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Understanding Microaggressions

By Melissa Lipari

As a young girl, I never understood what constituted as a microaggression. Even as an adult, I’m still trying to navigate the difference between a person who is trying to be insulting towards someone’s character or is being racially insensitive or malicious due to the color of someone’s skin. The distinction is a very fine line that many of us have struggled to be able to grasp - causing microaggressions to become so normalized. 

For example, my mother’s first language is not English. She was born in Colombia and immigrated to the U.S. in her early 20s. Growing up, I would always get frustrated and honestly a little upset when my mom and I would go shopping and a grocery store clerk or a sales person asked her to speak more clearly. I remember vividly, even to this day (although my mom’s English has vastly improved throughout the years), having my mom pass me the phone to talk to customer service representatives because they could never understand her and would shame her for not being able to express herself properly.

According to NPR, “Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups.” Through my mom’s experiences, I began to see how real microaggressions are, but more importantly, how they are often neglected. One of the worst experiences of microaggressions that I have ever witnessed, was when someone who was once close to my family told me that they wished my dad - a white American - never married a foreigner like my mother. They spoke so badly about her, saying that she has an “attitude” and doesn’t behave like typical American women - saying that she is “different” - since she didn’t want to work at the time because she had the option to be a stay at home mom (which to that I say: HELLO! She was not born or raised in America of course she has different ideals!) that I remember 10 year old me being absolutely mortified. I told my mom right away when I left this person’s house and we severed all ties immediately. My mom was strong, because she was always taught to be that way and it’s very rare that I see her cry, but I saw her break down that day like I never have before. This was when I realized that while microaggressions are usually verbal, they are often painful and have inherently racist undertones.

From that day forward, I have always been sensitive to stereotypes and microaggressions because even though they are just words, those words hurt. The examples that I have used have been overarchingly negative, but sometimes the phrases can be “positive” and still be considered a painful microaggression. NPR also writes, “Someone commenting on how well an Asian American speaks English, which presumes the Asian American was not born here, is one example of a microaggression.” To illustrate a reference from my life, my mom has gotten a lot of backlash about her accent but she’s also gotten a lot of compliments. However, the compliments are usually a little insulting. They are: “Wow, you speak great English for a Colombian woman!” or “I usually have a hard time understanding Hispanic people but I can understand you perfectly!” - see how this can be counter productive? 

Microaggressions are also more than just how you talk or your personality type - like in my mother’s case, they can also be based on how you physically look, your sexual orientation, they can even come from your name. My cousin’s name is Andres, which is the Hispanic pronunciation and spelling of Andrew. He now calls himself Andy for short because he always gets questions about what his birth name means, how to spell it, where does it come from, and why he would be given such an “unusual” name. It’s mind-blowing that even something as simple as a name, could create an inherent bias against someone - when in their home country the name is as common as John or Bob. In terms of traits, saying that all Asian people have to be smart is absolutely a stereotype and a microaggression. Just like saying that all black people are dangerous or criminals. It’s also a microaggression to tell a gay person that they don’t look or act gay, just because they don’t fit the stereotypical gay prototype that is seen on TV.

This brings forward the question of: are microaggressions in the same category as sexism, racism, and homophobia? Vox media says “They are based on some of the same core ideas about people who are minorities or are marginalized in America (for example, that they're not smart, that they don't belong, or that they make good punchlines), but microaggressions are a little different from overtly racist, sexist, or homophobic acts or comments because they typically don't have any negative intent or hostility behind them.” Since microaggressions do not usually have obvious intentions, it can be hard to decipher if they are as harmful of biases as acts of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. However, Vox also kindly notes that “People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good, moral, decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.” Lacking the sense of awareness and privilege sounds pretty familiar to what we are experiencing now during the #BlackLivesMatter movement - which goes to show that yes, microaggressions (while they are not always meant to be harmful) can have extremely biased and hurtful undertones. 

The main issue with microaggressions is that they are normalized, as mentioned previously, which means they are a bit harder to unlearn. When I would ride the subway to school, I would see women clutch their purses a little tighter when a young black man would step into the train car. This wasn’t just one woman, this was virtually every woman in the car that had a bag in their lap. That is the issue with unlearning while also trying to understand microaggressions - because they are almost like a bad reflex. They are often so subtle that they go unnoticed, except to the person that they are being directed towards. Every young black man in New York City is not a thug. They will not steal your purse, much less on a public subway cart, they are minding their own business, trying to get from point A to point B. This is what we have to remember at the core of microaggressions, is that we do not know the story of the person that we are stereotyping. Therefore we can’t imagine to understand what they are going through or who they are on the inside - unless we take the time to know them for who they truly are instead of creating a bias because they are not white Americans.

White is not the only color in this country, so it’s time we stop fighting other cultures and celebrate the differences that everyone has. Next time you mull over making a comment that has a hint of microaggression, don’t make the comment. Sometimes saying nothing is better than saying anything at all.


Want to know more about microaggressions? Check out this reading list published by Ithaca College. These are all resources used in their Microaggressions: 101 course.


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