Reflections on Microaggressions

Arman-article-4 (1)In 2011, the National Union of Students (NUS) published the Race for Equality report. The report, which was the result of two years’ worth of research, highlighted many issues Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) students faced within the UK’s Higher Education system. In 2012, work began in order to advance race equality nationwide namely in the form of the Race Equality Charter Mark (REM). In 2014, King’s College London (KCL) signed up to the REM initiative and has consequently set a programme to implement it at their institute. I had the privilege of contributing to this programme by taking part in KCL’s BME Success Project. One issue that emerged from my time as a researcher was BME students’ accounts of ‘harmless’ jokes. Such jokes tended to focus around a person’s identity and would be dismissed as ