Microaggressions and the “Lived Experience” of Marginality
Derald Wing Sue
Many of my White brothers and sisters do not fully appreciate the lived experience of people of color; that their lives are filled with constant slights, indignities and invalidations from well-intentioned strangers, neighbors and friends. As a second-generation Asian American, born and raised in the United States, I recall countless instances of being considered an outsider. These interactions began in early childhood, particularly in elementary school. Although I enjoyed courses in U. S. history and social studies, I seldom fully connected with the class material; I always felt like an interloper or outcast.
For example, the contributions of Asians and Asian Americans to the building of the transcontinental railroad, to the mining of gold, and to agricultural breakthroughs were seldom covered in my classes. I was taught that it was white people, primarily white men who made this country great (Columbus discovered America; George Washington, Patrick Henry, Samuel Adams and men formed the Continental Congress; and Abraham Lincoln “freed the slaves”). The only time my teachers would mention Asians, was when we studied units on China and Japan. They would then turn to me and ask, “How do your people celebrate these holidays in China?” to which I would sit dumbfounded without a response. China was as distant and unknown to me as to my White classmates. I felt like I was a perpetual foreigner in my own country.
Even today, as a Chinese American, I receive constant compliments for speaking “good” English; and, I am frequently asked, “Where are you from?” When I tell them I was born in Portland, Oregon, many find the answer unacceptable. They would follow up with, “But where were you really born?” These personal examples and countless others are what we call “racial microaggressions.” Microaggressions are reflections of implicit bias or prejudicial beliefs and attitudes outside the level of conscious awareness of perpetrators. Microaggressions are part of the lived reality of people of color and form their marginalized and racialized experiences.
At Teachers College, Columbia University, my research teams and I have been engaged in a 20-year study of their manifestation, dynamics, impact and solutions. Microaggressions have a detrimental impact upon targeted groups because they send hidden, demeaning and offensive messages to recipients that we call “meta-communications.” People of color often receive messages that they are lesser human beings, second-class citizens, foreigners, disloyal, dangerous, criminals, or subhuman. Our studies found these meta-communications could be grouped into themes: (a) perpetual alien in your own country is experienced by Asian Americans and Latinx Americans, (b) assumption of criminality is associated with African Americans, (c) sinfulness is experienced by LGBTQ groups and (d) women experience themes of sexual objectification. In our 2007 publication in the American Psychologist, we created a taxonomy of microaggressions and found that they were delivered in three different ways: (a) verbally – what people say, (b) nonverbally – how they behave, and (c) environmentally – what the contextual climate communicates.
Verbal Microaggressions. When I am complimented for speaking excellent English, perpetrators believe they are praising me for my command of English, but the underlying message to me is “You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country. You are not a true American. True Americans are light-skinned.” When Whites respond to the Black Lives Matter slogan by stating that “all lives matter,” they are committing a verbal microaggression because they diminish, negate and invalidate the minoritized experience of African Americans; their lives are worth less in our society, and they are treated with less respect and dignity than that of White Americans. When children tease one another with the phrase “That’s so gay,” they are equating being gay as something deviant, abhorrent or abnormal. When a person of color is told, “You are a credit to your own race,” the implication is that the person is an exception, because members of his or her group generally lack positive attributes (intelligence, work ethics, or family values).
Nonverbal Microaggressions. In many ways, nonverbal microaggressions are equally if not more harmful than those delivered verbally. If you have ever ridden on a crowded bus, train, or plane, you might have noticed that seats next to Black passengers are often “the last seat taken” or remain empty. The reluctance to sit next to African Americans is a message that “You are to be avoided because you are potentially dangerous, a criminal, or up to no good.” Many of my African American friends also tell tales of how when they enter an elevator with a single White female rider, she will tense up, clutch her purse tightly, and move away in fear. Black men observe that when crossing the street and passing waiting cars, they hear the unmistakable “click” of door locks, and Black women tell stories about being followed and monitored more closely in retail stores for fear that they will shoplift. These nonverbal microaggressions are powerful mechanisms that denigrate and demean the humanity of people of color on a continual basis.
