E. J. R. David Ph.D.

Unseen and Unheard

5 Questions We Often Ask Ourselves After Microaggressions

The "Unseen and Unheard" internal dialogues that affect marginalized peoples.

Posted Apr 13, 2015

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities—whether intentional or unintentional—that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial (e.g., 'You’re so articulate, you don’t talk like a Black person.'), gender (e.g., 'You throw like a girl.'), sexual orientation (e.g., 'That’s so gay!'), and religious (e.g., Saying 'Merry Christmas!' to a Muslim person) slights and insults to the target person or group." 

Research shows that individuals who are members of marginalized groups frequently experience plenty of microaggressions in their everyday lives. These experiences have been termed “microaggression showers” by my friend and colleague Dr. Kevin Nadal, a microaggression expert. Personally, I have been subjected to plenty of microaggression showers, and below is one very recent experience that made me choose microaggressions as the first topic for my "Unseen and Unheard" column:

Over the past few weeks, I and 17 other selected local “community leaders” have been participating in meetings with a law enforcement organization. After hearing a case presentation on “White-Collar crime” of which the perpetrators were all members of ethnic minority groups (approximately 90 percent were Filipino-Americans and the rest were Korean-Americans and Pacific Islanders), one fellow “community leader” stated,

“Were these people criminals where they came from—like, the Philippines—before they came here? Are they just breeding criminals over there? Is there a criminal school over there training these people?”

This was followed by laughter by many of my fellow “community leaders,” all of whom are white. Such laughter felt like microaggressive sprinkles following the initial storm.

As a Filipino-American man who emigrated from the Philippines, this experience brought so much inner turmoil and anger within me. There was a voice inside me that was screaming:

“Do you not see me here?!?!” (Am I Unseen by all of you?)

“Do you not remember that I shared to you all that I am a Filipino American immigrant?!?!” (Am I Unheard by all of you?)

This was just like the previous meeting when these same “community leaders” made microaggressive comments about our refugee and immigrant communities. So I noticed myself thinking, “Here we go again.”

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Source: "No sexism racism homophobia" by Kurt Löwenstein Educational Center International Team from Germany - ws'08 (21). Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:No_sexism_racism_homophobia.jpg#/...

I kept paying attention to my thoughts and emotions, and I noticed that I was going through the same type of process, steps, and struggles—the same questions—time and time again after experiencing a microaggression. Right after the meeting, I consulted with Dr. Sue’s Microaggression Process Model (MPM), and I learned that my typical internal dialogues and struggles in reaction to microaggressions are quite common.

Over the past few years, society’s awareness of microaggressions and its many expressions have increased. However, the internal dialogues and psychological struggles that microaggressions cause marginalized peoples are rarely discussed and remain largely “Unseen and Unheard” by the general public.

So I thought that sharing some of my personal experiences as guided by the MPM might be useful to many folks who face microaggressions frequently. At the very least, it might validate peoples’ experiences and make them feel less alone. So to this end, here are five questions we typically ask ourselves after experiencing microaggressions.

Question 1: “Am I just being overly sensitive?”

Everyone who has experienced a potential microaggression has probably asked themselves this question. This is when we try to determine if the comment or behavior was motivated by some type of social group bias or if it was driven by stereotypes about our social group. From my recent experience, it is quite clear that it was a microaggression, so this question was pretty easy to answer in this instance. However, microaggressions are often not so obvious and clear-cut. In fact, even my recent experience may still be interpreted as a joke that should just be let go and not be taken seriously.

Interpreting microaggressions in such dismissive and minimizing ways can lead us to self-blame: “Oh, it’s my fault, I’m just being too paranoid and oversensitive.” This line of reasoning is dangerous because it might lead us to change ourselves, to learn to tolerate oppression, instead of the perpetrators and systems of oppression being the ones to change. Thus, succumbing to the “I’m just being too paranoid and oversensitive” narrative may inadvertently reinforce microaggressions because they are left unchallenged.

Although there’s no clear, easy answer to this question, I tend to believe that I hold a level of healthy paranoia and usually favor my own reality to avoid blaming myself for what happened. As Dr. Sue stated, although “power is often correlated with economic and military might…'true’ power resides in the ability to define reality.” Calling out and standing up to instances of microaggressions are small but powerful ways in which marginalized peoples can reclaim some power and have their realities be heard and validated.  

Question 2: “Should I just leave and never deal with such people again?”

If I determine that I did just experience a microaggression, then I move on to evaluating some possible responses that I can do. One of the alternatives that frequently comes to mind is to just leave. Out of all the actions one can take in response to microaggressions, this seems to take the least effort because all this requires is to simply leave (if one has the ability and power to leave), so many folks probably do this often. Simply leaving may even have a self-protective function, as one is able to escape from—and is no longer further subjected to—the on-going microaggression shower. And by leaving, it’s also possible that others will wonder why, forcing them to think about the possibility that they may have done something offensive.

But the ambiguity of this “solution” may leave others unclear about my leaving, and chosen explanations for such ambiguous behaviors may be driven by stereotypes (e.g., “That was disrespectful, where was his manners?” or “Why are they so angry all the time?”). In other words, I don’t want to end up fulfilling stereotypes and give microaggressors even more ammunition to use against me and others like me. Also, no one is educated and informed by simply escaping the situation, again leaving microaggressions unchallenged, and so this may inadvertently reinforce microaggressions as well. Besides, microaggressors are the ones we need to educate, so this is an opportunity to not just “preach to the choir.”

