Everyday Stings: The Power and Pain of Microaggressions

One day I was driving home from work listening to the radio. There was a story on recent employment trends. One of the guests on the radio show began to talk about the costs of labor and referred to “cheap” versus “costly” labor. Labor in undeveloped countries was cheap, and spoken about in ways that made the workers seem somehow more of a commodity and less human. Costly labor described laborers in the United States, parts of Europe, and Canada. I felt uneasy by the discussion that had effectively removed human beings from this equation. Was this a migroaggression or blatant racism?

By definition, microaggressions are subtle, often nuanced, verbal or behavioral slights, snubs, or insults that can be intentional, but are often unintentional. They communicate negative, pejorative, and sometimes hostile messages to others solely based on their membership in a marginalized group. Microaggressions may devalue another individual’s sense of dignity and worth, may demean them on a personal or group level, and communicate that this individual is in some way “less than.” People are so embedded in context, and microaggressions reflect this, that the perpetrator may have no consciousness about what he or she has said, and the painful consequences of his or her unintended behaviors or words. These are everyday slights in conversation and behavior, but they sting.

Imagine this scenario: You are white and sitting in your car in a predominantly white neighborhood. Perhaps, you are waiting to pick up a friend. Two male youths of color walk toward your car. They are deep in conversation. You don’t know if they see you in your car, but as they walk by, you lock your car. You perceive threat. It is a reflex. This is an example of microaggression.

Microaggressions are most commonly racial, but can also be directed at any person with membership in a minority, historically oppressed, underrepresented, or marginalized group. Therefore you may bear witness to and perpetrate microaggressions toward people based on gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, faith, and ability. What is important to remember about microaggressions is that the impact they have is no less devaluing or hurtful than overt acts or racism or oppression. Furthermore, microaggressions contribute to social injustice and can limit access to resources and services. Do not think that because micro means small, the cumulative impact of these common slights are any less substantive.

Consider the following examples of everyday stings.

  • A man passes a woman on a street and says, “You look so fine in that dress.” This is a gender-based microaggression. His comment may seem like a compliment, but it is objectifying and implies that a woman’s appearance or body is for the enjoyment of men. And because our culture is characterized by male dominance, he feels free to approach her in a public way.
  • A group of undergrad students are sitting in a coffee shop. One student says, “I really like your new jeans.” The other student says, “Thanks, I wasn’t sure about them. At first I thought they were a little gay, but then they grew on me.” This is a microaggression based on sexual orientation. In this example, the word gay is used to imply that something is negative or undesirable.

It is important to remember that in cases of microaggression, if one brings the slight to the attention of the perpetrator, the reaction might be of total disbelief. Often there is complete unawareness that anything offensive had been said or done. There may be an inability to take responsibility or remorse for the microaggression because there is such a profound lack of understanding about the impact of the exchange.

What are the implications for social workers? It is our job to respectfully observe and educate when we bear witness to microaggressions in practice — whether perpetrated by a client or colleague. This connects directly to our social justice mission as articulated by the NASW Code of Ethics. It is also important to be sensitive and responsive to others when we are the perpetrators of microaggressions. We are human. We are the products of our context and socialization, and we are not above saying or doing insensitive things either. It is important that we strive to be as self-aware, culturally attuned, and responsive as possible. When we are the ones causing pain, it is our professional and ethical mandate to be accountable and to see this as an opportunity for growth.