“You’re not really Asian”

In today’s post we want to echo the photography project on microaggressions that photographer Kiyun at Fordham University published on the Internet (see this article on BuzzFeed) and the work that a group called The Microaggressions Project is doing on the social networks (website, Facebook and tumblr). As a concept, microaggressions have gained presence in how we look at present-day racism in the last few years. While much research has been done on this form of racism since the early 1970s, the term is now spreading and helping raise awareness at a larger societal level.

But, what are microaggressions? Microaggressions have been defined as “the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people. Microaggressions often times appear to be a compliment but contain a metacommunication or hidden insult to the target groups in which it is delivered.” The areas into which the study of microaggressions has looked has expanded as the concept has been applied to more contexts.

The early studies on microaggressions focused on verbal and non-verbal forms of racial discrimination, particularly of African Americans and Asian Americans in the United States. However, it soon included microaggressions based also on gender (more frequent on women, but also on men), sexual orientation and other minorities (socioeconomic, ethnic or cultural minorities). Another area which is becoming more important is the study of discrimination by age, sometimes with statements related to how tech-savvy those of older generation should be, or the role of juniors in an organization. Other physical traits that may seem less sensitive such as height can feed into this practice of unconscious aggression.

Microaggressions are more widespread than some may believe; they can occur in school settings, corporations, groups of friends, media, etc.

Two examples of microaggression statements from the photo project by Kiyun at Fordham University (nortonism.tumblr.com)

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, microaggressions can be categorized in three types: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. Microaggressions can be harmful and create hostile environments for students in schools or employees in organizations. They can also contribute to lower attainment or productivity, structural inequity and escalate to overt discrimination.

“Microaggressions are outside of the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.”

Understanding how we all can be perpetrators is very relevant, especially when we work in intercultural and diverse contexts. However, understanding how microaggressions occur, how they affect individuals and how they can be treated is a complex task. Knowing about microaggressions is only the first step. If we want to be effective and not contribute to racist and unfair representations of groups other than ours, we need to be interculturally skilled and sensitive to the impact that our actions and words have on others. Being skilled and sensitive is a task that we need to work on every day. Remember that microaggressions are not only racial, they can also be against gender, sexual orientation or other physical, cultural or identity traits.

Some examples… 

Here are some examples of microaggressions collected at the University of Denver (from this link). Check out the bottom section of the link for suggestions on how to address microaggressions in the classroom.

  • Continuing to mispronounce the names of students after being corrected, or not bothering to pronounce the name correctly in the first place.
  • Hosting discussions in class that place students from groups who may represent the minority opinion in a difficult position
  • Making assumptions about students and their backgrounds:
    • Assuming all Latino students speak Spanish:
      • “Can you translate this for me, Hector?”
    • Assuming all Asians are good at math
  • Assuming all students fit the traditional student profile and are proficient in the use of computers.
    • “I will post the class event on Facebook, as I assume that all of you are on Facebook.”

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