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When I was in the sixth grade a classmate called me a “stupid Jew Bitch.” I slunk away from the playground and never told a soul what she’d said or how it made me feel.  Bullying was not a word we used then and adults seldom dealt with unnamed and often invisible blows even when they were reported.

Today we have begun to recognize the horrific impact bullying can have on children.  But we have yet to understand “micro-aggression” and its effect on adults.

Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups.  Researchers have also identified micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations as disturbing behaviors that pack a punch.  

Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as racial epithets.  Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey insensitivity or demean someone’s heritage or identity, while micro-invalidation communicates subtle messages of exclusion that nullify the thoughts or feelings of others, particularly people of color.

The Microaggressions Project website has a slew of real examples:  “Are you sure you have the right room number?  This is the ‘honors’ section.”  “How much money would you put on the Boston bombers being Muslim?” How about this one? “My chemistry teacher was in shock when I got 100 percent on an exam.  However, she wasn’t shocked when two white kids did well. That was kind of hurtful.”

Then there was the black doctor waiting his turn to check into a hotel. He’d been flown into town for an appearance on a TV station and delivered to his hotel in a chauffeur-driven limo.  But when he moved to speak with the hotel clerk, a white man marched in front of him. “Do you think I’m waiting for a bus?” the outraged doctor asked.  The man claimed he hadn’t noticed him.

I could relate. Traveling abroad some years ago I had a layover at the Emirates Airlines hotel in Dubai.  There were three check-in lines; mine was the middle one.  I soon noticed that whenever it was my turn to approach the counter a man on my left, then my right jumped ahead of me.  Finally, I pushed one of them out of the way, pulled myself up to my full height, and declared, “I’m next!”  I was marginalized by gender frequently on that trip, in hotels, airplanes, shops and restaurants. I can say firsthand it’s not a pleasant experience.

The American Psychological Association blog reveals a piece by writer Tori DeAngelis called “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro-aggressions.”  It cites a group of Columbia University psychologists who began studying and classifying the phenomenon some years ago to help people of color understand what was happening and to educate white people about their biased words and actions, intentional or not.

“It was a monumental task to get white people to realize that they were delivering micro-aggressions,” one of the psychologists said.  “It’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other people].”

The effects of micro-aggression are now well-documented. They include negatively impacting people’s mental health, job performance and social experiences, often leaving deep scars.  One study found that African-Americans and women performed worse on academic tests when subjected to stereotypes about race or gender.  This was especially noticeable with respect to women’s math performance.  Intelligence scores for blacks also plunged after subjects were exposed to stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.

Dr. Gerald Wing Sue, an Asian-American psychologist, focuses his work on micro-insults and micro-invalidations because of their less obvious nature.  “While a person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why,” he explains. “This puts them in a psychological bind while the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything happened because he is not aware he has been offensive.  The person of color is caught in a Catch-22 because if they confront the perpetrator, he will deny it. That leaves the person of color questioning what actually happened, resulting in confusion, anger, and ultimately, sapped energy.”

Sue’s research with African-Americans revealed them feeling they did not belong or were untrustworthy in certain situations.  Respondents reported feeling “watched” in stores or being overly cautious about their body language when they were near white women “so not to frighten them.”  Others said they were “vigilant at work” so that mistakes wouldn’t reflect badly on their race. Asian-American described different ways in which they have been made to feel “alien,” like being told they speak good English.   Women in this group revealed that white men often expected them to be subservient.

“These incidents may appear small or trivial but they assail the mental health of recipients,” Dr. Sue says.

I didn’t need an expert to tell me that.  My time in Dubai nearly drove me crazy and I’m white. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be subjected to invisible aggression in your own country because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes.

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Comment Preferences

  •  It is also damaging to the psyche when it (12+ / 0-)

    happens on a micro level such as within families or within a marriage. Learning to recognize it when it happens helps blunt the hurt. I'm married to a passive agressive person who uses this tactic more often than I like, but once I learned to recognize it I was able to call him out on it if I felt so inclined, or I could ignore it and chalk it up to his insecurity. Either response gives me a sense of control over the situation.

    A society grows great when old men plant trees in whose shade they know they shall never sit. - Greek proverb

    by marleycat on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 07:20:57 AM PDT

  •  What you felt in Dubai could well be felt by any (6+ / 0-)

    number of people when they are marginalized as a group. I've lived where the word for caucasian, even used on official forms, was the racist word, the exact same language used elsewhere used a much different word, in common everyday use as well as official.

