A Thousand Tiny Cuts

Today my black teenage son was walking with his white friend. They saw a white lady with a BLACK LIVES MATTER t-shirt on. My son smiled at her and said “Hi. I like your t-shirt”. She looked at him, slightly grimaced and turned away. Can you say MICRO AGGRESSION???

You are probably thinking what is a micro aggression? I can give you the textbook definition of micro aggressions but like most definitions, are pretty impersonal. So let’s shut our textbooks for a moment and explore what a micro aggression is. Micro- being small or smaller than small. Aggression being the act of attacking. These aggressions are directed at people and are sometimes so slight they can be considered irrelevant unless you are on the receiving end. They are verbal or behavioral indignities whether intentional or unintentional.

We all have been on the receiving end of insults. No one likes to be insulted. It elevates our cortisol levels and can make us feel insecure and awful. One of the differences between micro aggressions and blatant insults is that one can be couched as a compliment and the other is obvious. Insults can be directed at us as individuals in a specific situation like making a mistake and someone insulting us for our judgement or competence. Whereas micro aggressions are specific to race, gender or a group affiliation. I want to reinforce this… Micro aggressions are not directed at a person individually. They are directed towards a person because they belong to a group and assumptions are made about the group and therefore assumptions are made about the person. These assumptions are known as stereotypes.

I hear micro aggressions quite often and I have delivered them too.

They are really common mistakes and usually come from a place of being complimentary. I live in an area with a large Asian population. I overheard a white enthusiastic parent say to an Asian American parent that they speak really good English. The white parent thought they were giving a compliment to the Asian- American parent. But the Asian-American parent’s face had a somewhat deflated smile. Unbeknownst to the complementary white parent the underlying, hidden message she is imparting is “You are not a true American and you don’t look like what an American should look like.” The Asian American woman receives the message as “I am perceived as an alien in my own country.”

I remember being in a race and equity meeting with an Asian man who is married to a Black woman. He was describing a black man he met as “articulate.” I was thrown off by this comment. Here is an Asian man, that is deeply punched into social justice, anti-racism and is married to a black woman. With all of his education and racial awareness he didn’t realize he was making a micro aggressive comment. So if he can make one anyone can. He was complimenting this adult Black man by describing him as articulate which on the surface sounds great. But let’s unpack this. What I want to ask him is, “Does he feel it is unusual for black people to be articulate?” It seems that by specifically stating this black person is articulate is basically saying not all black people are articulate and finding a black person that speaks well is unusual. It essentially reinforces the stereotype that black people are not well spoken.

Here is a micro aggression I recently made. My son’s school is internationally diverse. One of his good friends is Chinese and Yemeni. The boy’s father has a Yemeni name that I have repeatedly mispronounced. He finally got to the point where he gave me a simplified more “American” version of his name. I realized that I was perpetuating his foreign status and by not making the effort to remember his true name I was expecting him to assimilate. Basically the message I was sending him was he wasn’t worthy enough for me to remember his true name. Is this a huge explicit racist act? No but it sends a message that I don’t care enough to make him feel part of the community. I also think how hard it must be to go to a foreign country to live and have people expect you to assimilate and erase your own culture and name. Complicated but really I need to step up, stop being lazy and remember his name and honor him as a human being.

Now you may be thinking that I am making a big deal out of small things, especially if it comes from a complimentary place or is unintentional. You may think that people on the receiving end of micro aggressive comments should stop being so sensitive, take it as a compliment and get some grit. Or maybe people should be less reactive when they hear a comment shrouded in kindness yet hiding intentional or unintentional insults. Maybe they can just be tougher?

Hmmm.

Well at a certain point I have to question how much one can take if it is happening on a daily basis due to race, gender or belonging to a group. And because it happens so often there is a more acute awareness when it is happening. I am keenly aware when I experience a sexist micro aggression. Like when I am with a group of men and one says how nice I look this evening then turns away and closes me out of the conversation. As a woman I know when I have been slighted even if the person is intentionally trying to be complimentary. Just like a Black person knows when they are being slighted by a comment or behavior. Here are a few examples of micro aggressions towards black people. A host at a restaurant seats the white couple before the black couple even though the black couple arrived first. A black person takes a seat on a bus and a non-black person moves across the aisle to avoid the black person. Or when a Black woman’s boss tells her “Wearing your hair “natural” is not the best idea in a professional setting”.

