When you encounter a new person, where is the first place that you look? People will often answer places like face, hair, clothes, or things like that. Many people believe that they look at different facial features, like the eyes when approaching an unfamiliar person. While these may be the first places we consciously look, the first places that we’re aware of ourselves looking, it is also common for us to subconsciously look for the hand of an approaching stranger to check for a threat. The way a person’s hands are as they approach is a small message that indicates important information to our brain, as an immediate assessment, is this person friend or foe?
We send out these kinds of small messages all the time, sometimes very intentionally, and sometimes unintentionally. If a person needs to get off of a crowded bus, they may begin to make small movements that others interpret as signs of impending departure. They may put away a book or a phone; settle bags on their lap in a position easy to lift and walk with; or in the winter, they may slide on gloves or hats. These are small preparations we might make to leave the bus and to signal to others our intention as well. We may also signal unintentionally; a person feeling defensive or protective may cross their arms, position their body away from the person they are speaking to, and/or furrow their eyebrows. In both of these scenarios, the person is employing micromessages.
Micromessages are small, often unconscious behaviors which communicate subtle messages to those around us and are always being sent and received. These small gestures can communicate a wealth of information about ourselves and the ways we are feeling.
Microaggressions: One type of micromessage is a microaggression. Microaggressions can be understood as a micromessage that creates a culture of exclusion, disrespect and feelings of unwelcome or a lack of belonging. To better understand microaggressions, watch the video below.
How Microaggressions Are Like Mosquito Bites
Microaggressions deliver hidden messages that can be intentional or unintentional. They are not examples of people searching for something to be upset about, but rather, signals the underlying worldview of the person sending out the message. For instance, catcalling or making degrading jokes signals a belief about women or the target group and the importance, or lack thereof, of their comfort. Pointing out an individual as exceptional for their social group, such as by telling someone they’re a credit to their race, contains within it an underlying assumption about the characteristics, worth, or values of that social group as a whole. Ascribing to the belief that race is unimportant or that someone doesn’t see race, may feel unbiased but actually serves to deny the experiences of entire groups of people and generalize the speaker’s experience out on to the rest of the world.
Interpersonal interactions or environmental cues that communicate rudeness, insensitivity, slights, and insults that demean a person’s racial, gender, sexual orientation, or group identity/ heritage
Interpersonal or environmental cues that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and experiences of a person or group, resulting in a direct attack or denial of the experiential realities of a socially devalued group
Conscious, biased beliefs or attitudes that are held by individuals and intentionally expressed or acted out overtly or covertly toward a marginalized person or group
"You're a credit to your race"
"You’re so good at math for a girl”
Images that objectify or sexualize women in places of employment
“I don’t see race”
“There’s only one race, the human race”
"I don’t care if you identity as a boy a girl or a mermaid”
Using slurs or degrading language
Examples of Microaggressions Assuming normality or dominant culture/identity
- Erases the experience of people who do not hold dominant culture identity
- Ex. When a professor says “We’re all American here,” it denies the experience and erases any international or transnational students in the room.
Denying personal bias
- Puts down an entire social group, even if it’s done so to lift up an individual
- Ex. Saying “You’re so articulate” to a BIPOC person assumes that others are not articulate, and so this person is noteworthy.
Myth of meritocracy
- Invalidates the experience of that person
- When someone says “I don’t see color,” they deny the significance of race.
- Denies historical and contemporary power imbalances and structures
- The idea of pulling oneself up by your bootstraps ignores historical imbalances of power that provide some groups an advantage. Things like being able to own property rather than being property was a right reserved for white men for much of history, giving white men and families the ability to accumulate generational wealth. Similarly, practices like redlining kept families racial segregated from each other even as the government was passing laws to require segregation. This practice continues to impact neighborhoods and, since schools are partially funded through property taxes, has implications for school funding at the K12 level as well.
