Microaggressions are casual acts of degradation or exclusion. They happen almost every day to people who are different from the majority. The difference may be skin color, background, accent, religion, etc. Microaggressions normally occur verbally, during a conversation, and they can be fueled by a person’s own prejudices or ignorance.
There is a difference between a microaggression and being impolite. Microaggressions are frequently occurring expressions or behaviors that occur consistently to an individual while rudeness is a one-time event, most likely in a confrontation. Furthermore, microaggressions rarely go beyond a subtle unintended verbal aggression. When it escalates to a physical attack or an intentional verbal aggression, it is no longer a microaggression.
Microaggressors do not typically hold ill intentions yet they can still be harmful to the individual. I would like to demonstrate this by some situational examples:
- “Can I speak to a man?” – A male library patron looking for car repair books to a female librarian. A librarian does not have to be male (or know how to fix cars) to do the job of finding books. This an example of gender microaggression.
- “Where are you from?” – A stranger waiting in line in a restaurant to another stranger when ordering food and hearing a different accent (either from another state or from another country). This is an example of language/nationality microaggression.
- “You got a C- in Calculus? You are Asian, you should’ve gotten an A!” – A classmate to another classmate. Being from a certain race or region does not automatically make you an expert on a subject, nor should you be expected to be. This is an example of race microaggression.
Although these can be expressed in a comedic fashion, without the conscious intention to degrade or offend, they can still be offensive and harmful to the person receiving the question or comment.
For example, the question “Where are you from?” could be appropriate to ask when you know the person or you have had some introductory conversation and you are genuinely interested in learning more about that person. However, it is a microaggression and completely rude to ask abruptly for no other reason than you heard a different accent. This implies the person is not from “here” and thereby excluding them from the community they belong to and may have lived in for years.
In the situation about the grade in Calculus, asking about a grade could be asked without involving race or background. Although this situation is the one that most likely could be interpreted as a joke, it is offensive to a person who may have tried their best but is not particularly skilled on the subject.
In my opinion, most of these situations can be easily avoided with courtesy, respect, and awareness of social and cultural differences. It is easy to fall on the mentality of “where I live everybody is like this”. The reality is that where you live is not the only place there is and there are a diversity of beliefs and cultural practices that make up our nation, institutions, and communities. Ask yourself if you would like to be constantly tagged as “X” or asked the same personal question without really knowing the person who is asking.
Avoiding stereotyping and microaggressions requires developing a genuine interest in, and empathy for others different from ourselves. Keeping an open mind, treating everyone with respect and accepting social and cultural differences will avoid uncomfortable situations at work and in your personal life. It will also make it easier for everybody to feel part of a community, regardless of their gender, race, religion, nationality, etc.