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What Is a Microaggression?

A microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. Rather than an overt declaration of racism or sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhand comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult. For example, a person might comment that an Asian American employee speaks English well. Another might ask where an American Indian student is from. A woman may cross the street when she sees an African American man walking toward her at night.

These individuals may not have intended to offend anyone, but the comment or action still reminds the person who receives the microaggression that they are not fully accepted or trusted in their community. People are often well-intentioned, and they want to consciously promote equality, but unconsciously they may act differently.

The Roots of Microaggressions

The term was coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the subtle insults he witnessed between white students and African American students. The work of Jack Dovidio and Samuel Gaertner also added to the idea. The term had a resurgence in 2007 when Teachers College Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue began to popularize the idea through his writing. Since then, the construct has spurred tremendous conversation, research, and debate.

What are examples of microaggressions?

In the workplace, being asked to run and get coffee sounds cliche, but this actually does happen. The target can be a person of color, female, LGBTQ, or other marginalized people. Another good example is assuming that an older employee is incapable of managing technology and lacks versatility with new tools. The workplace can be rife with slights and snubs directed at people who appear different.

Is subtle bias harmless?

Sometimes a microaggression may appear to be a compliment, You speak English very well. They are seemingly innocuous and nothing to fret over. However, microaggressions carry demeaning meta-communications, whereby the messages are hidden, and the targets of such concealed missives feel on edge as well as under scrutiny. This can create an environment filled with distrust, hostility, invalidation, and it can also mean lost productivity, ill health, and overall inequity.

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Parsing Our Microaggressions
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Even if researchers and experts argue over the existence of microaggressions, this cannot erase the emergence and popularization of the concept, which underscores the importance of recognizing, defining, and studying the impact of subtle racism on those in marginalized communities.

What causes xenophobia?

Xenophobia is the fear of people who are different. We inherently feel uncomfortable around what is unknown. People sometimes think that the unfamiliar will harm us, spread disease, and upend our comfortable worldview. We prefer to avoid different people, and avoidance is not wrong, it does not signal racism.

Why is guilt a factor in microaggressions?

People experience guilt when racism is brought to the fore. Who wouldn’t feel guilty that large groups are marginalized? A person can feel guilty when he is born with certain advantages, and he can try to deny this truth by evading it. Remaining blind and indifferent might ameliorate guilt, even though it may be healthier to acknowledge those privileges, educate himself, and change his behavior."

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