I was chitchatting with a few colleagues I had recently met when one of them causally asked me where I was from. I responded that I grew up in Hamilton, but have now lived in Toronto for almost 20 years. She then furrowed her brow: that wasn't the response she expected. She asked the question again, "No, I meant, where are you really from? And just like that, I was hit with a microaggression.
It was a seemingly innocent question, but it stung like a mosquito bite. Everyone else fell silent; some looked stunned, others uncomfortable and all unsure what to do.
Microaggressions are the casual snubs, insults and jokes that communicate a hidden message: you're different and you don't belong. These comments include ones such as, "I couldn't even tell you were gay," or "You're all so exotic."
These messages, which can be verbal or non-verbal, intentional or unintentional, are often communicated as innocent passing comments and gestures, or even compliments, such as:
- "Your English is so good"
- "I couldn't even see that you had a disability"
- "Wow, you hide your addiction really well."
The victims of microaggressions are often left wondering, "Did that really just happen," followed by, "Am I to blame for what just happened?"
The perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they've done anything wrong. The victims may not confront their perpetrators for fear of being labelled as angry, paranoid, oversensitive or "too politically correct." In that moment, the victim is left feeling alone in their experience, feeling the sting of exclusion. These feelings are further compounded when the witnesses remain silent.
Psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue notes that, "Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow [the perpetrators] to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. Therein lays the dilemma. The person of colour is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger and an overall draining of energy."
Microaggressions, like all types of discrimination, have a negative impact on our mental health. Social inclusion or connectedness, on the other hand, can promote feelings of attachment and companionship, enhancing one's sense of purpose and self-esteem. Addressing discrimination and ensuring equity are therefore essential to maintaining positive mental health.
So, what can we do about microaggressions?
Naming microaggressions in the moment, whether it's based on racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, addiction, a mental health disability or any other kind of discrimination, goes a long way to support the victim.
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By naming the act, we're validating that the microaggression and discrimination actually happened, this way the victim is not left wondering. This helps to validate the victim's experience, and more importantly, their feelings. It also helps ensure the victim feels supported, instead of isolated and alone.
When we think about addressing racism and other forms of discrimination, we often think about holding a sign, walking in solidarity at a march or doing a sit-in at a peaceful protest. Though these are all important ways of affecting social change, it's always much easier to be a face in the crowd than to address discrimination, racism and microaggressions while we sit among our colleagues in a meeting, while we're out with our friends or around the dinner table with our family.
But these are the moments when it matters most.
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