    I see it here too, usually used to describe Republicans or others we disagree with. The name calling and use of the same name over and over again to the point where it becomes a code for "the enemy" or, less than human uncaring individual.

    It's for that reason that I call people what they themselves want to be called. Notice the name of the Washington baseball team in the news? Might sound like nothing to many, but to Native Americans it's offensive, good enough reason to stop using it in my book.

    “Conservation… is a positive exercise of skill and insight, not merely a negative exercise of abstinence and caution…” Aldo Leopold

    by ban nock on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 07:23:36 AM PDT

  •  Thank you for an enlightening diary! (6+ / 0-)
  •  microaggression v. nudges (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CroneWit, ER Doc

    Micro-aggression seems like human nature in the expression of culture. Its presence within every encounter - home, workplace, in public - by design, compulsion, accident, and/or ignorance - requires a pretty high degree of emotional awareness and intelligence to control. Using our senses at the micro level intentionally is a road tested science when it comes to optimizing profits. We know this.

    To actually create some kind of social enlightening one prime target audience for education regarding micro-emotions seems to be new mothers. Intentional parenting wrt micro-emotions will move our culture in unimaginably positive ways. And, teachers.

    Otherwise, the trend toward progress is dreadfully slow from within the general churning of cultural changes and as likely to be used in harmful as helpful ways..

  •  Everyone lives inside their own head, (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    CroneWit, Penny GC, MGross

    part of socialization is learning to recognize that fact. You see what I see, therefor you must see it as I see it. Kids should be taught to never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity. It may be malice, but it's probably healthier to put the shame back on the other and not hold it to your own heart.

    Political Realities are an excuse to vote against progress

    by Wood Gas on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 07:56:31 AM PDT

    •  Hmm (4+ / 0-)

      Which do you internalize, malice or stupidity?  I have a lot less trouble shaming the malicious than the stupid.  

      •  A lot easier to forgive stupid, forgive, move on (2+ / 0-)
        Recommended by:
        Penny GC, FarWestGirl

        Political Realities are an excuse to vote against progress

        by Wood Gas on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:16:42 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Ideally (5+ / 0-)

          But I think that's only a small aspect of why micro-aggressions are so harmful.  Most people are probably ignorant and not malicious, sure.  It's not about a personal slight.

          It's about the psychic weight of facing them every day, over and over.  Why am I being treated like this?  Is there really something wrong with me, or is this person just making the wrong assumption because of my race/gender?  It's not just strangers, co-workers, bosses, teachers, in-laws: they know you, but they're still doing it.  Maybe they're not prejudging me because of my race, but they've actually reached a fair conclusion about my intelligence and they think I'm stupid.  

          And sometimes it even counts for strangers - am I being cut off because this person doesn't take me seriously because of my gender, or because I'm an idiot who stood in the wrong line.  

          You can't just forgive and forget - you're denied the ability to take your interactions with other people on face value.  You have to check yourself daily to make sure.  And it's draining to second-guess everything.

        •  'Instruct the Ignorant' = 'Corporact Act of Mercy' (4+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          FarWestGirl, marleycat, ER Doc, Wood Gas

          In the Catholic catechism, one of the Corporal Acts of Mercy (like Feeding the Hungry) is to Instruct the Ignorant (or, as one kid wrote it, 'Instruck the Ignert').

          Staying silent about these aggressions only supports their continued use, whether the user is ignorant or malicious.

          Your concept of 'forgiveness' is tied to one religious teaching, and will only apply to those who follow that teaching.  So let's please keep the concept of 'forgiveness' out of this discussion of a socially-mediated wrong.

          I find it more useful to look at these aggressions in terms of 'What kind of language/treatment of others are we going to allow in our society?' combined with 'What am I prepared to do in the current circumstances?'

          The use of these aggressions, although it usually happens to/by one person at a time, and whether done in ignorance or in malice, reveals a person(s) who carry out the aggression.  Unless the receiver points out the aggression and its personal effect on them (and thus on others in the receiving group), the aggressors will continue their aggression in other situations.

          The person on the receiving end of these aggressions must consider, in the moment, how they will choose to respond.  There are many situations in which voicing a response would be non-productive, counter-productive, or even dangerous.  So even though the aggressions are always wrong, there are situations where the cost/benefit ratio (so to speak) of confronting the aggression makes non-response the best option -- this time.

          Speaking up assertively -- even though one's assertion might be read as aggression -- turns the event into a potential 'teachable moment' for the aggressor and onlookers.

