As progressives, we say we’re against racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, ableism, or bigotry in any form. We don’t use bigoted language or hate speech, don’t discriminate, and are pro-equality, pro-diversity, and believe in equity for historically oppressed groups and people. We actively seek a more just world where everyone can feel liberated. This is part of what it means to be progressive and one of many things that unites us here and in the larger political landscape. I don’t think anyone who considers themselves progressive would argue with any of this, but there is a difference between theory and practice. And just because we think we’re all on the same page about where we stand when it comes to discrimination doesn’t mean we don’t have more to learn, or more work to do.
Outright bigotry is easy to identify. Someone uses a hateful slur, or relies on tired stereotypes to describe a person or group of people, or denies someone access or opportunity based on immutable traits and we recognize it right away—that’s bigotry. It’s easy to see and it’s easy to call out. But what I’ve noticed in my own circles and within myself to be murkier and more difficult to recognize and call out are microaggressions.
Microaggressions are subtle, and very often unintentional, acts of discrimination against members of a marginalized group, and they are much harder to identify and call out than outright bigotry. They can be verbal or behavioral. But they are much more common and can be just as harmful. I’ve committed microaggressions many times in my life without realizing it until much later.
There’s often a knee-jerk reaction when people point out “microaggressions” to roll eyes and dismiss it as people being oversensitive. But this is actually an important concept for all of us to grasp—it identifies a specific and common ongoing experience that people from marginalized groups constantly face and that add up over time. Recognizing microaggressions and learning to avoid them are meaningful steps everyone can and should take to be more active in fighting against bigotry and fighting for justice. The first step is realizing microaggressions are something we have all done, something we see all the time, often without even knowing it.
So how do you know it when you see it? Here are some examples of microaggressions that you’re probably familiar with.
- A clerk following a Black customer around a store.
- Telling an Asian person they must be good at math.
- Asking someone with a different ethnic background, “What are you?”
- Assuming someone is undocumented because they are Latino.
- Making comments about someone’s weight.
- Refusing to use someone’s preferred pronouns.
- Assuming a Muslim woman must wear a hijab.
- “Mansplaining” (when a man explains something, usually to a woman, in a patronizing way)
- Saying you are color blind or “all lives matter” in discussions of racism.
- Commenting on the attractiveness or appearance of a female colleague.
- Asking a trans person about whether or not they have had gender affirming surgery.
- Making jokes about Jewish people being good with money.
- Asking a disabled person if you can pray for them.
While microaggressions are more subtle than displays of outright bigotry, they are incredibly harmful, especially because they happen often—they pile up over time and cause pain and exhaustion. And they can be particularly painful when the people who express them are self-professed allies.
Here are some other microaggressions that might be less obvious:
- Dismissing a marginalized person’s experience because it sounds like you’ve experienced something similar. An example: a Black person tells you about an experience being harassed by police, and you tell them you’ve been harassed by police too so it’s not racism. It’s actually not up to the listener here to determine if something is racism; it’s the listener’s job to sympathize with the person’s experience. And while the intent to express empathy and commonality might be benign, the impact often winds up shifting the focus of the conversation away from the person expressing discomfort, and thereby derailing the original conversation.
- Assuming you know someone’s identity, background, or experience. This is something that happens all the time in the “real world”; people will assume something about a person’s identity based on how they look, act, dress, etc. But it’s even easier to accidentally do within a community like ours, where most of our users are anonymous and all we have to go off of are words and ambiguous avatars. We can’t assume we know a commenter’s race, age, sexual orientation, gender, or anything else about their identities, until someone volunteers that information.
- Applying a disproportionate amount of scrutiny or criticism to people in marginalized groups. If you find yourself continually applying more skepticism and criticism to marginalized people and the work they do than you do to others who are not marginalized, even if you think your criticism is well-founded, that is also a microaggression. One example of this would be certain men who tend to disproportionately criticize or dismiss literature by and about women and trans people. Or how authors identified as female or people of color tend to get more attacks than authors who appear to be white men.
- Denying that you have privilege because you are disadvantaged in other ways. For example, a white person denying they experience white privilege because they grew up poor, or LGBTQ. We all have myriad identities and experiences and just because you experience privilege or advantage in one space does not mean you don’t experience oppression in others. Both can be true.
Microaggressions matter a lot, and part of why I’m writing this piece is because we will soon be releasing an updated version of the Rules of the Road that includes a section on microaggressions. It will be a new entry under our “DO” section.
Recognize and avoid microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle slights, comments, gestures, and behaviors that convey implicit biases against marginalized groups and people. Microaggressive comments and behavior are often unintentional but that does not mitigate the harm to the recipient. Examples include making a comment that perpetuates stereotypes, denying or rejecting someone’s reported experience because yours is different, singling out an individual to speak on behalf of an entire marginalized group, targeting marginalized people with disproportionate criticism, and denying or minimizing the existence and extent of discriminatory beliefs, practices, and structures. Understand the detrimental impacts of microaggressive comments and behaviors when they happen and accept responsibility for taking self-corrective actions.
Part of being progressive—implied by the word itself!—means we all should be unafraid to engage in continuous self-improvement. It’s important that we as a community come together to understand what microaggressions are, how to recognize them, and how we can do better.
So what should you do if you see a microaggression here in a comment? First thing is to respond in a comment and name what you’re hearing, with the understanding that the person who committed the microaggression might not even know what they did in the first place. Microaggressions often aren’t coming from a place of bad intentions, so help the person see what they’re saying is harmful even if they didn’t intend it to be. You could say, “I really appreciate what you’ve shared in this comment, and I want to gently point out that your mention of [problematic comment] feels like XYZ.” If we see continuous microaggressions coming from any individual, or people who appear to have no intention of learning and improving when they are called out on such behavior, Moderation will step in.
What if you’re the person being called out? I’ve been called out before when I have said or done something that was a microaggression. It isn’t fun. Our first instinct is often to double down or get defensive because we didn’t intend to harm anyone. However, impact matters more than intention. It’s important to go against that defensive instinct and instead listen, even if you don’t agree, or take a step away to have some time to reflect. If possible, express some willingness to grapple with the call out. A sincere response along the lines of “I appreciate you sharing a perspective I hadn’t considered” can go a long way toward solidifying the basis for continued dialogue. No one is perfect; we all have much to learn. Your capacity to model an interest in learning can make a positive difference too. And part of actively bettering ourselves involves welcoming and sitting with discomfort at times.
This is just a general overview of microaggressions, but if you’re interested, there are many resources out there that explain the concept much better than I can. Here are just a few:
- Harvard Business Review offers good guidance on When and How to Respond to Microaggressions.
- Here is a writeup from the American Psychological Association on racial microaggressions and another with advice on confronting microaggressions.
- GLAAD featured this excellent photo project showcasing microaggressions against trans individuals.
- This Bustle article outlines some common microaggressions people with disabilities face.
This is a Creative Commons article. The original version of this article appeared here.