People who routinely experience microaggressions suffer from a range of negative emotions, experts say.
By Julie Compton
Microaggressions are seemingly small slights that, whether intentional or not, communicate bias towards another group.
For five years, Margo Gabriel, 34, worked as an administrator for a prestigious university in Boston, where she was the only Black person in her department. Often, when she wore her hair braided or out in its natural texture, white colleagues would walk up to her and touch her braids or pat her head without permission. While she felt violated, she didn’t know how to respond, so she would nervously laugh and shift the conversation.
“I just felt like, whenever things like that would happen, I couldn’t stand up for myself because then they would assume, ‘Oh wow, she’s just like an angry Black woman,” Gabriel told TODAY.
Gabriel is far from alone. Routine offenses that people experience across race, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, class, and even regional divides are so commonplace that they have a name. Microaggressions: the seemingly small, daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights that, whether intentional or not, communicate bias towards another group.
“A microaggression is a trigger that reminds you that you’re inferior or not in the in-group,” said Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, medical doctor and author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.”
Microaggressions can be difficult to expose because they often come cloaked in supposed compliments or jokes, but are actually quite harmful and derogatory, according to Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist, diversity and executive coach and co-founder of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, an executive coaching and organizational consultancy.
“They kind of vary in their intensity, but they very much send the message that you don’t belong, you’re not like other people,” Orbé-Austin said.
For example, a white person tells a Black professional who has just given a speech that he sounded “very well spoken.” During meetings, a man routinely talks over his female colleagues and dismisses their ideas. A straight person tells a gay person, “You don’t sound gay.”
Microaggressions can be difficult to expose because they often come cloaked in supposed compliments or jokes, but are actually quite harmful and derogatory.
LISA ORBÉ-AUSTIN, PH.D.
The more layers there are to a person’s identity, the more powerful microaggressions can be. For example, to get to her office every day, a Black female executive has to walk down a hallway lined with portraits of prior executives — all white men — signaling that she is an extreme outsider in her workplace.
As a Black woman, Orbé-Austin says she has experienced countless microaggressions in the workplace, from white colleagues who tell her she is “particularly articulate,” to a former male boss who routinely made slights aimed at women. “It’s an emotional weight that you’re carrying, you’re constantly dealing with these kinds of things that are coming at you.”
How do microaggressions affect us?
People who routinely experience microaggressions suffer from a range of negative emotions, according to Swart. Their brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, life can feel more like a fight than a journey. They may become always on guard and more risk-averse, which can impact their performance at work and in other areas of life, she said.
Gabriel said that experiencing routine microaggressions made her not want to be at work. “It got to a point where it was just like I didn’t care for the job and I wasn’t motivated, and I just withdrew,” explained Gabriel, who is now a freelance writer.
But she says she has since started to stick up for herself. “Specifically, for my hair, I tell people it’s inappropriate to just come up and touch my hair, like I’m not a pet,” she said.
Microaggressions affect more than individuals; they are felt across marginalized groups, and the anger and resentment they often trigger can lead to social unrest. For example, Swart said microaggressions found in social and political rhetoric can contribute to protests and social upheaval.
“I think if somebody thought about it hard enough, you could say microaggressions are involved in all of the major crises that are happening in the world today,” she said…