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Why Would You Say That? Confronting Microaggressions

In recent days, people have been having more open honest conversations about racial inequality. I have observed these conversations have found that there seems to be a key underlying theme.

Many still perceive racism and racial inequality to be incredibly overt experiences or as psychologists called them, “microassaults”. This is the view that racism is very conscious and involves intentional acts of shouting racial slurs and exhibiting violent behaviour. Of course, this is a key type of racism that many face in our current society, however that’s not the only form of racism. Something we don’t seem to talk much about is microaggressions. The term was first proposed by psychologists in the 1970’s and it has since been updated. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership". This can be intentional or unintentional and is directed at underrepresented groups. It can often be unclear to both the victim and the person making the comment. Regardless, it’s impact is still dangerous. So let’s give you some real life examples that I have experienced and many of my friends and family have experienced on a frequent basis. Many people of colour are often assumed not to be “from” the country they are currently in. Examples of some microaggressions around this include: “Where are you from, no... where are you REALLY from?” “You speak English really well!” “Where were you born?” By saying these statements, you are implying that this person is a foreigner in their own country, they are not a national citizen and don’t “look” like they belong. You’ll find that people of colour will hear this statement frequently in comparison to their White counterparts. I’ve heard some of these statements all my life, and have come to accept that I’ll never be truly seen as British. Colour evasiveness is also a huge issue when many marginalised voices speak about their personal experiences of racial inequality. Examples include: “There is only one race, the human race” “I don’t care if you’re black, brown, blue or purple!...” “When I look at you, I don’t see colour” The message that these statements give is that you are denying a person of colour’s racial or cultural experiences. These statements indicate that you do not want to acknowledge race. However, the aim is not to become colour blind. Colour blindness implies that race based differences don’t matter or exist which ignores the issues of racial inequalities. Another key microaggression which I’m sure we’ve all heard of before is the denial of individual racism. “I’m not racist. I have Black friends.” I don’t have a huge amount to say on this other than, no, you are not immune to racism just because you have Black friends or know people of colour. This is an excuse to deny racism and racial biases. Many people of colour have become so used to hearing these types of statements. The long term impact of them can be incredibly damaging on one’s identity and mental health. Particularly as we are constantly questioning what just happened when we hear these statements directed at us. It also means victims are constantly trying to prove they belong in a non-aggressive way as this will be faced with stereotyped judgements. These statements are not incredibly overt, but they are still painful and rooted in racism. If you have read this thinking that you are guilty of these microaggressions, then you’ve already achieved the first step, acknowledgement. Self-awareness is always the first step to combatting long term issues that may have become habits or seemed unintentional.

As Psychologist Teran puts it, “commiting a microaggression is not indicative that we're bad people - it’s more indicative of a society where the dominant world view tends to be Eurocentric, masculine and heterosexual." About the author: Priyanka is a Learning and Development Specialist and Organisational Psychologist, passionate about creating impactful change through developing learning solutions to combat racial inequality, sharing personal experiences as a woman of colour, and working to become the best ally possible for marginalised voices. Sources:

Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation Book by Derald Wing Sue

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