The Dangerous Power of Microagression



The term racial microaggressions was first proposed by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, MD, in the 1970s, but psychologists have significantly nuanced and defined the concept in recent years. 

Let’s perhaps start this discussion with an example:

A judge and two attorneys are conducting voir dire in a local courthouse. As the jury pool is being questioned and summarily dismissed for various reasons, the defense attorney asks a young Asian American woman of Korean descent a series of questions. After the second question the judge who appears to have a hard time hearing the woman responds, “Miss, can you please speak up, I cannot hear your answers clearly” the woman responds “Yes your honor, I am sorry” then the judge responds “Oh, no need to apologize, you speak English very well you are very articulate”

Was this woman being overly sensitive by being offended at this comment, or was the judge being subtly racist?

Micoraggressions can be defined as everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent. Basically acting with bias without knowing it. It is an unnerving concept for people who have a self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that are frankly racist.

The psychological study of microaggressions looks at the impact of these subtle racial expressions from the perspective of the people being victimized, so it adds to our understanding of bias in the psychology arena. In a qualitative study in the June Professional Psychology: Research and Practice (Vol. 39, No. 3), a researcher conducted focus groups with 13 African-Americans who discussed their perceptions of, reactions to, and interpretations of microaggressions. Some narrative comments that came out of the study included: 

1. “A feeling of being watched suspiciously in stores as if they were about to steal something”

2. “Reporting anticipating the impact of their race by acting preemptively: One man noted how he deliberately relaxes his body while in close quarters with white women so he doesn’t frighten them.”

3. “Others cited the pressure to represent their group in a positive way. One woman said she was constantly vigilant about her work performance because she was worried that any slip-up would negatively affect every black person who came after her.”

While many believe this term is blowing the racial issue out of proportion, psychologists and studies show there are long reaching harmful effects on those who experience them, even once. They are like an invisible form of discrimination and therefore harder to call out or be challenged. I look forward to more studies on this topic and do believe it is the new and very dangerous form of “racism” in our country.


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