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The Power of Microaggressions

“Well you don’t really look Black.” “You speak good English for an Asian.” “I’m not racist, I have a lot of Black friends.” “She’s so aggressive.” “No, where are you really from?” “He doesn’t even act gay.”

These insults, snubs, and attitudes against marginalized populations are called microaggressions. Defined by Columbia University Psychologists, these are “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that are hostile, derogatory or negative.”

It is often difficult to identify microaggressions. This is because when they do occur, the receiver may be met with disbelief and is told to stop being overly touchy or sensitive. Although this concept tends to deem people “thin-skinned,” public health experts have revealed that the implicit bias against marginalized populations goes hand-in-hand with long term stress and deteriorating mental health.

Although the snide comments or jokes may be subtle, the body tends to react with both anger and anxiety, placing a large amount of stress on the brain.

Imagine being placed into the same box or category, over and over again. This chronic exposure, which often begins at a young age, prematurely ages both the body and the mind. Repeated exposure to prejudice and discrimination leads to the accumulation of depressive symptoms, unhealthy behaviors like overeating, increased likelihood of traumatic stress disorders as well as substance abuse.

So, what can be done? How can we work to minimize the physical and psychological harm of covert racism?

The first step is our willingness to recognize how we each contribute to the problem. Acknowledging our own bias, privilege, and power can help create a larger understanding of the impact we each have on each other as human beings.

It is also critical that we speak up and hold each other accountable. Microaggressions occur every day, although they might be subtle, they are there. When you hear someone tell a woman to “act more like a lady,” or tell an Indian Muslim to “go back to your country,” speak up. Do not continue the cycle. As a bystander, you hold so much power in being able to show the perpetrator that it is not appropriate behavior.

Calling out microaggressions for what they are, holds individuals and our systems and institutions accountable. It incentivizes more thoughtful communication across gender, sexuality, race, and religion.

After you’ve paid attention to what you notice in your own environment, I encourage our readers to also look within yourself as to what we have been trained to believe about others. When we see other people, our brain is automatically going to pick up differences amongst ourselves. However, it is our job to not focus on or call out these differences but rather to embrace the diversity of those around us.

Although it can often be difficult for majority groups to recognize the trauma of minority groups simply because they haven’t lived it, it’s important to believe that people are telling the truth when it comes to what they experience. I implore our readers to listen, even when it means leaning into the scary realization that what marginalized populations have to deal with is worse than you thought.

It is uncomfortable, but this is also where empathy comes in. And the key to confronting bias is to expose yourself to what makes you uncomfortable, to different ideas, different environments, and different individuals.

Although you may not know exactly how the other person feels, you can simply be there for them. Remember that being empathetic is just about being a good friend, not finding a solution. This reliance on empathy and human decency in our society can help lead to a more inclusive atmosphere.

To that end, as we become an increasingly multi-cultural society, seek advice on how to become a more inclusive individual. If someone says you offend them, try not to get defensive, take a moment to calm down and recognize that it probably took courage for the other person to bring it up. When someone calls you out, they are not saying you are a bad person, they are showing you the bigger picture.  

To our readers who find themselves feeling overwhelmed: start small. When it comes to battling huge issues like systemic racism, it’s easier to start at home and focus on the impact you can have on the people around you.

Individual actions can go a long way, and that change can very well start with each of you.

— Rachael Bailey, Intern