Why Aggressions Are Not Micro and How to Avoid Them

“Microaggressions” can have a massive impact on those on the receiving end. Learning how to interrupt them from a lens of openness and curiosity for ourselves and others can help us work toward more compassionate schools, workplaces, and communities.

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Welcome back to our Racial Healing Series by Tovi Scruggs-Hussein. In this series, we’re navigating uncomfortable truths about race, racism, and the othering that exists in our ethnocentric mainstream culture. For those who’ve just joined us, feel free to get caught up and take a look at the first four articles in this series here or dive right in with us.

Before we focus on the topic for our final article in this series, it’s important to take stock of the topics we have been working with so far. Bias, White fragility, and the role shame plays in our ability to process race and racism in our daily lives have made for some deep reflection and an opportunity to learn things that are new to many of us. In this article, we’ll explore microaggressions, another rich topic, critically important to developing a sense of cultural humility and belonging. 

As we begin to round the corner, moving toward more awareness and understanding, please give yourself a moment to recognize and celebrate any subtle evolution you may experience. You’ve begun to courageously dedicate yourself to this learning and it makes a difference. Let yourself actually welcome whatever discomfort still arises as a sign that the work is working. It becomes like muscle soreness after a hard workout, a subtle signal of the evolution of your improving stamina and resilience. In this instance, the signs of progress may show up in our own thinking and ways-of-being. 

What Are Microaggressions?

Psychiatrist and researcher Dr. Chester Pierce coined the term “microaggressions” circa 1970. Nearly four decades later, Dr. Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues dove deeper and crafted this definition: “Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.” 

As our racial literacy has evolved, Dr. Ibram X. Kendi further developed the definition in his second book, How to Be an Antiracist, where he states there is nothing micro about microaggressions; they create distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, and fatigue. He writes, “What other people call microaggressions, I call racist abuse.” To some, the term “abuse” may feel extreme, yet to many in our shared society, aggressions are a part of daily life. Aggressions can be experienced by any marginalized group, including those othered because of their gender, sexual orientation, neurodiversity, or ability.

Aggressions Are Not Micro 

I’ve chosen to join other thought leaders and have dropped the prefix “micro” from the term “microaggression.” As research and countless experiences have proven, for the targets of these so-called microaggressions, there is nothing micro about them. Though they can seem harmless, and are sometimes unintentional, the impact is real harm as they’re perceived as derogatory or hostile. By making this nuanced change in terminology, the invitation is for members of the dominant groups (those committing microaggressions or not affected by them) to recognize the impact of their words, actions, and behaviors. From there, they can support one another in healing through continued learning. 

3 Forms of Aggressions

This section includes descriptions of colonialism and racism. Please take care. 

Dr. Sue teaches that there are three types of aggressions: 

  1. Verbal: What is said. Statements like, “Is that your real hair?” “Does your hair curl up like that just from water?” “You know, when I see you, I don’t see color,” “You really are pretty for a Black girl,” “I couldn’t even tell you were gay,” or ”Where are you really from?” Often, these are disguised as compliments. 
  1. Behavioral: When people ignore, interrupt, or invalidate. This can look like a White person clutching their belongings as a BIPOC (often male in this instance) walks by or joins them in an elevator, or a BIPOC being followed in a store because a staff member unjustly assumes they might steal something.
  1. Environmental: This can show up as a lack of representation, assuming homogeneity, displaying insensitive language or symbols, or even physical inaccessibility.

    Subtle examples would be the types of messages on the walls of a classroom or in the break room at the workplace. When I was a principal and we were preparing classrooms to be more equitable and embrace belonging, I identified posters in classrooms that were environmental aggressions: Two kittens on a poster, the white kitten had a halo over it and the black kitt