When I was in the sixth grade a classmate called me a “stupid Jew Bitch.” I slinked away from the playground and never told a soul what she’d said or how it made me feel. Bullying was not a word we used then and adults seldom dealt with unnamed and often invisible blows even when they were reported.
Today we have begun to recognize the horrific impact bullying can have on children. But we have yet to understand “micro-aggression” and its effect on adults.
Micro-aggression has been defined as common verbal or behavioral insults, whether intentional or not, that communicate hostile or negative slights to marginalized groups. Researchers have also identified micro-assaults, micro-insults and micro-invalidations as disturbing behaviors that pack a punch.
Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as racial epithets. Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that convey insensitivity or demean someone’s heritage or identity, while micro-invalidation communicates subtle messages of exclusion that nullify the thoughts or feelings of others, particularly people of color.
The Microaggressions Project website has a slew of real examples: “Are you sure you have the right room number? This is the ‘honors’ section.” “How much money would you put on the Boston bombers being Muslim?” How about this one? “My chemistry teacher was in shock when I got 100 percent on an exam. However, she wasn’t shocked when two white kids did well. That was kind of hurtful.”
Then there was the black doctor waiting his turn to check into a hotel. He’d been flown into town for an appearance on a TV station and delivered to his hotel in a chauffeur-driven limo. But when he moved to speak with the hotel clerk, a white man marched in front of him. “Do you think I’m waiting for a bus?” the outraged doctor asked. The man claimed he hadn’t noticed him.
I could relate. Traveling abroad some years ago I had a layover at the Emirates Airlines hotel in Dubai. There were three check-in lines; mine was the middle one. I soon noticed that whenever it was my turn to approach the counter a man on my left, then my right jumped ahead of me. Finally, I pushed one of them out of the way, pulled myself up to my full height, and declared, “I’m next!” I was marginalized by gender frequently on that trip, in hotels, airplanes, shops and restaurants. I can say firsthand it’s not a pleasant experience.
The American Psychological Association blog reveals a piece by writer Tori DeAngelis called “Unmasking ‘Racial Micro-aggressions.” It cites a group of Columbia University psychologists who began studying and classifying the phenomenon some years ago to help people of color understand what was happening and to educate white people about their biased words and actions, intentional or not.
“It was a monumental task to get white people to realize that they were delivering micro-aggressions,” one of the psychologists said. “It’s scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm [other people].”
The effects of micro-aggression are now well-documented. They include negatively impacting people’s mental health, job performance and social experiences, often leaving deep scars. One study found that African-Americans and women performed worse on academic tests when subjected to stereotypes about race or gender. This was especially noticeable with respect to women’s math performance. Intelligence scores for blacks also plunged after subjects were exposed to stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.
Dr. Gerald Wing Sue, an Asian-American psychologist, focuses his work on micro-insults and micro-invalidations because of their less obvious nature. “While a person may feel insulted, they are not sure exactly why,” he explains. “This puts them in a psychological bind while the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything happened because he is not aware he has been offensive. The person of color is caught in a Catch-22 because if they confront the perpetrator, he will deny it. That leaves the person of color questioning what actually happened, resulting in confusion, anger, and ultimately, sapped energy.”
Sue’s research with African-Americans revealed them feeling they did not belong or were untrustworthy in certain situations. Respondents reported feeling “watched” in stores or being overly cautious about their body language when they were near white women “so not to frighten them.” Others said they were “vigilant at work” so that mistakes wouldn’t reflect badly on their race. Asian-American described different ways in which they have been made to feel “alien,” like being told they speak good English. Women in this group revealed that white men often expected them to be subservient.
“These incidents may appear small or trivial but they assail the mental health of recipients,” Dr. Sue says.
I didn’t need an expert to tell me that. My time in Dubai nearly drove me crazy and I’m white. I can’t imagine what it feels like to be subjected to invisible aggression in your own country because of your skin color or the slant of your eyes.