Microaggressions and Microvalidations in Everyday Life

Unmasking subtle heterosexism in everyday life.

Posted Mar 16, 2009

Columbia University psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue has pioneered research on what are called "racial microaggressions" or experiences of racism that are so subtle that neither victim nor perpetrator may entirely understand what is going on. These microaggressions can range from more overt behaviors like name calling, to insensitivity to a person's racial heritage, to comments that negate the feelings of minority people. Think about things like an Asian American person repeatedly being asked "where are you from?" which can send the message that they are not American. Or an African American person being followed around a store. In both of these cases it isn't entirely clear that a racist even occurred, but if you are a minority and these things happen all the time you start to really notice them. While a single negative comment isn't likely to send someone spiraling to full blown depression or substance abuse, emerging research suggests that the accumulation of these subtle negative experiences can build up and may prove to be especially toxic for minority people.

Dr. Sue has grouped various kinds of microaggressions into three areas:

A microassault is an explicit verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.

A microinsult is characterized by communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity. Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.

Microinvalidations are characterized by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a minority person.

After reading this article on microaggressions in the APA Monitor I have been spending a lot of time thinking about this topic. I have been particularly curious about how gay and lesbian people may experience these kinds of microaggressions and how we might go about studying their occurrence and effects. I turns out almost no research has been done on LGBT people and microaggressions. So I started paying attention and making a note of various kinds of experiences I have in my daily life and recent travels. Here are a few examples of things I have recently experienced:

1) A customs agent pointedly agent asking my partner and I if we are "friends." While I thought about correcting him and saying in fact we are partners, I eventually decided it wasn't worth it. I wasn't entirely sure why he said it the way he did and didn't want to raise an issue that may not have existed, but it did feel like it invalidated my relationship and made me frustrated that I wasn't sure how to respond.

2) A colleague told me that she knew what is was like to be gay because she was a religious minority. While I certainly agree that there are certain aspects of minority status that may illuminate the experience of other minority groups, it seemed to deny the unique aspects of LGBT people to assume total understanding of my experience.

3) I read an article in a magazine that talked about how fantastic gay men were at fashion and art. This made me feel like a stereotype (whether it fits me or not is another question).

4) Proposition 8 passed in California and invalidated the legal recognition of same-sex relationships.

While these kinds of experiences can make a LGBT person feel invalidated or stigmatized, I also have been thinking the kinds of events that can instill feelings of validation. For example, on a recent flight a couple sitting next to me were gushing to me about their gay son and his male partner. The casual way that they talked about their son and his partner on the crowded plane made me feel at ease telling them about my partner and our recent travels.

My research team and I are in the process of creating a measure of microaggression and microvalidation experiences unique to LGBT people that we can administer in an upcoming study. Help us create this measure by leaving a comment below about experience that made you feel assaulted, insulted, invalidated. Or just as important, leave a comment about a positive experience you had that made you feel validated as an LGBT person.

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