Racial Microaggression- When Perceptions Hurt Others

With attention focused of late on the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed African-American teenager, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and other issues around racial conflict, perceptions and profiling, I have been thinking about the stereotypes that are so pervasive in our everyday lives, and the assumptions, however unwitting, that we make every day.  I am reminded of an article in American Psychologist some years ago, “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.” The authors define racial microaggressions as “… brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”  The article goes on to say “Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities.” One well-known example of microaggression is the story Oprah Winfrey tells of being informed by a store clerk that she couldn’t afford the handbag she wanted to see.

I have heard similar stories from virtually all of my clients who are members of a racial/ethnic minority. For example, an African-American man waiting in line for his car at a parking garage was handed her parking claim by a white woman.  An accomplished professional man of Mexican descent who is a second-generation American was given work assignments in the Latino community because he “fits in with those people.” Most have had rude, abusive encounters with white law enforcement officials, even some who are employed in law enforcement themselves. These incidents did not occur in the depths of some faraway country or community, but here in Naperville and surrounding communities.

It is well-known that the impact of racism and discrimination can be extremely harmful to the victims, typically resulting in feelings of isolation, depression and impaired self-image, as well as health problems including hypertension. Most of my clients report feeling that they have to work harder to “prove” themselves. They know that if they comment on the microaggressions, they will be dismissed as “overly sensitive” or worse. They feel that, while perhaps appropriate, expressions of emotions such as anger will likely be interpreted as hostile and/or aggressive. They also sometimes question their own perceptions, leading to a diminishment of self-confidence. Generally, the coping mechanism employed is to “keep my head down and suck it up”, a tactic resulting in increased feelings of alienation, powerlessness, and resentment.

Most people are benignly motivated – they don’t wish to be the source of emotional injury to their fellow humans.  Many of the more unintentional injuries can be reduced or avoided simply by becoming aware of attitudes or perceptions which may have been assimilated through cultural or generational norms, family, peer groups or environment. Each of us can be more conscious of and sensitive to how we impact others in daily, routine interactions as we go about our lives.