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The Truth about How Microaggressions Work

Microaggression as social control

What is a microaggression really? I looked up the definition because I wanted to be sure I was clear. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it is: a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).

In thinking about it, I couldn’t come up with any extraordinary examples. And maybe that’s the point: the everyday nature of microaggressions. How they seep into conversation and under skin.

a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).

Some of the ‘ordinary,’ ones — which I’m not even sure are worth mentioning, as I’m certain we’ve all heard similar stories before — are as follows:

Adventures in microaggression

When graduating undergrad I met with a college employment advisor to talk about job prospects and how to get ready for the world of work. My advisor, who happened to be white and middle-aged, advised that I not get my hopes up about getting a white collar job, predicting that quite likely I would have to settle for a job as a waitress or secretary, and that I should take it as it would be my first post-college job, and might pay better than low-level white collar work.

Hmm. And, well. I hadn’t gone to college advisors regularly, and this advice affirmed the wisdom of that choice. Outside, I shook my head and tight-smiled. Inwardly, I raged.

They are barbs that come wrapped in feathers and bows

I did not follow the advisor’s advice when job-hunting, and neither was my self-confidence, as they say, shaken. I just thought he was an ass whose expectations for his own life had been dimmed, so why not destroy a young kid’s hopes. Everything he said to me for the rest of the session had no impact.

If he’d sought to diminish me or lessen my hopes, the opposite had occurred. My desire to succeed intensified. I was determined to seek, and get, a job that I desired.

A question of intent

Microaggressions’ power lies in the subtlety and cleverness of their design. Their ability to have you second guessing not only the sender’s intent, but yourself and your own hypersensitivity.

For they are barbs that come wrapped in feathers and bows — You speak so well. My God, Sandra, you’re so articulate — and can leave you, the recipient, doubting your conclusions, or at least questioning whether the person ‘meant’ what you think they meant.

You speak so well. My God, Sandra, you’re so articulate.

As I revisited my conversation with the counselor, I questioned whether he’d simply been well-intentioned. I was graduating with a BA in psych and planned to go to grad school but would work for a year first. Perhaps he knew the difficulty of a recent graduate obtaining a job if her degree lacked evidence of hard skills. Perhaps, like a parent, he’d meant well and was simply preparing me for the worse.

Deftness is key

Successful microaggression is deft. The sender’s message knocks you for a loop or, at minimum, destabilizes you just a teense: like compliments that waver between insult and applause. Is it, is it not? Shade in its highest form.

Later, of course, I heard similar stories from other Blacks and Browns who’d attended other colleges but encountered the same manner of Jerk: different clothes and gender, but the message echoed similar.

Passive-aggressive fairy tales

I can remember at least two occasions when I wrote essays in middle and high school, and the teachers, both white, were so impressed they wondered if I’d lifted some of my paper from somewhere else. No, I hadn’t, I replied. Shaking my head; puzzled by why they’d think that. I was an excellent English student. They knew that. If you took an excerpt from somewhere else, you cited it. I knew that. ‘It was just so good; so well-written,’ they said. I vacillated between anger and confusion, consoling myself with the smug satisfaction that they thought I was that good a writer. Was it that they were so impressed with the quality of my work or that they simply didn’t think I had the ability to deliver such work?

Numbness as protection and preservation

With most microaggressions, you learn to develop the epidermis of an elephant or a snake — get tough or shed. Anything else. Is. Exhausting.

Beyond exhaustion, acknowledging every microaggression, would decimate one’s mental health. To preserve sanity we dismiss or disregard, let it fall like water off a black duck’s back.

Microaggressions that fray my nerves

Word is (not) bond — or, I don’t believe you

Working out in the community gym, putting my car and gym keys on the shelf. I’m the only one there. A woman comes in — turns out she’s from the management office — asks if the gym key is mine. I tell her it is. She asks if I’m sure. I tell her I am. She says that one of the residents called to say she’d lost her key. I smile and repeat that it is indeed mine, that’s why it’s right next to my car key and water bottle. She gets on the phone and repeats the conversation to someone on the other end, and says, loudly, ‘There’s a key that’s here, but this woman who’s in here, claims that it’s hers.’

Fun Fact: With microaggressions, you are always asking, and deeply suspecting, that had the body in your place been white, the interaction would have gone differently. There would be no doubting of you and your words. Your answer would have been accepted as truth and not under dispute.

For at the heart of microaggression is suspicion: suspicion of your words, your truth, your right to be where you are, your validity, your right to occupy space.