Small day-to-day frustrations, such anger, disappointment, and dislike for insignificant things, can affect our emotional well-being and physical health more than the big problems in life, as a study by the University of Houston found. The problem is that these small frustrations accumulate until they saturate us and break our psychological balance. We are completely overwhelmed. The same is true for microaggressions in everyday life.
What are microaggressions?
Aggressions are harmful behaviors, generally intentional, against another person in order to hurt him. Identification of physical assaults is simple, identification of psychological aggressions is more complex because they hide behind more subtle behaviors, attitudes or words.
Microaggressions, by definition, are small, almost unconscious acts that we carry out daily and to which we do not give much importance, but their constant dripping ends up having a negative impact on the person attacked.
They surge when we make derogatory acts or comments – which are generally socially accepted – but which promote stereotypes or generate stigma about a person. Racist, sexist and classist comments are an example of microaggressions in everyday life, but there are many more.
Not sitting next to someone on the subway because of their looks, interrupting women more than men when they speak because we think they have nothing interesting to say, thinking that someone is less intelligent because they have a different racial origin than ours, believing that those who belong to a more disadvantaged social class are second-class citizens are examples of microaggressions in everyday life.
From direct attack to covert offense, the types of microaggressions
There are two types of microaggressions, according to Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist from Columbia University born in the United States, but of Asian origin, so that he has suffered these microinsults and offenses firsthand:
• Open microaggressions. They are direct attacks, words or acts that are intended to deliberately hurt or make the other person feel bad.
• Covert microaggressions. They are camouflaged assaults. Whoever commits them does not see any bad intention because he is the victim of stereotypes and prejudices that he reinforces through these attacks.
The problem with microaggressions is that, unlike hate speech, they are very difficult to detect because are based on socially shared prejudices. Many times they are not manifested verbally, but can be apparently harmless small actions. Sometimes they can even hide behind a compliment.
That subtle character of microaggressions does not mitigate its negative impact on those who suffer them, but rather makes them even more damaging because are more difficult to fight and eradicate. In this way, microaggressions replicate and become so common on a day-to-day basis that we fail to understand the true magnitude of the damage they cause to victims.
Why are microaggressions harmful?
There are those who think that microaggressions are not that bad. They think that the problem is not the “aggressor” but the “victim” who is too sensitive or takes things too seriously. However, it is necessary to put ourselves in the place of the person who is suffering these microaggressions on a daily basis.
Sue, for example, says that many times, after giving a lecture, students approach him and not only congratulate him for the content of the class but also for his perfect English. Those kinds of comments, which are repeated over and over, make him feel like a foreigner in his native country.
A series of experiments conducted at Princeton University revealed that when a person suffers microaggressions in the context of a job interview, they make more mistakes, which becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, limiting their chances of accessing the position.
The problem with microaggressions is that they start creating a snowball that little by little becomes an avalanche. A subtle comment, a small gesture, an insignificant act are transformed into something greater that ends up making the person feel different, strange or even inferior. Thus, microaggressions end up causing invisible wounds that affect self-esteem, mental health and the sense of inclusion of people who do not meet certain social standards.
In fact, it is not unusual for a person who is systematically object of microaggressions to end up overreacting and totally disproportionate to a simple comment or joke in bad taste. In reality, that person is not reacting to this microinsult but to all the years of microinsults that he has endured. That comment was simply the drop that spilled the glass.
How to fight microaggressions?
It is important to understand that through microaggressions we cement the stereotypes and replicate them – sometimes unconsciously – in social interactions. Microaggressions have a strong impact, both on the victim’s unconscious and on the social subconscious. Therefore, they contribute to reinforcing prejudices and denigrating certain groups. This means that they should not have a place in our interpersonal relationships.
If we suffer those microinsults, we can carry out a microintervention. In other words, do something that disarms the microaggression and educates those who have done it.
If someone says something offensive to us, it is important not to be defensive. It is important to start from the fact that no one is immune to inherited racial, sexual or gender biases. Not even us.
This means that there is no need to be angry with that person, but to educate them and make them notice these prejudices in a respectful way. Therefore, we must arm ourselves with patience and ask him exactly what he meant. We can take advantage of that moment to point out that his words hide a prejudice that can harm people.
In any case, we must be aware that one thing is what we think we believe and other what we really believe. Detecting the stereotypes and prejudices that we use when relating to others will make us more sensible and open people. In fact, getting rid of microaggressions will not only prevent us from harming other people, but it is beneficial for us too because it will allow us to interact without preconceptions, which will considerably broaden our world view.
Ortiz, A. & Tejada, N. (2017) Campaña de Mercadeo Social “Transforma la Norma: Microagresiones-Macroimpactos” Proyecto Integrador. Trabajo de Titulación: Universidad San Francisco de Quito.
Sue, D. W. (2013) Racial microaggressions and daily well-being among Asian Americans. Journal of Counseling Psychology; 60(2): 188–199.
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