Environmental Microaggressions. When women employees in the corporate world describe the work climate as hostile, invalidating and alienating, they are most likely referring to environmental microaggressions and macroaggressions. The former refers to the surroundings or settings that are unwelcoming or insulting to targeted groups. Nude playmate pictures of women at work sites (sexual objectification), blackface makeup at fraternity parties (demeaning stereotypes of African Americans), the Confederate flag or Klan hood (White supremacy), and Native American mascots and symbols (denigration of Indigenous peoples) are examples. A hostile and invalidating work climate is also manifested in macroaggressions. Environmental macroaggressions refer to organizational programs, policies and practices that seem to affirm and advantage certain groups (men) while disadvantaging or excluding others (women – glass ceiling). Space does not allow elaborating on the distinction and operation of micro/macroaggressions, but their detrimental impact on marginalized group members make people of color feel unwanted, excluded, ignored, and disrespected.
Years ago, I was asked by an institution to participate in a weeklong event on making the university a more welcoming place for prospective students, staff and faculty of color. Although there were numerous diversity events on campus (films, teach-ins, ethnic celebrations and ethnic foods from different cultures throughout the week), my role was to conduct multicultural training for top administrators. As I stood before the audience, I scanned the group and noticed the number of primarily White males and the absence of gender or racial diversity in top leadership. I pointed out to them that the lack of diversity at the upper ranks of the university was sending unintentional meta-communications to people of color: (a) “You and your kind are not welcome here.” (b) “You will not feel comfortable here.” (c) “If you come, there is only so far up you can rise at the university – you may not graduate as a student of color or you may not be promoted and tenured as a faculty of color.”
In other words, the powerful contextual environment was uninviting and unwelcoming to the very population they hoped to recruit. When women employees, for example, observe that all the past CEOs and current ones are White males, and when the management teams are primarily men, they are made to feel marginalized, invisible, excluded, and unwelcomed. Not only do they describe a hostile and invalidating work climate that affects job performance, but that their advancement in the company will be limited to the lower ranks.
Clash of Racial Realities and Invisibility of Bias
“The true tale of the lion hunt will never be told as long as the hunter tells the story.”
Our research shows that two major obstacles to understanding the lived reality of people of color are related to the “clash of racial realities” and the “invisibility of microaggressions.” Studies reveal that People of Color and White Americans perceive the existence of racism quite differently. Black Americans, for example, believe that racism is a constant and continuing reality in their lives; White Americans tend to minimize it and some even believe it is a thing of the past. These stark differences often lead to an important question, “Whose reality is the true reality?” Although political pundits frequently debate this, studies suggest that the most disempowered groups often have a better perception of bias than those with power and privilege.
An African American employee, for example, needs to understand the thinking of White workers, and White western rules and regulations in order to do well – to be hired, retained and promoted. White co-workers, however, do not need to attune to the thinking of their Black employees in order to do well in the company. Likewise, common sense tells us the following: “If you want to understand sexism, do you ask men or women? If you want to understand heterosexism, do you ask straights or gays? If you want to understand racism, do you ask Whites or People of Color?” The answer seems obvious to me!
Although many believe that power flows from monetary or military might, true power is in a group’s ability to define reality. Therefore, when we are told that we live in a post-racial era, that equal access and opportunity are open to everyone, and that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough, the master narrative (story of the lion hunt) disregards the lived experiences of marginalized groups, declares their complaints as suspect, and blames them for their inability to do well in our nation. In other words, the stories told by People of Color of bigotry, prejudice and discrimination are minimized, disbelieved, considered paranoia, often silenced, and unheard. When issues of racism are raised by People of Color, they are often accused of being oversensitive (victim blaming), told they are the “angry Black man or woman” (pathologizing their responses), intruding on “free speech” (disguising bias), and/or accused of “playing the race card” (delegitimizing the issue). By doing so, many well-intentioned individuals may be unaware they are engaging in microaggressions through invalidating the experiences of bias, stereotyping, and discrimination to persons of color.
In addition to differences in racial realities, implicit biases contribute to the invisibility of microaggressions. Most people experience themselves as good, moral and decent human beings who would never consciously discriminate against others. When hate crimes occur or when obvious acts of racism rear their ugly heads, they would be among the first to condemn the actions of perpetrators. Unconscious bias, however, is subtle, indirect and outside the level of conscious awareness. They are deeply embedded in our psyche through social conditioning and make their appearance in ways that are difficult to detect. Indeed, they often appear to be compliments or innocent statements/actions that have nothing to do with bias or discrimination.
