What qualifies as microaggression

Microaggressions - or the little daily torture

Last update: 13 August, 2020

Many call such expressions or behaviors "subtle" or "indirect", but in truth they are so-called Microaggressions. These are words or actions that have an aggressive component, but in a certain way hide or distort the aggressive content of the message. The typical example of this is someone who doesn't respond to a janitor's or secretary's greeting because they see it as a waste of time.

In most western countries, discrimination based on gender, origin, social class or beliefs is prohibited by law. But many people do not understand the meaning behind this ban, which is why they still discriminate or reject people against whom they are prejudiced. So that they don't end up in the devil's kitchen, they use micro-aggressions.

"I have the dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will be judged not by their skin color but by their character."

Martin Luther King

Sometimes these microaggressions arise subconsciously. There are well-known gestures or idioms that are shown or spoken to a person or group and that contain an aggressive component. This is the case, for example, when someone interrupts someone who is talking and does not let them finish their thoughts. You don't do that with people in a higher position. Usually you only act this way towards someone you feel superior to.

Microaggressions or high sensitivity?

Some think that what others call microaggressions are nothing more than harmless, meaningless expressions. They question the sensitivity of those who take some comments very seriously, calling them oversensitive. In social relationships in which such situations arise, there is ultimately always a certain disrespect.

But in some cases this assessment may also be correct. Not every comment that appears sexist, racist or homophobic is meant to be malicious. It can also be a cathartic way of releasing some tension. For example, telling a person with dark skin that they are “black” is not always meant in a derogatory way - and in some cases this term is also used when dark-skinned people talk to one another.

The problem with microaggressions is their system and what it is aimed at. Obviously, if such comments, jokes, or sarcastic sayings are made incessantly, the chances are higher that they will hurt the other person. A small comment might not be offensive, but hundreds of tiny tips will eventually get under your skin. This affects the self-esteem and dignity of the person concerned.

People are treated differently

Sometimes microaggressions are not made up of words. Signs of prejudice and discrimination can be seen in non-verbal language. In the early 1970s, an experiment in this regard was carried out at Princenton University (New Jersey, USA). It was directed by the sociologist Carl Word.

The experiment consisted of bringing a group of dark-skinned and fair-skinned people together to supposedly select an applicant for a job. The attitude of the HR managers to both groups was carefully examined. There were clear differences, especially in the area of ​​non-verbal communication.

It was evident that unfortunately the recruiter treated applicants differently based on their skin color, even though their job was to select the best candidates for the position. They tended to sit a little further away from the dark-skinned applicants and avoided eye contact with them more often. They were also less friendly and devoted to them less time. This is a clear example of micro-aggression.

The emotional consequences of microaggressions

This Princeton University experiment went into a second phase. During this phase, data was collected on the non-verbal signs of rejection and discrimination emanating from the interviewers. Then a group consisting of alleged applicants was formed again, which was examined again.

But this time the interviewers were trained to verbally express their disapproval, both for some dark-skinned and a few light-skinned candidates. The result was that the interviewers' micro-aggressions affected their performance. They hesitated to speak, stuttered, did not finish their sentences, and showed signs of fear towards the interviewer.

The experiment shows us that people who suffer from microaggressions tend to perform poorly and are less able to take advantage of opportunities. That puts them in a disadvantaged position, and that's only because of the prejudices of others.

As already mentioned, microaggressions are often used subconsciously and passed on to others. They almost always target vulnerable groups or minorities. It is not easy to arm yourself against them, because sometimes they go unnoticed or are too subtle to stand up against them. We shouldn't just find the microaggressions, but rather the root of the problem: our prejudices.

You might be interested in ...