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What is a Microaggression?

The microaggression is any instance of subsumed or unconscious prejudice, often displayed unknowingly in terms of admiration. That can make it difficult to understand for many. However, knowing how microaggressions perpetuate marginalization and suppression of various communities, identities, and even entire sexes is vital. Whether you're pursuing an educational path in the social sciences or merely seeking to be more aware of how your actions impact others, we'll explore what this term entails and how you can avoid reifying stereotypes in your everyday life.

Digging Up Meaning

This type of behavior constitutes a casual degradation, callous and unthinking, of any marginalized group. Perhaps you've been guilty of it in the past—asked to touch someone's hair, rub their pregnant belly, assumed someone didn't look handicapped enough to park in a reserved space or made a correlation between intelligence or expected behavior and the color of their skin. However, much like the behaviors it references, the term isn't new.

Chester Pierce of Harvard University coined this word in 1970 to describe the slights and degrading attitudes that Euro-Americans routinely displayed towards African Americans. It has since been expanded beyond the bounds of this well-known ethnic tension to refer to such displays towards any marginalized group by a dominant culture.

The Often Unintended Consequences

Psychologists and other social scientists study the impacts of what is commonly termed Whiteness or White Privilege. Over the past few decades, the increasingly apparent consequence of this system is that individuals unconsciously inherit the prejudice of their community and caregivers. Only by rendering what is invisible in stark terms can any person remedy this transmission of often-baseless ideologies and misconceptions. Microaggression is a perfect example of such unintended bigotry that lies beneath the surface of our self-awareness, according to Psychology Today. Even the most well-intentioned individual can be guilty of them, so it becomes incumbent upon each of us to examine our behaviors.

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The Face of Hidden Bigotry

But how do these subsumed aggressive and culturally demoralizing behaviors look? How can we know if we witness them or are unconsciously performing them? They are often subtle and non-verbal. Beyond asking to touch an African American woman's hair or shifting vocabulary when speaking to someone you've assumed is less intelligent or verbally skilled based on their appearance, microaggressions manifest in a variety of ways.

Have you ever checked your wallet or held your purse more firmly when passing a non-white individual on the street? The unspoken message is that you view their entire ethnic group as criminals. Have you ever averted your eyes when an ostensibly homosexual couple holds hands or told them they shouldn't flaunt their sexuality in public? You are conveying that you believe their sexuality is abnormal and inherently shameful. Asking where someone is from or complimenting them on their linguistic fluency sends a message that they do not belong and are not legitimately part of your shared culture.

We see microaggression played out in broader cultural contexts. Assertive women are labeled as unreasonable and hard-hearted, while we laud identical behavior in males of similar standing. Sexual promiscuity is similarly double-edged and catcalling, or overtly sexualized pressure placed on women in public indicates that they should be passive sex objects. Complaints of marginalized or traditionally oppressed groups being "everywhere" on television and in ads is an also an excellent example. Any increase in presence or representation is falsely perceived as totality or overrepresentation by many.

As you move through your community, you can identify these examples and many others. Awareness is the first step to stopping negative behaviors that impact both you and those with whom you interact. This is the most productive way in which we can all participate in building communities of greater equality. While curtailing microaggression might not seem like an important topic, consider that the impacts to those who suffer them are cumulative and psychologically denigrating.