A prime example of the harmful impact of imposing a flawed racial reality on disempowered groups and how falsehoods are perpetuated through our educational system can be found in author James Loewen’s best-selling book, Lies My Teacher Told Me. He illustrates how our educational curriculum shapes worldviews and our realities. When history texts teach us that Columbus discovered America, it was perpetrating “a lie,” or a false narrative that elevates the discoverer, a White European man, and denigrates indigenous people. My Native American brothers and sisters often ask, “How can we be discovered? We knew where we were. We were never lost.” In reality, Columbus was lost; he thought he discovered the continent of India and named the indigenous inhabitants “Indians.”
The racial falsehoods, stereotypes and omissions perpetrated by our educational system shape reality and cause great harm to people of color. Imagine what it must feel like for Native American children to sit in classrooms and be taught that Columbus discovered their people. Imagine further, that they are tested on historical knowledge, and asked, “Did Columbus discover America?” If they answer “false,” teachers will mark the answer “wrong” and admonish them to study their history books more carefully. If they answer “true” (in order to get the answer marked “correct”), they have betrayed their own sense of integrity. They are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t!
The second obstacle to addressing bias in our society is the invisibility of microaggressions. Numerous social-psychological studies indicate that microaggressions make their appearance in unintentional biased behaviors, often as compliments (“You speak excellent English.”), or other seemingly innocuous and legitimate reasons. Seating a couple of color in a restaurant by the kitchen door, serving a White patron before those of color, not sitting next to a Black passenger on a bus, or a male manager addressing men with the prefix “Mr.” but women by their first names may all have seemingly legitimate explanations. Psychologists, however, have found that many actions of well-intentioned Whites are influenced by implicit racial or gender biases.
Critics of microaggression theory believe that we are “making a mountain out of a molehill” and that such incidents are no different from the everyday incivilities that a White person might experience from a rude clerk. The saying that “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is a belief that microaggressions are harmless, small, trivial and insignificant. Our research, however, reveals major differences that account for their greater harmful and detrimental impact to people of color. For example, microaggressions are constant and continual. They occur to people of color from the moment they awaken in the morning until they go to bed; and from the time they are born until they die. They foster racial battle fatigue; remind them they are second-class citizens, and symbolize past historic injustices and trauma (enslavement of Africans, incarceration of Japanese Americans, and the taking away of land from indigenous people of this country). Microaggressions diminish psychological and physical well-being and result in disparities in education, employment and health care.
Further, microaggressions can have macro-impact such as the frequent killing of unarmed Black men by police officers. Studies reveal that when law enforcement officers are placed in computer simulated situations that require them to decide to shoot or not, they were more likely to fire at Black suspects holding a gun or neutral object, than White suspects; African Americans are more likely to be meted out harsher sentences who have pronounced Afrocentric features; and that visible racial/ethnic motorists with a disabled car are less likely to be offered help by others than if they were White.
In almost all of these cases, the people involved would deny that they acted out of bias or prejudice. For example, when a White employer offers a job to a White employee over a candidate of color, he or she might simply state “I offered the job to the most qualified person.” When police officers shoot unarmed Black suspects, they often explain their actions by stating they “feared for their lives.” In a court of law, use of deadly force is often justified when officers believe their lives are in clear and imminent danger. The explanations in both cases seem reasonable, but they often mask implicit bias. Studies show that Black job candidates with identical resumes to White ones, are often judged less qualified, receive less callbacks for job interviews, and are less likely to be hired. As a group, African American men are often judged to be of greater threat, less likely to be “innocent,” physically stronger and with a higher pain threshold, and Black children are seen as more adult-like. These implicit biases often dictate our emotional reactions and behaviors that may harm or place targets at a disadvantage. The major take-away is that unconscious biases generate microaggressive responses; it is a lived reality of marginalized groups in our nation.
Given the challenge our society faces with bigotry, bias and discrimination, what can we as a nation do? The first steps to overcoming and disarming microaggressions is to make the “invisible” visible, to acknowledge the detrimental consequences on the psychological and physical well-being of people of color, to allow the voices of those most silenced and oppressed to be heard and believed, and to accept responsibility for the harm that people with power and privilege have inflicted on brothers and sisters of color. No one is immune from inheriting the biases and prejudices of our forbearers. Naiveté and innocence can no longer justify our inaction and silence.
In closing, I share with you the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people.”
For those who believe that the problem of racism is too big, that they are powerless, and that they are only a single voice in the wilderness, I provide the words of Helen Keller. “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”
Derald Wing Sue is professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University. He is author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2020) and Microintervention Strategies: What you can do to disarm and dismantle individual and systemic racism and bias (2021). John Wiley & Sons publishes both books.