to not only accept those biases but be open to exploring them so that we can challenge and unpack them. If racism and discrimination is moving towards becoming more covert, we have to be willing to call it out of its hiding places. We cannot turn a blind eye and allow our bias to become invasive and divisive to the point where we have no empathy for the experiences of marginalized groups. My hope is that by bringing awareness to the concept of microaggressions, I can start the process of introspection desperately needed by so many in this country.
Thank you for reading,
Blume, A. W., Lovato, L. V., Thyken, B. N., & Denny, N. (2012). The relationship of microaggressions with alcohol use and anxiety among ethnic minority college students in a historically White institution. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 18(1), 45-54.
Kenney, G. (2014). Interrupting Microaggressions. College of the Holy Cross, Diversity Leadership & Education. Retrieved 5from https://www.holycross.edu/sites/default/files/files/centerforteaching/interrupting_microaggressions_january2014.pdf.
Nadal, K. L. (2012). Trayvon, T. S. When racial biases and microaggressions kill. Communique. Retrieved from http://www.apa.org/pi/oema/resources/communique/2012/07/microaggressions.aspx
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K., & Esqulin , M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271-286.
Sue, D. W. & Sue, D. (2012). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice (6th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.