Dismissing Microaggressions Is Insensitive and Even Racist

It also seems tied to our individualistic culture in the throes of change.

Posted Jul 01, 2020

Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra
Source: Adobe stock image, licensed by Ravi Chandra

Dr. Khama Ennis recently wrote a wonderful article in the Washington post about her experiences as a doctor and now Chief of Emergency Medicine at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Massachusetts, an affiliate of Mass General. ("As a black ER doctor, I see racism every day. It doesn’t have to be that way," June 11, 2020) Ennis describes how patients ask questions such as “where are you from?” and “Where did you go to school?”, mistake her for a “phone girl,” or say she looks too young to be a doctor. Sometimes the comments are worse, and she is made to feel like her belonging is questioned: “Are you a U.S. citizen?” She displays remarkable resilience and good humor as she describes rolling with many of these situations, all in the service of caring for her patients’ well-being. 

I’m sure she understands that these questions and comments sometimes come from patients’ anxiety and unfamiliarity. But sometimes they also can come from a place of, well, paranoia and even hostility. From my own personal experience, these can be “you had to be there” kind of moments. You just pick up the underlying intention from a whole host of subtle cues – facial expression, tone of voice, body language, etc. And during these times of extraordinary pressure due to highly visible acts of violence and racism, many of us are feeling tenderized and on edge – leading to both more tension, more aggressive comments, and perhaps more perceptions of malicious intent.

Microaggressions are subtle comments and actions that land on the wound of being othered, and not feeling a sense of belonging or being fully accepted. They were first described as a component of the implicit biases of anti-Black racism by Chester Pierce in 1970, and later expanded to other races and situations by Derald Wing Sue. My Psychology Today colleague Monnica Williams clarified through her research that contrary to some popularized opinions, students complaining of microaggressions are not simply ‘too sensitive, angry or anxious.’ ("Are Racial Microaggressions on College Campuses Harmful?" November 12, 2017) In fact, students who are essentially “experts” on racism and identity show higher positive affectivity and no difference in trait negativity compared to whites, yet also reported more microaggressions. Microaggressions are part and parcel of the stresses that lead to or worsen mental health issues such as depression, anxiety, and suicidality—primarily, I believe, through the mechanism of a decreasing felt sense of belonging, safety, and respect. I would say that given this data and my experience, Black students and likely other people of color who are more aware and affirmed in racial identity are generally more resilient to and aware of racism, yet are simultaneously more burdened by it—because it is so pervasive and overwhelming.

So it was troubling, though sadly predictable, to see some comments on Doximity, a health professionals’ social media site, that were dismissive of Ennis’ experience. The general gist was “I wouldn’t be bothered by these comments, so you should not be either.” At best, I suppose, was one doctor who used a quote often attributed to Viktor Frankl to suggest that freedom lies in making space between stimulus and response and thus creating choice, and that responding to microaggressions with emotion is somehow less desirable. I love this quote, whoever actually said it, but in the wrong context, it is dismissive and devaluing of emotional experience. The attitude goes back to the Stoics, though. Seneca compared passions to slavery. “A mind that becomes a slave to some passion must exist as though in a tyrant’s realm,” he wrote. (From Anger, Mercy, Revenge (The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca) translated by Kaster and Nussbaum.) I also imagine that Doximity would have deleted comments that were far more abusive, hurtful, and cruel. It's a well-known fact that Black women often face horrible treatment online when discussing issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, or transphobia. (See my presentation on Cyberbullying and Youth Mental Health from 2019.)

We live in an individualistic culture that can tend towards the cruelly narcissistic and tribalistic. In such a culture, many idealize individual control of emotion, rather than compassionate connection to others and fostering a sense of belonging. Thus, people’s complaints of racism and microaggressions are minimized and diminished. Sure, that’s partly because emotional experience in general is devalued in an individualistic culture, but also because the emotional experience of Blacks, women, people of color, and so forth, are particularly minimized by too many. Stoicism, individualism, and racism all tend to support the status quo, and minimize complaints as “emotional” or “irrational.”

And yes, that is part and parcel of racism, sexism, homophobia, and every other form of discrimination. Some people who have lived in majority White bubbles simply don’t understand the emotional, lived experience of people outside their bubbles, and their individualistic culture magnifies their dismissal of that lived experience. Yet suddenly some think they are experts on managing the emotional distress of those “others.” Truth be told, they are not great at managing their own emotional distress – as witnessed in rising suicide rates and opioid overdoses, the “deaths of despair.” (See my article at the Center for Mindful Self Compassion, "Medicine for Difficult Times," August 9, 2019 )  

And the vicious cycle continues.

To break out of the cycle, we need to recognize the problem for what it is. The ideal of individualism was always largely a mirage, and is increasingly at odds with a diverse society that must foster the belonging, community, and well-being of all its members. We must recognize the reality that we are interdependent and connected.

In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

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(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.


Chandra R. Asian American Anger - It's a Thing! 2014, available for free download.