“You are so articulate!” “Where are you really from?” “Your mom has an accent.” “You’re not really Black.” “You’re Asian, can you help me with this math?” “Can I touch your hair?” “You’re a Jew, you must be good with money.”
These comments, perhaps made with no intention to harm, are classic examples of common micro-aggressions. Why are they offensive? Because not only do they assume differences between the speaker and the person he or she is speaking to, but also comments like this reinforce stereotypes or overt generalizations about different races, cultures, ethnicities, religions and any marginalized group.
Micro-aggressions are not just words. Ask any Black person who has been followed in a store, or who has watched people cross the street at their approach. Or try being the only person of color on a board, and constantly asked for “the minority” opinion.
We’ve all done it — made assumptions about others and expressed them in ways that inflict pain. Often it doesn’t come from a mean-spirited place, but rather from ignorance. We look at an individual and — if we perceive them as somehow different from us — we lump them into a category, and then assign them all of our internal, implicit biases towards the group.
The result is not just hurt feelings. Research reveals that micro-aggressions leads to behavioral conflict. It also lowers self-esteem and can cause depression for marginalized groups. By removing micro-aggressions from our everyday life, we can break down racial, ethnic, cultural and gender barriers, and promote inclusivity.
But how do we remove something that we hardly recognize that we’re doing? Self-reflection. Sure, no one wants to relive moments of behavior that they know, or are now learning, are hurtful, but that’s where we need to start. Take a hard look at your own biases and make note of when one pops into your head. Spend time talking to people unlike yourself and listen without judgement or expectations.
Try not to be defensive if someone calls you out for a micro-aggression Responses like, “I didn’t mean it that way,” — or worse — “Don’t be so sensitive!” aren’t helpful. Instead, try a simple, “I’m sorry,” with no excuses.
Finally, be a friend and ally to those in targeted, vulnerable groups. Speak up when you see or hear others — even family and friends — use micro-aggressions. It’s not an easy conversation. You’ll need patience and forgiveness for your yourself and others. But it’s a first step for all of us in building a stronger, safer community for all of us.
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