          Although I've had to do this decision-math for myself many times, I've also found that it is sometimes easier to respond to an aggressor who has acted against someone else, while I am one of the onlookers.  Sometimes a quick glance around tells me that others find the aggression offensive, but feel socially constrained not to intervene; in such cases the aggressor has asserted power over the group, and all feel helpless.    In such instances I have been known to speak up for the sake of the group, so they will see an alternative to silence in response to the aggression.  Depending on the situation, my speak-outs have ranged from 'Shame on you!' or 'How fucking rude!' to 'Ma'am, you seem like a sweet-natured and good-hearted person, and I don't think you'd hurt anybody's feelings on purpose, but [what you said] is used a lot to hurt [people/class of receivers], and I think it's a very hurtful thing to say.'

          •  Absolutely agreed. And I've been known to (3+ / 0-)
            Recommended by:
            CroneWit, marleycat, Wood Gas

            confront in those situations as well, just to raise awareness.

            There was a famous study done back in the late '60's/early '70's that involved a number of white teachers and ~2nd grade kids. The children approached the teacher and interacted with her. The teachers were uniformly friendly and polite to all the kids, but the kicker was that when minority kids approached, the teachers' purses slipped casually behind their backs, something that didn't happen when the white kids approached.

            It was utterly unconscious, they had no memory of having done it, denied having treated the children any differently, and they were properly appalled and thoroughly embarrassed when they were shown the videos.

            Micro expressions and some aggressions are equally unconscious, but devastating in aggregate. I heard of that study in Jr High, it made me very aware of people's faces & expressions when they saw or met a person of color. And more aware of relaxing to smile and be welcoming whenever I did.

            I'm lucky, I'm friendly by nature, so I didn't have to work at it.

            Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. ~The Druid.
            ~Ideals aren't goals, they're navigation aids.~

            by FarWestGirl on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 02:49:15 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  One of my X chromosomes is damaged, no snark (1+ / 0-)
              Recommended by:

              and in those x's reside a lot of our social skills. Gawky, socially awkward in adolescence (and still so). I got my feelies hurt often, I could shift those feelings  from oh poor me to oh poor you. Armor for the ego, teflon, the hurt didn't stick and fester. The internalized slight of hand kept me from anger, and even counterfeit pity is better for the soul than anger.  Arrogance in others no longer hurt me, and I think I hide my own protective arrogance well. They can't hurt you if you don't let them.

              Political Realities are an excuse to vote against progress

              by Wood Gas on Fri Jun 27, 2014 at 09:50:10 AM PDT

              [ Parent ]

    •  They're not (3+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      grover, GreenMother, FarWestGirl

      mutually exclusive

      We view "The Handmaid's Tale" as cautionary. The GOP views it as an instruction book.

      by Vita Brevis on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:21:22 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Great diary! (9+ / 0-)

    I've shared here before that I spent two years wearing Indian punjabis. The first time I donned one was just for kicks but the reactions I got from people were so fascinating that I kept wearing them to learn more.

    It was a different world. When I wasn't invisible (that was new!), I was often condescended to or treated incredibly rudely. In European and American airports, I was pulled out of check-in lines to have ALL of my luggage searched (even the bags I was checking). Coming into RDU from London, I was interrogated for over a half hour about my reasons for being in the US, how long I was staying, my profession, who was picking me up, on and on and on. It only stopped when I thanked them for profiling me based on nothing more than the comfy clothes I was wearing and reminded them that I am an American citizen and didn't need to justify my reasons for being in America.

    I always knew I could go back to being 'normal' and privileged just by changing my clothes but was intensely aware that my black children don't have that luxury.

    Now, as a white person traveling in Africa, I have seen the other side of the coin. In very remote/rural Uganda, I was an object of fascination and children would scream 'muzungu!' and come running from all directions when I was near (although several burst into tears because they found me terrifying). In Kinshasa, I was treated like garbage - as much for being a woman as being white, I suspect. In the townships of Cape Town, where my children still have family so I spend a good bit of time, it can be VERY unpleasant to the point of being frightening.

    I'm with you on traveling through Dubai. I've been through there several times and always find it an icky place to be a woman. The smoking lounge is a particularly interesting experience.

    In our criminal justice system, a Republican is presumed innocent until the 2nd Coming. - Gooserock

    by ExpatGirl on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:02:14 AM PDT

  •  Daily life for so many of us (10+ / 0-)

    Was at the doctor the other day for lab work.  If you have standing orders from the Dr. you fill out a slip, put it in a basket, push the button, wait.