Using offensive/biased language
- Creates a culture of acceptable or expected ignorance
- Only certain people’s narratives are often included in K12 education, creating a culture in which it is not only accepted but expected to not know or know less about the histories of other people.
Impacts of Microaggressions
Microaggressions have deep and lasting impacts on both individuals but also on environments. At the individual level, microaggressions may lead us to doubt ourselves and the interaction. There is extra cognitive work that is required when we have to question if we interpreted something correctly, what someone may have meant by their comment, or simply, if we heard them say what we think we did.
Even if a microaggression is relatively clear to the person impacted, there is still additional labor done to discern if we should say something or intervene.
- Will doing so lead to a teachable interaction or will it make things worse?
- If it leads to a teachable interaction, do I have the capacity right now to teach?
- Am I invested enough in this person to use some of my capacity teaching them?
- How many other people will I be doing the same thing with today?
- If there’s the possibility it may make things worse, there is a whole different set of thought processes that may engage.
- Will it make it worse? Will they think I’m overreacting? Could there be formal repercussions to them thinking I’m overreacting? Informal? Will they be able to retaliate in some capacity?
Not everyone responds to microaggressions the same way, and this isn’t intended to be an exhaustive list of possible responses. Rather, it may provide insight into the experience of another person or validation if you see some of your experience listed here.
If you pan out from the individual, there are also environmental impacts to microaggressions. They create environments that feel hostile or intimidating to groups with less access to power. These kinds of environments can also trigger stress responses, which have both physical and emotional impacts on the body. They can lead to feelings of isolation, which, like stress, has incredibly deep impacts on the body and implications for health and wellness. Continued microaggressions can also creed a mistrust of systems, places, and people. If a microaggression is brought to the attention of others over and over again and never changes, it will make any apology less and less meaningful.
Microaffirmations can be understood as the other side of micromessaging. Microaffirmations can be understood as a micromessage that creates a culture of inclusion, respect, welcome, and belonging. Similar to microaggressions, they can occur at the individual level as well as the environmental level. We can think of these as small actions to create more inclusive organizations and interactions. There are, unfortunately, no quick fixes or exhaustive solutions for microaggressions, however there are some good places to start.
Some examples of microaffirmations might be statements like:
- Active listening: This can look like eye contact, posture, summarizing statements, and open inquiry or questions.
- Recognizing and validating experiences, even if we do not share them with the speaker: This can look as simple as starting from a place of belief. I believe that you may have experiences I don’t have and that you are more of an expert on your life than I am.
- Affirming emotion: Rather than questioning, denying, or belittling the emotion someone is expressing, affirming those feelings can open up conversation and validate the experience they are talking about.
- Expressing care about a person or situation: This can look like meeting another person where their priorities are. While a situation may not feel noteworthy to you, you can still validate that it feels important to them.
- Recognizing and applauding the work of others: This can look as simple as noticing the achievements of those who may not feel as though they are seen.
- “Thank you for sharing this with me.”
- “I’m sorry that’s happening right now.”
- “Let me help you get to the right place.”
No matter how we try, it is important to acknowledge that we may all misstep from time to time. When we do, being intentional about how we apologize and repair harm can be key to maintaining a positive interpersonal relationship. One place to begin a meaningful apology is in acknowledging what has occurred with humanness and vulnerability as well as opening up a space for individuals to talk. In conversations around harm, it is important to be mindful of who is being centered. Is the emphasis, care, and attention of the conversation resting with the feelings of the person who intentionally or unintentionally caused hurt or with the person who has been hurt? Once a conversation has been opened, try to encourage individuals to take responsibility for the hurt they may have caused without making excuses for the behavior. Finally, it is important for the person who caused hurt to change their behavior moving forward and, hopefully, reflect on where that behavior is rooted in their social identities, socialization, or biases.
To align with the iterative nature of learning on this topic, below is a reflective question.
Consider a time when you felt particularly seen, heard, and understood in a hard conversation.