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Microaggressions

June 21, 2011

I recently read Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation by Derald Wing Due. This is such a good framework for thinking about how tiny acts of racism/sexism/heterosexism that individually seem benign accumulate to add stress to the lives of minorities by emphasizing negative stereotypes and maintaining the invisibility of their lives and life experiences.

“The term was first coined by Pierce in 1970 in his work with Black Americans where he defined it as “ subtle, stunning, often automatic, and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘ put – downs ’ ” (Pierce, Carew, Pierce – Gonzalez, & Willis, 1978, p. 66). They have also been described as “ subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and/or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously ” (Solorzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000).”

There are so many ways that microaggressions effect the lives of minorities. Some are positive – minorities tend to be more acutely aware of their surroundings and better at nonverbal communication because they have spent their lives learning to “speak a language” that is not “natural” to them (if that metaphor makes sense).

“Women, for example, who work for a primarily male – dominated company often say they must understand the thinking and mind-set of their male colleagues in order to do well in the company (earn retention and promotion). They often complain that no such reciprocity exists with male colleagues; for them to do well, they need not understand the worldview of female coworkers!”

However, these tiny put-downs add a huge amount of unnecessary stress. When I hear blatant heterosexism, I often have a very physical reaction. I have to decide how to react to it, what to say, whether it’s worth it all in a matter of seconds. It’s awkward to confront people, but sometimes it’s even more uncomfortable to hold it all in.

“Blacks who witnessed the unfair decisions showed pronounced impairment of problem solving; but those who witnessed subtle racism showed more impairment than those confronting overt racist conditions. The investigators believe that Blacks have developed coping strategies to deal with overt racism, in which no “ guesswork ” is involved. But the constant, vague, just-below-the-surface acts of covert racism impair performance by draining psychological energy or detracting from the task at hand. Interestingly, the findings were reversed for the White volunteers; they were more impaired by overt rather than subtle racism.”

I think it’s important to also be aware of my own ability to commit  microaggressions against other people. As is explained in the book, it’s easy to accidentally say things that seem benign but reveal underlying negative stereotypes that we have absorbed from the world around us. No one is immune. But we all have the choice to be conscious of what we say and how we act. As Albert Einstein said, “The world is too dangerous to live in — not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen.”

I think it’s also interesting to think about how our society has manipulated the way we define things in order to match existing stereotypes. For example, men are “stronger” because of how we define what it means to be the “stronger” sex:

Indeed a case can be made that women are physically more resilient, are more resistant to illnesses, tolerate pain better, possess greater endurance except in short-term feats, and have a much longer life span than men. Yet, physical strength continues to play a large role in determining superiority and inferiority of the sexes.

There has been a lot of research on the gendering of science that shows how our stereotypes about men and women impact how we understand the world. For example, the classic example is how we describe the egg and the sperm.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 11:55

    Kinda, except, boys -are- stronger, usually. I always forget this and am like “Yeah totally I’m just one of the guys this is great” until I’m trying to pull some guy’s hand out of my pants at a bar and suddenly realize that he, and most guys, are mad stronger than me — and this has consequences.

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