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Understanding Microaggressions


Understanding Microaggressions

Maggie O'Connor

Many can argue that any person can speak up and tell her or his truth with acknowledgement and support in today’s society. Empowerment is at an all-time high and I’m wowed on a daily basis by those who have the courage to speak up. But what about the actions or words that oftentimes go unnoticed by the offender and/or offended? Are those slights worthy of vocalizing and bringing to light? In other words, what about the microaggressions?

The blog post you are about to read is meant to be informative; however, I can only speak to my experiences. However, I do hope this blog post sheds some light on those slights that are buried under the rug but shouldn’t be. And hopefully you can learn how to notice and speak up against microaggressions for you, your family, your friends, and your coworkers.

As an Asian-American woman living in the South, I can tell you that microaggressions are in fact real things. And frankly speaking, when on the receiving end, my younger and more forgiving self would think, “Meh, it’s just not worth the time.” After all, most of the time, the perpetrators wouldn’t have any ill will towards me. So I’d let the microaggressions slide and pretend that they weren’t a big deal. But one day I had an “AHA” moment. I came to the realization that these microaggressions were indeed negatively impacting my state of mind – specifically, my confidence and self-worth.


So what are microaggressions? According to the American Psychiatric Association, the term was first coined in the 1970s by Chester M. Pierce. Further, Merriam-Webster says that a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”. Since the 70s, the term has been molded and tweaked here and there but for the purpose of saving time, consider microaggressions as an umbrella term and underneath are the terms microinsults, microinvalidations, and microassaults. In essence, microaggressions are slights that showcase some kind of prejudiced or uninformed attitude toward a marginalized person or group of people.


I was once called “sweetie” in a professional setting. Sure, it can be a term of endearment especially down here in the South. But are terms of endearment appropriate for the workplace? Would you ever call someone “babe” or “cupcake” at work? More than likely not. So, a microinsult is a communication or action, usually unconscious, that demeans someone’s racial heritage or gender identity. They are often tricky to point out and navigate, and as I mentioned before, they are sometimes said or done without the perpetrator even knowing it.


Sadly I cannot count how many times someone has asked me, “What are you?” And yes, that question has been asked to me in a professional setting. While that question in itself is a microaggression, I’ve been in situations where I’ve tried to explain the inappropriateness of that question, with the person I’m either venting to or correcting replying along the lines of, “Do you think you’re reading into it too much?” That response is a microinvalidation. I’ve also been told I’m oversensitive – another example of a microinvalidation. Another one that goes unnoticed many times is when I hear people say they “don’t see color” in regards to the ongoing racial tensions in our society. “Mansplaining” is also a microinvalidation. (Confused? More on that here.) In all, microinvalidations can often be very difficult to name because they are the most subtle in nature. But they are defined as actions or words that minimize or disregard the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of a person from a minority group.


I’ve walked down countless streets minding my own business to have someone, usually with at least one other person, attempt to say words I cannot understand when I pass by in what I assume is some kind of Asian accent. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced a microassault like this at work. Unfortunately, I know too many people who have. Microassaults are a bit easier to explain because they are most akin to conventional racism. Usually, these actions or words are intentional and conscious, aimed to hurt the person on the receiving end.

What now?

What’s tricky about microaggressions is that they typically come from a place of unconscious bias. So the first step for me was to acknowledge I have my own biases and other people have theirs. Then I thought back on the times I was either the offender or the offendee of a microaggression. (Note that it is easy to feel shame if you’ve been the perpetrator, but try not to let it soak in. After all, as Dr. Brene Brown says, guilt and shame are two very different things.) Taking a long minute to look back through my life experiences helped train my eyes and ears for future microaggression situations. And lastly, if at all possible, I now try to better understand through empathy. Coming back at someone with bloodshot eyes and rageful fists is not a productive solve or remedy. Trust me.

While I cannot guarantee that this is the most trusted process in battling microaggressions, I can’t imagine it causing any more harm. Microaggressions will persist if we continue to bury them under the rug.

If you have more questions about how to handle microaggressions at work, please talk to your HR department.