"Where are you from?"
"No, where are you really from?"
"Markham and Sheppard"
"No, where are you really, really from?"
"52 Green Apple Way. Why?"
I used to think that it was my Scarborough accent that gave me away. And wondered why people who grow up in different parts of the City of Toronto had different accents…. and then I realized what they were really asking me. Despite having come to Canada when I was four and spending my entire life in Toronto, the message -- intentional or not -- is that I am not Canadian. Because of my skin colour, I'm a foreigner.
On March 21st, 1960, police opened fire on peaceful demonstrators against apartheid in Sharpeville, South Africa, killing 69 people. Today, March 21st is recognized as the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.
Many people associate racism with explicit behaviours. Incidents like spray painting a swastika on a Mosque, or shouting slurs at a Black man on the street, or attacking a woman wearing a hijab would all be considered racist.
But racism comes in other forms that we don't necessarily see or understand very well. Racial micoraggressions as well as structural and systemic racism operate in more subtle ways, but are more pervasive and can be just as, if not more, harmful. In this blog post I'll explore racial micoraggressions. Next time, I'll examine structural and systemic racism.
Dr. Chester Pierce coined the term "microaggressions" in the 1970s. Dr. Derald Sue, a professor at Columbia University, has built on Dr. Pierce's original ideas and defines racial microaggressions as:
"the everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them."
Microaggressions may be verbal (e.g. asking a racialized person where they are from) or they may be non-verbal (e.g. clutching one's purse as a Black man enters the elevator) or environmental (e.g. Indigenous mascots of sports teams).
Dr. Sue identified three types of microaggressions:
Micro-assaults: These are conscious and intentional discriminatory actions, such as using racial epithets or displaying White supremacist symbols, such as the confederate flag or swastikas, or Indigenous mascots of sports teams.
Micro-insults: Micro-insults are verbal and nonverbal communications that are subtly rude or demean a person's racial heritage or identity. One example would be an employee who asks a co-worker of colour how they got their job, suggesting that they are not qualified for the job, but instead got it as part of an affirmative action program or quota system. There are also some micro-insults which may appear to be a compliment on the surface but contain a negative message, such as, "You speak really good English for a Korean."
Micro-invalidations: These are communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of colour. For instance, asking someone where they are from, conveying the message that they are considered foreigners. This could also include telling someone, "I don't think of you as Black" or "But you're one of the good Muslims". This invalidates or insults the person's culture.
Microaggressions have power because they are so subtle. They often come from unconscious biases and the person acting on them may not even realize the impact of their behaviour or words. So even people welcoming of diversity and committed to equity may unknowingly convey microaggressions. Getting someone who hasn't experienced racial microaggressions to understand the impact of their behaviour or comment may be difficult. As Dr. Sue says:
"It's a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it's scary to them. It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color."
While they may seem to be trivial in nature, the subtlety of the microaggressions may make them more harmful than overt racism. Because they are so subtle the recipient of the microaggression may walk away from an interaction feeling bad, but not fully recognizing the cause. They may feel perpetually excluded or like a second-class citizen and not know why. When they do notice the microaggression, they may not want to challenge the person because it may make them look petty or look like they have a "chip on their shoulder." And it may also be psychologically draining to constantly respond to racial microaggressions.
Microaggressions may also reflect unconscious biases that impact how racialized people are viewed and the decisions that are made about them, impacting all aspects of their lives. So, it is not just about whether a woman clutches her purse when a Black man approaches, but whether she would hire him, whether he would be seen as an engaged parent when he comes in for parent-teacher interviews, and whether he would be stopped on the street by police.
Dr. Sue says that the way to combat microaggressions is to make the invisible visible and offers the following suggestions:
The following resources will help you better understand microaggressions:
Why microaggressions are like mosquito bites
(Watch this short video. Note it contains a few swear words.)
I, Too, Am Harvard
This photo campaign by Black students highlights the microaggressions they experience at Harvard University.
Derald Wing Sue on microaggression, the implicit racism minorities endure
Globe and Mail
Addressing Racial Microaggressions in our Schools