Basically micro aggressions are small psychological jabs sometimes from a q-tip and sometimes with a knife. These small jabs can add up and start tearing the victim down. Which is messed up! African Americans experience micro aggressions from the moment they are exposed to the world. It is a thousand tiny cuts that are inflicted upon them continuously. They are constantly having to address these daily wounds. Which is emotionally consuming. Unfortunately the message delivered by society is Black people are lesser than and being dehumanized by these micro attacks is not a big deal. Personally, if I was treated as less than others everyday, I would be an angry dysfunctional person. But I am not treated less than everyday. I am a very privileged white woman.

So let’s explore some more micro aggressions that are closer to home and school.

In schools the awareness of racism is slowly being elevated and confronted. Which is great but micro aggressions may fly under the radar compared to explicit racism and may not always be obvious. You may not even realize the teachers or staff at your child’s school are acting in a micro aggressive manor. And if they have not been trained about micro aggressions they may not realize it either. Here are some common examples.

Scheduling testing or project due dates on religious or cultural holidays so some students miss out or feel pressured to finish early. Assuming students that learn differently are special needs.

Using the term “illegals” to reference undocumented students.

Having students engage in required reading where the protagonists are always white.

Assuming all students have access to and are proficient in the use of computers and applications for communications about school activities and academic work.

Continuing to misuse pronouns even after a student, transgender or not, indicates their preferred gender pronoun.

How about your teenage daughter? She is in a new relationship and her boyfriend says to her “I can’t believe you got an “A” on your math test”. Not bad for a girl” or “My girlfriend is so pretty. Can you believe she is a science major.” Somewhat innocuous but really they are underhanded insults to girls and women. Reinforcing the stereotypes that girls are not good in math or science and they are expected to be pretty. This can also indicate that if girls do like science they are not attractive. If these comments are made everyday by the boyfriend, it can get really tiring. Fortunately your daughter can leave this unhealthy relationship. If you are African American you can’t just wipe away your skin color to escape daily racial insults.

It can be hard to know ones boundaries when you are playfully bantering or “kidding” around. It is one of those things you have to learn as you engage with society. My kids sometimes get really sensitive when they are “joking” around. And sometimes they don’t. I find for myself, I know who I can push or tease and who I can’t. Like when I chuckle and tell my husband he can use my wrinkle cream whenever he wants and the kids laugh and say “Ooo, you just got burned!” It is a way of showing my closeness or trust with them. Of course I would never want to hurt them or a friend so it can be touchy and I need to be sensitive and aware of my friends boundaries. Micro aggressions are not playful banter.

If you are the one dishing out the micro aggressions and not being conscious of it you can unknowingly inflict real damage. And may be surprised when you get a response from the victim that is really defensive. And they should get defensive. As always on this journey of coming to terms with stereotypes, micro aggressions and racism we need to raise our awareness.

The best practice to prevent saying things that are micro aggressive is to PRACTICE. While you are alone, take time during the day to see how often you mentally stereotype a person. You can do this while watching media or while you are in public. Imagine yourself saying something that you think is a compliment. Before you say something that could be insulting, STOP, think and ask yourself:

Will this demean someone?

Why would this demean someone?

Am I sincerely trying to uplift this person?

Can I connect with this person and will this comment help or hinder?

Sounds like a lot of work and…it…is.

If someone has told you that what you said is a micro aggression and you didn’t realize it I am pretty sure you had an emotional response. Maybe you felt defensive or embarrassed. Maybe you were shocked. It can be a real eye opener if you think you are showering a glowing compliment and the person responds as if insulted. As always when you are learning something new, take a moment to absorb it. Listen. Be humble. Inquire and learn.

And a sincere apology is always welcome. It diffuses the situation, shows the other person that you care and allows both of you an opportunity to come to a new understanding.

  • In the podcast, the second half has an interview with my nine year old son about micro aggressions. Insightful, charming and easy to do with any kid.

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Yvette M. Brown

Yvette M. Brown

White mom with two beautiful black boys