REVOLUTION GLOSSARY: Clarifying ‘Microaggression’

Rescripted’s Revolution Glossary is our new series where we dive deeper into words which are part of the conversations about justice happening around all of us. The goal of this series is to provide a resource for people who want to expand their vocabulary around social justice topics, or people who want extra context and perspective on their word choices. Our hope is that this series can spark some important discussions, and help people jump into those discussions with enthusiasm.

Microaggression is a term that we hear and use a lot. It was even referenced previously in our Revolution Glossary: Unpacking Allyship. The word itself seems so self-explanatory. Despite its wide-usage and seemingly obvious definition, this term is often misused to a damaging degree. Psychologist Derald W. Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, defines a microaggression as an act that communicates “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.” The piece of this definition that often goes unacknowledged, and where the most damaging misinterpretation occurs, is the relationship between who is acting out the microaggression and who is forced to receive it?

Power dynamics define microaggression. The purpose of a microaggression is to put the target individual in their place. To further subjugate an individual based upon their “marginalized group membership.” It is acted out by a member of the dominant group to reinforce unjust power structures. For this reason, a person cannot experience microaggression based on their dominant group membership. I cannot experience microaggression as a white person. I can experience microaggression as a woman.

Two years ago, a guest at my mother’s wedding shook my brother’s hand and then turned to me with his arms stretched out wide, leaning in for a hug. When I asked this man why he shook my brother’s hand and just tried to hug me, he pulled his shirt away from his chest to give the illusion of breasts. That’s a microaggression. This man made a gesture of mutual respect to my brother and an act of aggression to me. He tried to press his body against mine without even considering my consent. To this man, my gender made me less deserving of his respect and he let me know it. But like, as a joke…

It is vital that we understand the difference between intention and impact. The concept of microaggression is designed to call attention to the harmful impact of prejudiced actions and language that are nestled in our day-to-day. A microaggression is not less offensive because the person acting out the microaggression had the best intentions. “I didn’t mean it like that.” “It was just a joke.” “You’re taking this too seriously.” These well-meaning excuses are simply an effort to bounce the blame off the offender and onto the offended. If you execute a microaggression and someone else calls you on it, sit with that discomfort. Discomfort can be a sign of growth.

Microaggressions are small but mighty. They are rooted in systemic prejudices that target marginalized groups and express implicit bias. While not explicitly bigoted, microaggressions exist in the day-to-day and have damaging consequences to an individual’s standard of living. The regularity of these interaction experienced by targeted recipients have damaging effects on an individual’s mental health, productivity, and overall well-being. The first step to addressing microaggressions is to recognize when one has occurred and what message it may be sending. The Diversity and Resiliency Institute of El Paso developed a guide to help recognize microaggression. If you are a marginalized group member, this tool contains useful language to address harmful interactions when they happen. If you are a dominant group member, this is your homework. I guarantee you have said or done something on this guide, and it hurt someone. Read, review, and do better.

Additional Resources:
Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How To Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away – NPR

How racism and microaggressions lead to worse health – Center for Health Journalism

How to Respond to Microaggressions – The New York Times

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