The term microaggression was first introduced in the 1970’s, by the Harvard psychiatrist, Chester Pierce. Microaggressions are subtle hurtful derogatory acts or behaviors directed toward a member within a marginalized group. These acts or behaviors can be either verbal or non-verbal in nature and unlike other types of discrimination, the offender of a microaggression may not even be aware that their actions are hurtful. However, microaggressions can be intentional and reflective of a person’s implicit biases.
Any unconsciously-held beliefs about a social group is an implicit bias. They generally develop from a young age through social conditioning and learned assumptions. These biases do not always line up with someone’s identity, in fact most people are ignorant to the fact they even have them. People can unknowingly associate traits, good or bad, with their own background. However, intentional or unconscious, researchers have discovered that microaggressions can have a major impact on those they are directed toward.
There is no notable “social faux-pas” when it comes to microaggressions. If the act or behavior causes harm, emotionally or otherwise, to the person of the marginalized group then it is a microaggression. Whether this act or behavior happens once, twice, or repeatedly, the fact that it impacted another in a negative manner makes it a microaggression or worse. Even though they are related concepts, implicit bias and racism do not mean the same thing. As mentioned above, implicit bias is an unconsciously held belief with regards to a specific group of people. Though racism can be either implicit or explicit, it is a bias held toward individuals from a particular racial group. Implicit bias has the potential to manifest into implicitly racist acts or behaviors, that is when you can find microaggressions in action.
It can be seen in examples like when a software company scrutinizes an Asian employee’s work more harshly than their White counterpart on a project because the employer believes the Asian should have been smarter and known better. People can have these implicit biases and never show any overt racism, they may never manifest or they may be seen as microaggressions. When people take the time to evaluate their own implicit biases and accept responsibility it becomes easier to work on not expressing them. These types of acts and behaviors will go a long way to reduce hurtful and derogatory microaggressions that perpetuate prejudices and stereotypes.
There are no social benefits to implicit biases. These biases can negatively impact how a person acts towards a specific social group, or an individual within that group. The effects of implicit biases, demonstrated as microaggressions, can be seen all throughout society as almost normal behavior. The effects can be deafening in settings like schools, the legal system, places of employment, and the medical field.
Researchers believe, though subtle, over time the impact of microaggressions will impact mental health, just as other forms of discrimination would do the same. Victims of microaggression become frustrated, due to the vague and elusive feeling of the microaggressions, it makes it hard for them to know how to respond or even if they should respond. Experiencing these microaggressions, according to researchers, can lead to lower self-esteem, self-doubt, and impaired mental well-being.
In 2014, Kevin Nadal did a study to look at how microaggressions impacted mental wellbeing. The 506 participants were asked if in the last six months they were a victim of any type of microaggressions. The participants were also asked to participate in a survey to evaluate their mental wellbeing. The research showed that those participants who had experienced more instances of microaggression expressed less feelings of hope and joy and more feelings of depression. It then becomes important that people experiencing these repeated microaggression consider additional support and perhaps even seek psychotherapy.
Many people will decline to see their actions as microaggressions. People more often than not choose to view themselves as fair and that they treat others well. The threat to one’s own sense of self comes into play when people step back and accept their actions as potentially harmful to others. For example, it may become difficult for a therapist to treat victims of microaggressions if the therapist themselves do not take inventory of their own implicit biases. They may unintentionally express a microaggression, hurting the client and the therapeutic relationship. This can happen in any therapeutic setting, making it even more important for people to take inventory of their implicit biases. Derald Wing Sue states, “it is important to become aware of microaggressions so that we can make the invisible, visible.”
Kevin Nadal explained how urgent it is to speak up when we see someone committing a microaggression. “If we don’t speak up,” Nadal explains, “we may end up sending a message that we think that what happened was acceptable.” Therefore, there is no “social faux pas” when it comes to microaggression acts and behaviors. If someone’s feeling or wellbeing is going to be impacted in a negative manner then there is no “faux pas” it is a microaggression. Whether the act or behavior is unintentional or deliberate, implicit biases impact our daily interactions with those around us. If those interactions are hurtful or derogatory, to the one it was directed towards or anyone who heard it, it was a microaggression and needs to be addressed.
There comes a time when people can no longer be ignorant of the damage caused by their behaviors. People can not just assume because they meant nothing by what they said that it meant nothing to the person it was directed toward. Social accountability and acknowledgment of acts and behaviors that diminish another’s wellbeing needs to be at the forefront of understanding in order to change what society believes to be acceptable and normal.
Nadal, K. (2014). The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling
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Payne, Keith. (2018). “How to Think about ‘Implicit Bias.’” Scientific American, Macmillan
Publishers Ltd, www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-to-think-about-implicit-
Seghal, Priya. (2016) “Racial Microaggressions: The Everyday Assault.” American
Psychiatric Association Blog. https://www.psychiatry.org/news-room/apa-
Sue, Derald Wing. (2010). “Microaggressions: More than Just Race.” Psychology Today:
Microaggressions in Everyday Life.