Microaggression and Stereotype – by Julia Wai-Yin So

You were at a house-warming party hosted by your immigrant friends from Mexico who just bought their first home. Your excitement was genuine. As you hugged your friend and his wife, you said, “I am so happy for you and your new home, especially in this neighborhood. Unlike other Latino immigrants, you are so accomplished.”

Your comment might have meant to be complimentary. Unfortunately, your Latino friend might have felt you just insulted his entire ethnic group. According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue from Columbia University, such remark falls under microaggressions–verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights that reflect the speaker’s conscious or unconscious stereotyping certain minoritized groups. Other examples include complimenting the English spoken by an Asian, or congratulating a college graduate while saying “You made me proud. I don’t think I have one black friend that has a college degree”. Though meant to compliment the recipient; such comments sadly also insult the ability or intelligence of the social group which the receiver belongs to.
Microaggression and its three forms

According to Dr. Sue, microaggression is a “constant and continuing reality of slights, insults, invalidations and indignities” experienced mostly by minoritized individuals of various dimensions such as race, ethnicity, faith, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, disability status and/or socio-economic class. (Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation).

Oftentimes, these comments are made by well-intentioned family members, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and even strangers who simply want to compliment the individuals. However, the same comment can be perceived as demeaning or dismissive by the receiver. As such, microaggression is not about the intent; but its powerful impact on the psychological well-being of the receiver. Furthermore, these types of comments are generally not made in vacuum. They are ladened with subtle biases and stereotypes. While Dr. Sue describes three types of microaggression: environmental, behavioral, and verbal, I will focus on its verbal aspect and the three forms described by Dr. Sue: microinsult, microinvalidation, and microassault.

Microinsult is the insensitive or demeaning remark about an individual’s identity. An example would be addressing a female in a blue scrub a nurse instead of a medical doctor or calling a woman “sweetie” or “girl” in the workplace. In this context, we might want to reflect on the common stereotype of a female in blue scrub. Similarly, think about why it is an insult when we address a female colleague a “girl”.

Microinvalidation is a comment that dismisses the lived experience of discrimination or invalidates the social identity of people from various marginalized groups. Comments such as “I think you are just too sensitive” or “I cannot pronounce your name. Can I call you Andy?” can be hurtful to the recipients because these comments tend to make them feel invisible. Not only do they deny the receivers’ racial/ethnic background, but also insult their identity as well. Dr. Sue points out that microinvalidation is one of the most insidious and harmful form of microaggressions.

Microassault is the intentional blatant derogatory verbal attack either on an individual because of their social identity, or towards an entire social group that the individual belongs to. Examples of the general stereotypical belittling comments are “Asians can’t drive”, “Latinos are loud” or “you are the least scary black guy that I have known”.

What to do…

In general, verbal microaggressions are comments made under the influence of a popular stereotypical image of certain social group. When we stereotype someone, we also ignore the unique characteristic of the same individual. Once we realize that we have offended someone, first and foremost, be sure to apologize with sincerity and avoid justifying our action by claiming ignorance. When we apologize for our behavior, we take ownership of our action. The second step is to promise not to repeat our behavior. Saying “I am sorry I have said such hurtful thing. I promise I will not do it again” will usually deescalate the situation. The third step is to ask the victim what we can do to make it better for them. Finally, the last step is to ask the victim for suggestions on how to avoid similar behavior in the future. All these need to be done in a humble and sincere manner. As we listen for suggestions, we have to remind ourselves to practice deep listening which is listening with the intention to understand and without any judgment.

On the other hand, when we are offended by a comment, we must ask the speaker for clarification immediately instead of accusing the speaker of being offensive. Asking for clarification such as “I heard you say such and such, is that what you meant?” has the advantage of confirming to ourselves and the speaker alike about what is being said because we might have heard wrong. At the same time, we give the speaker an opportunity to reflect what they have said which might not what they intend to say. Tell the speaker how the comment makes you feel. A common example can be “when you say such and such, I feel diminished”. Sharing our feeling with the speaker also raises the speaker’s awareness of their unconscious biases.

Finally, when we witness someone microaggresses another, I encourage you to interfere by asking for clarification. You can simply say “I heard you say such and such, is that what you meant?” or “I heard you say such and such, you might think it is funny; but it can be offensive, especially when such stereotype is not true.” Once we clarify, we can mitigate the situation by reframing the statement to deescalate the tension.

Microaggressions occurs daily. It is up to us individually to prevent it from happening.

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Dr. Julia Wai-Yin So

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