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Microaggressions: Be Careful What You Say

Apr 3, 2014
Originally published on April 4, 2014 10:23 am



So where are you from? No, where are you really from? To some people, that might sound like a harmless question. But to a person of color, it might sound like a micro-aggression - a question, a comment, even an intended compliment sometimes that nevertheless suggests something demeaning.

Now, that term has been in the news recently because of the I, Too, Am Harvard campaign. That was a play and later an online campaign by African-American students at Harvard to highlight the casual forms of bias that they encounter on campus. We wanted to talk more about this, so we have called Derald Sue. He is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College. And he's done extensive research on this topic, and he's with us now. Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

DERALD SUE: Well, thank you, Michel, for having me.

MARTIN: So you've defined racial micro-aggressions as, quote, commonplace daily indignities whether intentional or unintentional that communicate racial slights and insults toward people of color. Could you just briefly just give us an example of what you're thinking about here?

SUE: Well, the example you gave about asking me - and it's happened to me many times - where I was born and answering them by saying that I was born in Portland, Oregon and having the person persist in saying, no, where were you really born? The underlying message here is that I am a perpetual alien in my own country. And what - that's one of the themes of micro-aggressions, that they have a hidden disparaging, denigrating, invalidating message.

MARTIN: In fact, you know, we asked our listeners for their experiences with this. And it probably won't surprise you, Professor, that we received hundreds of responses on Facebook in a very short period of time. This is one from Calila (ph) in New Haven, Connecticut.

CALILA: After presenting to a crowd of about 300 people, a woman came up to me and said, you're so articulate. You speak so well. I wanted to say, lady, I have a PhD. I've been teaching for over 10 years, and I used to teach at an Ivy League university. Of course I speak well. But I really wanted to ask, do you mean I speak well for a black person?

MARTIN: Well, you know, this is classic, right? This is one of those things that actually even was something that was discussed during the first - Barack Obama's first presidential campaign.

SUE: That's right.

MARTIN: So how do you - a lot of people still feel like, what's your problem? I mean, this is a compliment. Why are you mad? What's the issue?

SUE: Well, indeed, what's the issue? And this is what makes micro-aggression so difficult to comprehend. On the surface, there is a different message. I'm complimenting you. I want to know where you're coming from. But underneath, there is what we in the field call the meta-communication that undermines this.

And the meta-communication is this black woman that's saying that the person complimenting them is surprised that they can be bright, intelligent because that's not the way black Americans are and that you're an exception. And that allows a person to hold onto the stereotype that African-Americans are unintelligent, inarticulate and all the negatives that go with that. But they are not aware of this. And this is the thing that makes micro-aggression so difficult to deal with. It's invisible to the person delivering it.

MARTIN: Why do you think it matters for the person who is receiving it?

SUE: Well, all of our studies on the impact of micro-aggressions suggest that they assail the mental health of the recipient. There's greater degrees of loneliness, anger, depression, anxiety, lower sense of psychological well-being.

We have also found that micro-aggressions tend to affect problem-solving ability of the individuals in classrooms, work productivity goes down and earlier you were talking about health differences that people who are recipients of greater amounts of micro-aggressions tend to have poorer physical health. They are likely to have high blood pressure, extreme vigilance that they have to deal with in terms of their autonomic nervous system.

MARTIN: I want to share another story from a listener named Sarah (ph) in Washington, D.C. Here's what she had to say.

SARAH: I've often been told I don't look like a lesbian. There's an assumption that I'm supposed to look like the stereotypical lesbian, and I'm doing something wrong by keeping my hair the way I do or dressing the way I do.

MARTIN: I have to tell you, Professor, we heard a whole array of stories about - from women who were told that they were too pretty to be gay or too pretty to be disabled or overweight. And I just wanted to ask you about that.

SUE: Well, this is - you know, one of the things that we discovered is that - my original work and research dealt with racial micro- aggressions. As we got into it, and the concept of micro-aggressions caught on, we discovered that almost any marginalized group in our society can be the object of micro-aggressions, whether it be gender micro-aggressions, sexual orientation micro-aggressions or disability micro-aggressions.

Micro-aggressions have similar psychological dynamics, but that they differ in terms of the themes that are going. For example, women are more likely to get themes of sexual objectification, LGBTQ individuals are likely to experience themes of sinfulness, and these are underlying messages that tear at the heart of the racial, cultural, gender, sexual orientation identity of the person.

MARTIN: We had a number of comments from Asian-Americans or people who - saying things like - well, here's one from a woman named Maria Wong (ph) who recently moved from Ohio to Boston, Massachusetts. And one of the startling things was that - I often get, oh, it's because you're Asian.

And this was attributed to things like - for her weight or her thinness or her good grades. And she says, you know, it feels to her like a downplay of actual achievements that she's worked for. And then, of course, as you mentioned, the ever-popular, where are you from? And a number of our Asian-American correspondents mentioned that. So let's wheel around on the time that we have left - is - what do you do? I mean, what do you do about this...

SUE: Well...

MARTIN: ...Because, as you know, a lot of times if you call it out, people think you're being oversensitive.

SUE: That's precisely...

MARTIN: How do you recommend people - yeah...

SUE: That's precisely the problem because people are good, moral - experience themselves as good, moral, decent individuals, they find it very difficult to accept the fact that they have been engaged in a discriminatory action or may harbor racial biases that they have. And it violates, in some sense, their sense of being a good person.

It is creating an environment where people can honestly dialogue about these racial issues that really gets at the heart of dealing with it. The other thing is a preventative approach rather than remedial. If we had a school system, a pre-K-12 school system that was truly multicultural in its focus, then a lot of these micro-aggressions would disappear.

MARTIN: Well, the other point that you made is that you found that some people are already doing this already. You find that students of color make eye contact with each other, for example, when they hear these kinds of comments being made. And one of the things that you're saying is, yes, it did happen, and you're not misreading what's going on here.

SUE: That's right.

MARTIN: Another way of saying that would be, you're not crazy.

SUE: Yes.

MARTIN: So Derald Sue is a professor of psychology - I know, technical term, you're not crazy. Derald Sue is a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College. He was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Professor Sue, thank you for speaking with us.

SUE: Thank you.

MARTIN: We received many powerful stories about micro-aggressions from our listeners. We would still like to hear from you if you would like to share. Email your thoughts to us at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.