What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are exchanges that are subtle, stunning, often automatic, verbal and nonverbal. They are put-downs, often denied or excused as unintentional. They reveal conscious and unconscious racial bias by whites against BIPOC. They are unwelcome, unkind, often cruel.

Psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce created the term in the 1970s. “Micro” means they are frequent, not that they have no impact.

What is the impact?

The effect, on Black women professionals for example, is “like a thousand paper cuts,” one internal medicine doctor said. Other Black medical professionals agree, the consistent put-downs by colleagues as well as patients begin to affect their confidence and increase their self-doubt.

  • A white male doctor assumes that a Black female doctor is a technician, or has come to take out the trash.
  • A white male patient can’t remember the name of his Black female doctor, but always remembers his male white doctor’s name.
  • White colleagues question a Black doctor’s diagnosis or treatment.

What causes microaggressions?

Conscious and unconscious racial bias by white people. The white supremacy permeating our society continues to make white assumptions and bias “normal,” and BIPOC sensibilities of less importance, or invisible to many whites.

Is there anything similar that white people experience?

I don’t think so. Not based on other people’s bias against people with white skin.

The closest thing may be when someone white looks visibly “different” from most other whites – like having a distinct physical appearance or accent or some type of disability.

A slighter version of this has happened to me most of my life. I’ve been 6 feet tall since I was 10 years old, a head taller than all my peers for years. A lot of kids, and adults too, felt free to point this out to me. “How tall are you?” This unwelcome reaction communicated to me that tall was odd and bad, shorter was good and normal. To take back my right to be 6 feet tall and proud of it, I first stopped answering the question. Then I started saying, “One hundred and eighty-two point eight centimeters,” because most people had no clue how many feet and inches that was. They usually laughed awkwardly, maybe for a fraction of a second realizing it was none of their business, or unkind to have asked me. Or maybe not. Of course my experience was nothing like BIPOC lived experiences of repeated microaggressions from any direction.

Sources include “For Doctors of Color, Microaggressions Are All Too Familiar,” by Emma Goldberg, The New York Times, Aug. 11, 2020.

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