Faith Witness to End Racism

Welcome to the second installment of a year-long effort to understand racism better and consider ways we might combat it. This month's topic is linked to last month's topic; Unconscious or Implicit Bias. It can be similarly difficult to recognize when we are on the receiving end of it.

Let us start with some common examples of our topic, microagressions:

An Asian-American student is complimented by a professor for speaking perfect English, but it's actually his first language. A black man notices that a white woman flinches and clutches her bag as she sees him in the elevator she's about to enter, and is painfully reminded of racial stereotypes. A woman speaks up in an important meeting, but she can barely get a word in without being interrupted by her male colleagues. [1]

This is how psychologist Derald W. Sue, who's written two books on microaggressions, defines the term:

"The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people." [2] (The term, "microaggression" was first proposed by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD, in the 1970s [3])

Dr. Sue in his own words:

As we understand what microaggression looks like, it should become clear that most often, it is unconscious (like the underlying bias). This can make it hard to see, let alone avoid. Indeed, what one may intend as a compliment, may be experienced by the recipient as a microaggression. It is very likely all of us received and delivered microaggressions. It seems unlikely anyone has died from receiving a microaggression, but the pain inflicted is cumulative. It has been likened to "death by a thousand cuts." [3]

A single microaggression might easily be overlooked or excused. But the cumulative effect of many of these, day in and day out can be crushing. There are some similarities with domestic violence, in that typically there are years of patterns of abuse which, when considered in isolation may appear to be relatively innocuous. But when considered as part of a pattern each instance is amplified for the recipient. Some researchers suggest microaggressions may be even more damaging than "overt racism" which is more easily recognized.
Plausible Deniability

One difficulty is that the statements which feel aggressive to some, may seem innocuous to others. It is hard to state objective guidelines. This often makes discussing, let alone challenging instances difficult. Even if "plausible deniability" [4] wasn't a remote consideration, the effect can be similar. The person delivering what feels to the other as a microaggression quickly becomes defensive when questioned.

One thing is clear; intent is not required, and in fact may often not be the case at all. In sexual harassment cases "the eye of the beholder" perspective is an important consideration even though it is decidedly subjective. That thinking is applicable here too.

Taylor Jones writes; "That is, my argument is that microaggression is a valid and useful tool for discussion precisely because it is not cut-and-dry. Otherwise, it's just overt aggression. Nothing 'micro' about it. If I say "your outfit looks dumb" that's just an insult. If I say "oh, your outfit is so...ethnic," that's much trickier to categorize. Is "ethnic" a codeword? Am I insinuating it's inappropriate? That I don't like it? That I think it's unprofessional or looks bad? That I think it doesn't belong? Well...maybe." [5]

Learn about Unconscious and Implicit Bias and how difficult it is to see. Click the image to watch the video.
Examples of Workplace Microaggressions
Three vignettes as examples.
Example of Unconscious Racial Bias in the Workplace
Pretty dramatic result of a poor assumption.
Microassaults, Microinsults, and Microinvalidations
This expands the notion of microagressions in three videos.

"7 Racist Slurs Which You Should Drop From Your Vocabulary"
Illustrates some quite common sayings and their etymology. These might be considered microaggressions to certain people.
Harvard Business Review: When and How to Respond to Microaggressions

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2019) has a chapter on microaggressions. The Grace-Westminster book group discussed this book, and it prompted considerable conversation.

We are interested in your experience of understanding racism better and perhaps challenging it. We have been trying to share some activities we become aware of (sometime with little notice) and are planning some for 2021. If you have any suggestions, questions, or are willing to share an experience, please email
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[1] What exactly is a microaggression?

[2] Derald Wing Sue, PhD- Microaggressions in his own words:
Or more in depth; PBS: How unintentional but insidious bias can be the most harmful: (explores the cumulative aspect)

[3] APA (American Psychological Association): Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions':

[4] 'Death by a thousand cuts': Microaggressions lead to worse mental health for Oregonians of color:

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