So although there’s no clear, easy solution to this question, I tend to stay and remind myself that I need to be there. We need a voice and a differing perspective on the table.

Question 3: “Do I have a responsibility to speak up, defend my peoples, and educate?”

Because my main reason for not leaving microaggression showers is to defend myself, defend my people, and educate, the need to speak up is always simultaneously sparked within me. So, the next question I ask myself is if I have a responsibility to speak up, and why?

As a person who has some understanding of microaggressions and as someone who my community has helped for many years to become educated, gain some credibility, and develop into a “community leader,” my answer to this question is always “yes!” I definitely go through various other lines of reasoning to convince myself that I do not have to speak up, such as: “It’s not a good idea to rock the boat. Besides, speaking up probably won’t even change anything” and “It’s not fair to be burdened with having to do the explaining all the time” and “This literally hurts my heart, it can’t be good for my well-being. I am sucked dry, so I am done speaking up.” But despite these thoughts, I tend to almost always speak up.

Dr. Sue’s MPM suggests that it’s common for individuals to feel pressured to represent one’s social group and to feel exhausted—perhaps even hopeless—because one has the need to speak up again when it seems that the work is not changing anything. When I get to these discouraging thoughts and feelings, I remind myself that things will definitely not change if we all give up. Also, it’s not as if my heart feels better when I let microaggression showers pass and not do anything about them. So again, although the weight of responsibility varies from person to person, and we definitely shouldn’t force anyone to be burdened with the responsibility to speak up, I believe that those of us who are privileged enough to have the ability, clout, and power to speak up should do so. Indeed, as Voltaire—and Peter Parker’s (Spiderman) Uncle Ben—said, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Question 4: “Should I have been more ‘respectful’ or ‘professional’ when I spoke up?”

The impact of microaggressions do not end after I speak up, which is yet another testament to how long microaggressions can linger in (and damage) one’s mind and, especially, one’s heart. Microaggressions’ direct path to my heart is the reason why I am always influenced by my emotions when I talk about microaggressions. Even when I had a chance to organize my thoughts, even when I remind myself to keep my composure, and even when I start off speaking calmly, my emotions always end up coming out at some point.

And so after I speak up against microaggressions and attempt to educate, I often immediately question whether I could’ve been more effective if I was more “respectful” or “professional” so that I am able to be more “palatable” to the audience I am trying to reach. So even after what is supposed to be an empowering moment for me, I still feel like I need to cater to my oppressors, make sure that I do not offend my oppressors, and behave in ways that my oppressors deem “acceptable.” Consistent with Dr. Sue’s MPM, I still have the need to “rescue” the offender.

So for many of us, even after we manage to gather enough strength to speak up against microaggressions, we still need to keep working. We need to remind ourselves that it’s OK to have emotions, to speak from our hearts. This is because we are not simply talking about an experience that we read about in some book or journal article. We aren’t just talking about a hypothetical scenario or a story we saw in a movie. When we talk about microaggressions, we are talking about our lived experiences. This is real to us! So of course there are emotions—and painful ones—that will influence how we talk about this! Expressing emotions when we talk about microaggressions doesn’t make us any less credible, nor does it make our experiences less real.

Question 5: “Did I just fail my peoples for not speaking up and educating?”

Finally, I’ve had plenty of experiences wherein I chose not to—or was not able to—speak up, express myself, defend my peoples, and educate; regrettably, this includes my recent microaggression experience. According to Dr. Sue, doing nothing—not even leaving (Question 2)—is the most common reaction to microaggressions. Among other reasons, we choose to not do anything because we are unable to determine if we experienced a microaggression (Question 1), we convinced (or fooled) ourselves that what happened wasn’t a microaggression, we feel hopeless, or we fear the potential consequences for speaking up.

In these instances of “forced compliance,” I often ask myself: “Does this mean that I failed my community?” “Did I fail myself?” “Am I a coward?” “Am I a sell-out?” According to Dr. Sue’s description of the MPM, these internal struggles are common and can negatively affect a person’s well-being. Not being able to speak out against microaggressions, especially when one really wants to, can lead to lower self-esteem, feeling fake or being a sell-out, loss of integrity, feeling that one let down one’s social group, self-anger, and self-blame.

For these depressing situations, I often have to work extra hard to remind myself that it’s OK to take a break. So for those of us who have felt this helplessness (“I couldn’t speak up.”) followed by feelings of worthlessness (e.g., “I just failed my group.”), please remember that you are not a bad person—or a bad member of your social group—just because you chose to pick your battles, got tired, or took a day off. And for those of us who are allies, which can be all of us, perhaps we can stick up for our family and friends from time to time and take up the burden of speaking up against microaggressions, even the ones that may not necessarily be about us.

The Struggle Continues

It is clear that microaggressions are terribly confusing for its targets. Microaggressions consume a person’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual energy, but often leaves the person without any clear and healing resolution. Even worse, microaggressions can lead individuals toward blaming themselves, being angry at themselves, or internalizing the oppression that they experience. And although more research should be conducted to further our understanding of microaggressions, there are a few things that are becoming increasingly clear: (1) microaggressions are common, (2) microaggressions hurt, and (3) microaggressions have serious negative effects on people’s well-being and mental health.

So let’s be more mindful, sensitive, and careful of how we interact with each other. And when we do make mistakes—when we commit microaggressions—let’s be open to feedback on how to get rid of hurtful habits and to develop accepting, supportive, validating, and helpful ones.

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