More people have told me, “You’re SO articulate!” than I care to count. Growing up, I also heard a lot of people say, “You don’t sound Black.”
These words stir up a stomach-crunching whirl of emotions in me, starting at disbelief and disappointment and going all the way over to exasperation and resentment. Comments like these are almost always shared warmly, with a sobering side-order of surprise in the person’s voice, and occasionally even a sprinkle of patronizing “good for you!” in there too.
Apparently, to some people, my ability to express myself coherently makes me an exception, and dealing with comments like these is exhausting. The waxy mental build-up of these semantic assaults takes a toll on a Black person over time. It’s like a million little paper cuts—each seemingly tiny, but surprisingly painful.
These are common examples of microaggressions. A microaggression is an indirect, sometimes subtle put-down toward a person from a marginalized community, often wrapped up in what pretends to be a compliment. When I’m personally lingering in the uncomfortable after-spray of a microaggression, I feel faced with a big decision: What do I do or say now? So begins the dance of whether to address the microaggression, sulk away bruised, or maybe just let it go.
As unhappy as I am with these choices, swallowing back my feelings to protect those of the “compliment-giver” only means that it will happen again, if not to me then to someone else. Whether the microaggression comes from an employer, a random stranger or a well-meaning friend, comments like these are emotionally exhausting to deal with, especially since microaggressions happen all the time.
What exactly is a microaggression?
Professionals in psychology circles have long been aware of backhanded compliments like these directed toward racial groups, women, people with different abilities, and other groups that society ranks as having lesser value. Back in the 1970s, Harvard psychiatrist and professor Chester M. Pierce, M.D. coined the term "microaggression" to describe these particular types of conscious or unconscious put-downs, something he, as a Black man, had witnessed firsthand.
When a white person points out that a Black person is “so well-spoken,” often their tone of voice makes it sound like it’s a compliment, and the white person may even mean it that way. Except it’s not a compliment, no matter the intent. The speaker is operating on the banal assumption that Black people are inferior, or so collectively under-educated that conjugating verbs somehow makes this one Black person a standout. Even worse, the speaker is equating sounding educated with being white, a way of reinforcing a version of the world in which Black people don’t belong among educated people. I had an early, life-changing experience with this that I spoke about in a TEDx talk.
A well-meaning friend, of course, isn’t thinking this way when she or he lobs this kind of microaggression out there. But even a genuinely disarming demeanor and a true fondness for the person doesn’t make a microaggression less offensive (or racist, sexist, xenophobic, homophobic, or whatever else). In short, it doesn’t matter whether a microaggression is intentional or not. It is still maddening.
What counts as a microaggression?
Let’s set aside the brazen, loud-and-proud, mouth-frothing Confederate flag-waving racists that sling around the N-word. Many of the things they do are, of course, “macro” aggressions. Most reasonable people would agree that such behavior is egregious.
We’ll also hand out hall passes to the “nice-nasty” among us who levy politely rude sarcastic commentary that is meant and mutually understood to be playful. An example: “You clean up nicely.”
For it to be a true microaggression, the speaker’s bias shows up, even if their walk into this conversational mine field was accidental.
Check out some of these common racially based microaggressions, and how the person on the receiving end may hear them:
- A Black person is pulled over by police in an affluent neighborhood and asked where they’re going; then told that there have been break-ins nearby recently— which appears to be the reason for initiating the traffic stop.
Translation: The assumption here is that Black people do not “belong” in affluent areas and are automatically under suspicion. (By the way, I have been that driver. The cop never actually wrote me a ticket, because we both knew that he had pulled me over for no good reason.)
- A retail employee follows a Black shopper around the store for no reason.
Translation: The retail employee’s behavior exposes a deeply engrained racial bias that Black people are somehow all thieves and cannot be trusted. Or, similar to ‘driving while Black’, no behavior on the part of the Black shopper instigates the racist chaperoning, except the employee’s belief that the Black person couldn’t possibly have the money to buy something in your store, and so does not “belong” there.
- Black executives are presumed to be support staff in a professional setting.
Translation: Black people are somehow there to serve you. In a recent Essence survey, 45% of Black women say that the workplace is where they experience racism the most.
- Familiarity or sense of entitlement to a Black woman’s body. For example, touching her hair without her permission.
Translation: What you are saying when you do this is that copping a feel of hair growing out of a Black woman’s head is permissible, because a Black woman’s hair is “novel” and “other” and a white woman’s hair is “normal” or “standard.” Plus it implies ownership of a Black body, which has a hideous history. Yes, even if that would never occur to the person doing the touching.
- Someone saying, “I don’t even think of you as Black!”
Translation: What you’re saying is “you’re not like the Black people I’ve seen on TV!” Or, seeing a Black person as, well, a Black person would somehow be less desirable to both of you. It really begs the question: So how do you see me? And Why?
Microaggressions don’t have to be about race, or only about race. They can be about a number of things, including religion, physical ability, gender, or appearance.
