The new racism: How to deal with everyday microaggressions

Derald Wing Sue is often complimented for “speaking good English,” to which he responds, “Thank you. I hope so. I was born here.”

A female doctor wearing a stethoscope is assumed to be a nurse.

A store clerk carefully monitors a black man more than a white one.

These may all seem like a harmless moments but Sue, a researcher with Columbia University’s psychology department, says these sorts of exchanges reflect societal inequalities. Receiving one of these comments randomly is not a problem, but four or five a day for a decade can significantly affect someone. They’re called microaggressions, the everyday insults aimed at marginalized groups.

Sue, along with many others in the psychology field, have called it the “new racism,” but as the term seeps more into popular culture, some have started to call it “micro-nonsense”

Many credit the tumbler project Microaggressions for making the term more widely known. Despite harsh criticism in the larger public, Ryerson is treating it seriously.

As Black History Month begins, the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at Ryerson invited Sue to speak at a packed lecture on microaggressions to discuss strategies to manage them in post-secondary environments.

“There are so many forms of microaggressions that people experience from the time they are born to the time they die,” says Sue, “that they begin to take a psychological toll on them.”

Sue described the discrimination he experienced growing up in Portland, Ore. with his Chinese immigrant parents as the reason he began to question the subtle discriminations he experienced daily. Sue’s research shows that microaggressions are dangerous because the perpetrator often doesn’t realize the harm caused to the other person.

“The reason why microaggressions are so powerful is (that) they are (a) reflection of unconscious or implicit biases,” he says.

Microaggressions have been normalized, Sue argues, which adds an element of danger as they are often not recognized as the place where bullying and larger violence can begin. Like other kinds of aggression, dealing with microaggressions on an everyday basis can cause psychological and physical stress, such as higher blood pressure.

Microaggressions are commonplace in schools with a wide range of social, economic and cultural backgrounds.Last year, Ryerson’s Racialised Students’ Collective held a workshop that addressed the issue. Some students shared phrases they’ve heard, such as “pretty for a black girl,” and “do you wear your (hijab) in the shower?”

Ryerson’s discrimination and prevention officer, Ann Whiteside, continues to conduct inclusive classroom sessions about these phrases, such as “that’s so gay,” for example.

“But what is meant by ‘gay’ often has a negative connotation,” Whiteside explains. “It’s not so much the intent that matters in a human rights context. It’s the impact on the victim.”

In an era where there seems to be a rising hyper-political correctness, microaggressions can be difficult to identify, or even address.Some have also argued that microaggressions are insignificant in comparison to more explicit aggression and violence.

In 2007, after Sue published a major research paper on microaggressions in the American Psychologist, he received numerous comments calling it “micro nonsense,” saying that microaggressions are trivial and insignificant. The Atlantic also wrote a piece last year titled “Don’t sweat the microaggression,” arguing, “Instead, let’s focus on acts of aggression that are far from micro. Where? See tomorrow’s headlines.”

Knowing how to address a microaggressions is also a large challenge. In most cases, this form of aggressions is not recognized by the law as a form of discrimination.

James Turk, distinguished visiting professor at Ryerson who wrote Freedom in Conflict: The Struggle over Free Speech Rights in the University, argues that if the goal is to have a world free of microaggressions, then it would not be possible to have a society, or even university.

“When it comes to race, gender and sexual orientations, we want to be sensitive, and there is value in that,” Turk says. “But how do you live your life if you never want to offend anyone? To behave in a way not to offend anyone, you can’t be human. There is no way to completely forecast how people are going to react.”

The law sets a standard for what is considered discrimination and harassment. But most microaggressions don’t meet that bar and become matters of moral judgement; they’re subjective, adds Turk.

For example, if Turk walks past a colleague who is of a certain race, and ignores him, that colleague might assume that to be a microaggression. But, as Turk explains, he could have just been lost in thought, or had a family tragedy occur.

“You run into a difficult problem because some people may have a greater sensitivity and what I may define as a microaggression, you may not,” he says.

Confronting microaggressions is also a challenge. Two of the most common responses from perpetrators are, “That was not my intent,” or, “You are misreading my actions.”

Kimberlee Collins, student engagement facilitator of Ryerson’s school of disability studies, will often see forms of microaggressions against people who have disabilities, but agrees, “The tricky part is knowing how to address microaggressions (without making) the situation worse,” she says.

Collins, however, is rarely on the receiving end of microaggressions. Instead, she says she often feels more like a “conduit.” When she works with people with speech impairments, for example, people will talk to her instead of the person with the impairment. “It’s like they are consoling with me,” she says.

For Collins, who often writes for the Faculty of Community Services’ student life blog about inclusivity, a more conscious use of language is the beginning of addressing microaggressions.

“We may think that it’s more important to deal with the kind of global aggressions,” says Collins, “but it starts with addressing the aggression within ourselves in how we think and how we use language.”

When responding to criticism of the concept of microaggressions, Sue agrees that taken one by one and analyzed individually, these acts may seem trivial. “But they are cumulative and if you were to hear three or four in a day, it’s much like the straw that breaks the camel’s back,” he says.

There are ways to address microaggressions, constructively, but it’s a process that involves work from both perpetrator and receiver, Sue explained as a part of his discussion at Ryerson.

Listen to one way that microaggressions can be addressed in this interview piece below.

In addition, here are three ways Sue has recommended to approach microaggressions in daily life for both receiver and perpetrators:

  1. People of colour, women and people with disabilities, who are most often recipients, need to figure out coping strategies to minimize harmful impact.
  2. There needs to be vigilance about impact, where individuals are open to hearing of what they did or said that hurt an individual instead of defending what their intent was.
  3. Allies can intervene so that perpetrators begin to realize that they are engaging in microaggressions.

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