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On the Idea That “Microaggressions Don’t Exist”

Microaggressions are the inevitable consequence of cultural stereotypes.

Key points

  • Unconscious, automatic behaviors hostile to a stigmatized individual and without intent can be interpreted as microaggressions.
  • Victims of microaggressions often develop a hyper-awareness of social hostility.
  • This hyper-awareness is a natural consequence of growing up in cultures that stigmatize one’s being.
  • Victims of microaggressions may internalize the cultural stereotypes about people who look like them, resulting in conflicting views of the self.

There has been a debate as of late on whether microaggressions exist. Microaggressions have been defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007).

Reputable scholars in the field of psychology, however, have questioned the existence of microaggressions. Some say that microaggressions represent “over-sensitivity” of the apparent targets. Others say that microaggressions should not be considered aggressions because of a lack of intent on the perpetrator's part.

Below I will explain (a) why this so-called “over-sensitivity” is a victim's hyper-awareness of a hostile environment, which in turn is a natural consequence of growing up in cultures that stigmatize one’s being; and (b) why unconscious, automatic behaviors that are hostile to the stigmatized individual, and without intent, can still be seen as microaggressions.

Let us consider the following quote from a person who struggles with conflicting feelings about Black people:

I have friends who are black and whom I love deeply. I do not have to suppress feelings of hatred and contempt as I sit with them; I see their humanity. But on the macro level, I also recognize the deep anti-black feelings that have been inculcated in me since childhood, and these feelings surface immediately...when I conceptualize black people in general.

The sentiments arise when I pass a black stranger on the street, see stereotypical depictions of black people in the media, and hear the thinly veiled warnings and jokes passed between white people. — From Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).

The following excerpt from the quote above is of particular relevance: “But on the macro level, I also recognize the deep anti-black feelings that have been inculcated in me since childhood and these feelings surface immediately.” What the individual describes are cultural schemas that are deeply wired into our brains and steer our behaviors in culturally congruent ways.

Cultural schemas are mental associations that tell us how to think, feel, and behave in situations that are relevant in our cultures. These schemas get mentally activated when we observe cues that, throughout our lives, have repeatedly been paired with specific forms of information. For example, we know that we must become alert when we hear a siren because, throughout our lives, our cultures have paired information representing danger and emergencies with sirens. Hence, sirens can be seen as cultural cues that trigger culture-specific behavior. This process is mostly quick, automatic, and unconscious: We hear a siren, and we become alert.

The same goes for cultural stereotypes about people who are discriminated against. In the case of the quote above, someone’s skin color can be seen as a cultural cue that mentally activates culture-specific mental schemas, just as sirens do.

Many cultures around the world repeatedly pair specific information with skin-color (through upbringing, the media, education, etc.). When these associations are negative, as can often be seen in cultures that chronically stigmatize people of color, behaviors of random people may (unwittingly) become hostile when they encounter a person of color. Think about avoiding eye contact, crossing the road, or keeping your distance on the bus. These behaviors often happen outside the conscious awareness of the perpetrator. (Observe how many times a seat in the bus next to a person of color stays empty.)

 Clay Banks/Unsplash
Microaggressions are often based on skin color.
Source: Clay Banks/Unsplash

This unconscious, unintentional, aspect makes microaggressions difficult to prove and, in extension, to research. People often fail to believe that they behave in racist ways because, consciously, they are convinced that they simply are not racist.

In fact, many people may have people of color in their friend circle and see them like they would see any of their White friends. Indeed, even the individual from the quote above admits feeling completely at ease with their Black friends, yet when encountering Black strangers, the negative cultural associations come boiling to the surface.

Hence, the idea that racism is an individual problem to be weeded out by "biased" individuals themselves is a reductionist understanding of racism. Instead, racism should be seen as an integral aspect of culture that often unwittingly influences the minds of even well-intentioned people who firmly believe that they have no racist bone in their body. (Read more about the cultural roots of racism in this post.)

Let us now consider the victims of microaggressions. Similarly, many of them are products of our cultures and therefore have mentally internalized the same cultural stereotypes about people who resemble themselves as the perpetrators have. In other words, also within them the same stereotypes get mentally activated when confronted with certain cultural cues, such as seeing people with dark skin complexions; this often includes the person they see in the mirror.

For the stigmatized individual, this is psychologically exceptionally difficult to cope with, as it mentally creates a conflicting situation in which the individual, on the one hand, sees and feels their own full humanity, yet, on the other hand, constantly has to wage a psychological battle against all the negative cultural portrayals of their being that continuously try to tear down any sense of self-worth.

It reminds me of a Lebanese-German research participant who once confessed: “When I think of myself, I see a warm and kind human being who loves reading classics, but when I look in the mirror, I see a ‘bad guy’ from a typical Hollywood movie. The worst thing is, I know others see that too.”

This is at the core of microaggressions. The victim is aware of the cultural stereotypes about people resembling themselves and therefore judges others’ negative (or ambiguous) behaviors as fitting racism, and therefore microaggressions. Especially because of their exhaustively repetitious nature, as similar microaggressions are inflicted on them on a continuous, day-by-day, basis.

In sum, microaggressions are not merely the product of racist individuals with harmful intent. Nor are they the unrealistic inventions of overly sensitive individuals. Microaggressions are the behavioral results of cultures that portray people as fundamentally different based on their group characteristics, such as skin color, ethnic features, or religion. That is, cultures form the mental schemas that make us behave differently to people based on these characteristics.

The solution to this problem is to equalize the positive representation of all people, in all their individuality, within our cultures, starting with the educational curriculum, the media, and politics.

References

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., . . . Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62, 271–286

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