A friend, Sarah Khan, who wore a hijab when she attended the University of Michigan and is Muslim-American, shared a microaggression that she encountered on numerous occasions in college: She was studying International Studies, a program that had mostly white students enrolled. In class, “I was often designated as a cultural expert on topics related to Muslims and the Middle East,” she says. Never mind that she is of Indian descent. Still, when singled out, she says, “I felt a misplaced sense of responsibility to answer— knowing the views and values my peers and professors held were often lined with unspoken xenophobic or Islamophobic tones.”
Being singled out as the only person of color in a group and as the spokesperson for one’s entire community everywhere in the world is a microaggression — it puts the person in an uncomfortable position, and fails to recognize, as Khan says, that “Muslims are not a monolith.” If a comment was particularly egregious or xenophobic, Khan would point it out — you can imagine how exhausting it is to have to do that when you’re there to learn, not constantly teach or defend.
How microaggressions are harmful:
Microaggressions are indirect, subtle and are not immediately or visibly life-threatening by nature. But they are still dangerous.
“In life there are ‘big T’ Traumas and ‘little t’ traumas. Big T’s are what you’d expect — an assault, a car accident, natural disaster,” explains Brenda Hartman PsyD, LP, a psychologist in Ann Arbor. “Small t traumas are things like name-calling, microaggressions, or non-life-threatening aggressions like being pushed during an argument, but not hurt. In the trauma field, we recognize that the accumulation of little t traumas over time can have the same impact as big T traumas.”
The fact that microaggressions are less overtly harmful than visible acts is what makes them so insidious — and why they can make you doubt yourself. “It’s easy to wrap your head around big T trauma. People can agree that Big T’s shouldn’t have happened and understand why someone is struggling as a result,” says Hartman. “Little t’s are harder to wrap your head around.” Even the person who is stung by them may think: Why am I being so sensitive? I wasn’t (physically) hurt. “It’s too easy to conclude that the distress of little t’s is due to internal weakness when it’s not.”
This is why there is currently a push in social justice/antiracism circles to drop the “micro” and simply acknowledge that microagressions are just plain old aggressive. The hope is that this will lead people to take the harm microaggressions cause more seriously, says Melinda Weekes-Laidlow, an antiracism and systems change consultant who works with groups and social movements across the country. No more “downplaying the seriousness of these assaults on the mental and physical health of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC),” says Weekes-Laidlow. “These are extra stressors that have real, cumulative, mental and health impacts on the targeted groups,” she adds.
And make no mistake: “Race-based traumatic stress” is a real thing, says Robert T. Carter PhD, psychologist and professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. “It can be a consequence of emotional pain that a person may feel after encounters with racism,” he says. In fact, racial stress is thought to be an underlying cause of many of these health disparities seen in the Black community— which makes it a much bigger deal than anything considered “micro” should be.
How to respond to a microaggression:
Denise Evans, a certified facilitator of implicit bias and cultural intelligence workshops in West Michigan, had a gloriously petty response to being called “articulate." In an article for Yes! Magazine, she said she responds to the microaggressor with matching enthusiasm, saying “so are you!” Then she asks them directly why they were so impressed by how well-spoken she is. Is it because Evans is Black? Because she’s a woman? “And I literally wait for [an] answer. I give people their microaggression and their implicit biases back in a pretty box with a nice bow on it,” she said.
Whether you have a clever clap back in the moment, decide to postpone the "big feelings" conversation for another day, or maybe just go home to a hot bath and wash the emotionally-draining sludge away, there are no wrong ways to handle a microaggression—it’s all about taking care of yourself.
Unfortunately, there may be associated risks if you choose to call out a racially insensitive comment or behavior: The Black person is often accused of playing the “race card,” an accusation that is yet another microaggression called gaslighting. It’s used, often in bad faith, to challenge a Black person’s lived experience and make them think they’re imagining things or too sensitive, while the person who made the offensive comment denies any responsibility for their initial insult.
Psychologist Brenda Hartman points out that when white people accuse someone of using the "race card," the point is to shut the other person down, and to flip the script. “It says 'You are the problem, not me.’" The tables have been turned, the microaggressor is now supposedly the victim hit with the "race card," and the trauma of the initial microaggression is doubled for the Black person. “The impact over time is crazy making,” she says.
How to stop microaggressions:
So what can you do to avoid hurting or angering someone with a microaggression? Same as if your clothing has caught fire: Stop, Drop and Roll.
- STOP to consider what you’re about to say by applying it to yourself first. What if you were on the receiving end of aggressive-offensive non-compliments from a spouse/partner, boss, stranger, or friend? What if you pointed it out only to have the other person deny it or say you can’t be upset because they didn’t mean it as a put-down? In short, think about how what you’re saying might be heard.
- DROP your defenses. Getting defensive (“I can’t believe you’re saying I’m racist!”) or turning the tables (“You’re too sensitive”) only fans the flames of the harm. Try and listen to what the other person is saying with the understanding that you may have offended them.
- ROLL with change. If you’re called out for a microaggression, and feel embarrassed about something you said, that’s evidence of a healthy conscience — the fact that you care that you caused someone else pain is the important part. It’s not easy for anyone to make adjustments to how they may have always thought, spoken or behaved. But being adaptable is good, especially when it comes to sharing space with Black women and others who have likely had to adjust how we show up in the world on a daily basis, sometimes just to survive.
In other words, hear, understand and make an attempt to do better next time.