    I was in the process of pushing the button when a man (white) tried to hand me a jug of some kind of liquid with a bio hazard sticker on it saying "here".  Uh, no thanks.

    I looked at him and smiled and he said "well aren't you going to take it?" And let me mention that there were two other people doing exactly what I had been doing standing at exactly the same place. They were also white, I'm black.

    I immediately understood he assumed I worked there, but why? I wasn't wearing a lab coat. I wasn't wearing scrubs. Everyone who knows me IRL says I overdress for things and they're probably right and this is why. I was wearing a white shirt, skinny jeans, chunky jewelry, had makeup on, etc. The other people waiting w/ me were in sweats or jeans and tee shirt. He didn't try to hand his stuff to the others.

    Again he said "well aren't you going to take it" and at this point I was irritated and said " No I'm not. I'm a patient just like you".  He mumbled something about me looking like I worked there and again I'm wondering why since everyone who did work there was either in scrubs or a lab coat. At that point, someone in scrubs did come up and take his specimen from him.

    Before anyone says " oh he was just confused...nothing to see here" please don't. Because from the moment he tried to give his specimen to me, it was clear as it has been on so many other "minor" interactions like this that assumptions were made because of who I am.  Call it Spidey senses or whatever, but please don't tell us that we don't know what we do know.

    And it gets tiring. Sure it takes 30 seconds to say "nope not me" but these micro-aggressions add up and take their toll. Every day.

    We view "The Handmaid's Tale" as cautionary. The GOP views it as an instruction book.

    by Vita Brevis on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:20:22 AM PDT

    •  About the kindest spin to put on it would be (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Vita Brevis

      that you were dressed 'professional' as opposed to patient casual, but I trust your spidey-sense. And his fleeting micro expressions and posture no doubt feed into that well founded sense.

      Tiring like the proverbial Chinese water torture. Drip, drip, drip can wear away stone.


      Information is abundant, wisdom is scarce. ~The Druid.
      ~Ideals aren't goals, they're navigation aids.~

      by FarWestGirl on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 03:12:41 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Oh don't be so sensitive (10+ / 0-)

    Grow up
    Deal with it
    Grow a pair
    Get a spine

    Just six of many types of "micro-insults" that are regularly used against people in order to shut them down both psychologically and rationally (all too often on this site, let alone out in the real world). They're intended to seem reasonable in their suggestion that the other party is unreasonable, childish and petulant (which of course sometimes is true, but that's besides the point) and needs to engage in a more mature and rational manner, when in reality they're meant to insult the other person and lower the debate to a mud-flinging level.

    CLASSIC passive-aggression.

    Sadly, we never truly do leave the harsh realities of grade school playgrounds.

    "Reagan's dead, and he was a lousy president" -- Keith Olbermann 4/22/09

    by kovie on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:24:16 AM PDT

  •  Everyone should remember this diary (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    worldlotus, Penny GC, FarWestGirl

    the next time they disagree with someone. When your first compulsion isn't aggression, you become far more enlightened.

    The U. S. Constitution doesn't guarantee happiness, only the pursuit of it. You have to catch up with it yourself.

    by Tony Stark on Thu Jun 26, 2014 at 08:41:11 AM PDT

  •  Thanks for defining 'micro-aggression' etc (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Mikey, Penny GC, FarWestGirl

    I've recently become aware of the term in discussions around anti-women speech/actions.

    Although I think the actions described in the terms you define are important to recognize and combat, I have to tell you that I think the construction of those terms does a disservice to those affected by the acts.

    The prefix 'micro-' makes it seem that these acts are teeny-tiny, microscopic, therefore unimportant, insignificant, hardly worth noticing, let alone responding to.

    Nothing could be further from the truth.

    These are acts of aggression, assault, insult, usually verbal but also communicated silently by actions, including body language.  They are acts of 'power-over', meant to put one 'in one's place'.

    In this last month, I've seen the demeaning catcalls that women are subject to in the street called 'micro-aggressions';  in 1970s feminism, this type of act was called 'ritual mounting'.

    Your diary is extremely well-written, and I genuinely appreciate the clear definitions you provide for various forms of 'micro' violence.  My objection is to the use of 'micro' to define these actions.

  •  This definition poses more questions (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Penny GC, MGross

    than it answers.

    Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups.
    Is it universal? Culture specific? Geographically specific?

    The law recognizes intent as a material factor, but mic-agg doesn't?

    Seems to me, who's 'marginalized' has a fairly fluid time-place context.

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