A microaggression is, in theory, a form of unintended discrimination. Many people, including people of color, women, and other underrepresented groups, might argue that microaggressions are sometimes more insidious. The aggressor may truly not know the impact of their words, but sometimes it’s more cunning and manipulative.
Microaggressions are often best understood when they are perpetrated against people of color because it happens so often. These include when someone is asked where they are from because they appear “exotic.” Touching a black woman’s hair without permission or commenting when her hairstyle looks different is another example. Presuming that an individual speaks for everyone of their race or ethnicity is also common. Stating that someone of color is eloquent or doesn’t seem [insert race here] is a well-known microaggression. People who claim to be colorblind or those who “don’t pay attention to gender” are often prime microaggressors.
Women are also often on the receiving end of microaggressions. These examples might not seem like a big deal but they’ve made me instantly cringe and feel like the aggressor was attempting to undervalue me.
Since I entered the workforce, people have consistently referred to me as girl, kid, or kiddo. As a 22 year old it was easier to brush this off but as a 30 year old, it’s far less palatable. In fact, it happened last week at a high profile event in Washington, DC. I’m originally from the south so I understand that women are often referred to as “girls” far beyond what should be considered appropriate, but this is one microaggression we need to do away with. Once a young woman enters the workforce, it’s inappropriate and offensive to refer to her as a girl. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a male colleague referred to as a boy.
Another example is when people choose a name for me. Professionally, I go by Elizabeth. Personally, I go by Bizi (since childhood when my brother couldn’t pronounce my name…thanks Morgan). I am absolutely fine with people calling me by either name. However, people often decide on their own that my name is Liz. I simply don’t respond to that name because it is not my name. I often have to outright correct people especially when they continually call me Liz. No one else gets to decide what my moniker will be. Again, it seems petty but our names are intensely personal identifiers.
I’ve also had my credentials disregarded, perhaps because I’m a social worker and others with degrees in medicine or law “deserve” (or demand) to have their credentials permanently etched after their name. I know women with doctoral degrees who are consistently referred to as Ms. or Mrs. instead of Dr. and rightfully push back when this mistake is made.
Appearance obsession is also a classic microaggression. This one is interestingly committed by both men and women. The intention is probably different but the outcome is the same. When I walk into a meeting I’m always amused by how often women approach one another and immediately compliment each other on some aspect of their appearance. I like your purse, earrings, dress, shoes, lipstick, etc. There’s not anything necessarily wrong with that admiration but a professional interaction shouldn’t be limited to just that. When men comment on appearance, it often takes on another meaning and can be intensely uncomfortable. It can also be a needless distraction for professional women who work hard to be taken seriously.
As you can see, microaggressions are subtle and sometimes difficult to address head on. The aggressor may or may not understand why their actions are offensive or hurtful. If that is the case, that’s why it’s important to correct them and call out their behavior. Microaggressions aren’t micro in their impact on individuals and groups. They become an amalgamation of disrespect and can be truly harmful.