2020 has been a pretty lame year so far, except in one regard: People are finally getting tired of the endless cycles of injustice that have plagued our societies for centuries. It’s as if the world decided that, since we’re fighting off the coronavirus, we may as well also try to cure the disease of racial inequality. The latter is by far the harder battle. But this is a mission that can’t be accomplished by lab coats and vaccines, but by the behaviour of ordinary people like you and I. The first step in fixing our broken societies is recognising our learned microaggressions, and removing them from our behaviour.
What are Microagressions?
Microaggressions are behaviours that demonstrate a bias or prejudice towards marginalised groups, which come across as hostile or hurtful towards that group – whether that was the intention of the perpetrator or not. This last part is important. Microaggressions are not always intentional. In fact, more often than not they’re completely automatic reactions. They’re not obvious insults, racist comments, or blatantly rude behaviour. They include things like a woman holding on to her purse a little more tightly when a man of colour steps into the elevator, or telling someone who doesn’t have white skin that their English is good – despite it being their first language.
They may appear as a compliment, or as a joke, while containing an insult – not necessarily an obvious one – about the group it victimises (as in “oh, you don’t look gay”).
The danger of microaggressions is that they’re subtle. They happen casually and often, but unlike the name seems to imply, the impact they can have on the victims – especially those who are subject to them repeatedly – is far from small. According to
Andrew Limbong, writing for NPR, says that “it is important to understand that a lot of times people who engage in microaggressions will not believe that what they said was racist or sexist or homophobic. And so calling them racist or sexist or homophobic would make them very defensive and make them unable to even recognize what their impact was”.
Many of these behaviours are ones we’ve learned over time, and as such, it can be hard to realise we’re doing them and even harder to unlearn them. Humans are imperfect creatures and prone to making mistakes, so it doesn’t make you a bad person. It does, however, mean you have something you can work on in order to be a better one.
How can we remove microaggressions from our behaviour?
Limbong writes that “you don’t have to be of a certain group to understand that something is unjust. It’s really about learning how to be empathetic to people. And also just to be really aware and knowledgeable of history”.
“Even if we might not necessarily understand exactly what it means to be a member of the targeted group at that moment, we certainly rely on our knowledge and our awareness of history and of the lived experiences of people of those groups.”
Training yourself to let go of learned microaggressions can feel a little like homework, but if creating a just and harmonious society matters to you, that won’t be a problem.
With that in mind, here are some tips on how to combat common microaggressions in any situation going forward:
- Limbong’s suggestion, when encountering a spoken microaggression, is to respond with the question “what do you mean by that?”. So if you’re having dinner with a group of friends and one of them comments “oh, that’s so gay”, you can ask them “what do you mean by that?”. Doing this draws attention to the statements that people so often make without thinking about them, which may be hurting others around them. Asking someone what they mean is giving them a chance to explain or correct themselves. “And for some people, they say things just because they’ve been socialized to say certain things,” writes Limbong. “But when they’re really asked to explain what they’re trying to say, that’s where, you know, they have to think about it and sometimes even retract what they originally say because they don’t want to perpetuate something that isn’t actually who they are”.
- Do your homework. Read articles, blogs, and books that describe the lives of people outside of your cultural, racial or religious group. If you’re not a reader, listen to a podcast or watch a documentary. Learn more about what their lived experiences are like so that you can understand how your automatic behaviours might affect them. Train your compassion and empathy like you would any other skill.
- Desmond-Harris advises that we “become curious about the way [our] words and actions are perceived by others, listen when people explain why certain remarks offend them, and make it a habit stop for a beat and think before you speak, especially when you’re weighing in on someone’s identity”. Actively seek out people with very different experiences and learn from them. How can you really understand someone’s perspective without discussing it with them?
- This one might be tricky for some but don’t get defensive when somebody tells you that you’ve offended them with your behaviour. This is an excellent learning opportunity, and a chance to correct your behaviour going forward.
- Stop asking black people if you can touch their hair. Jonathan Chandler, writing for Betches, says that asking a black person if their hair is real carries with it a lot of passive aggression, and appropriating it even more so: “It is common for white people and non-Black POC to ask us this because of their negative perceptions of Black hair and the stereotype that Black women only wear wigs and weaves. When a Black person tells you that it is, in fact, their real hair, please do not take it upon yourself to touch it. This is a downright-disrespectful invasion of privacy. Whether it be braids, a weave, or our natural hair, it is not your right to continuously ask about it, or to make us uncomfortable by touching it. This should also give you insight as to why appropriating Black hair is offensive. If we cannot wear it in peace, why should someone else get to wear it with praise?”
- Please, PLEASE, stop telling people they’re “hot for a ______ person“. Eurocentric beauty standards have a lot of people believing that beauty goes hand in hand with white skin, which is, frankly, absurd. And yet, Chandler writes that in his experience with dating apps, “it’s pretty common for me to get a message at least once a week from someone who is white or a non-Black POC saying something along the lines of ‘I usually don’t date Black, but you are the exception’. This is not a compliment, nor will it ever be”. Insulting someone’s race as a way to compliment them has surely never been effective, nor will it ever be. Call out your friends if they speak this way, and remind them that beauty comes in different shapes, sizes and colours.
Microaggressions are regular features in the lives of those they target. You may not be directly impacted by them, or even have noticed them at all, but you’ve probably committed a few of them. Those privileged enough not to be affected need to take it upon themselves to stop perpetuating negative stereotypes that hurt others and damage society as a whole. Think of them as bad habits that need to be corrected, and treat this as another way to work on yourself.
Carrying on with old habits will never bring about meaningful change. As Chandler says, “in the era of learning, there should also be unlearning”.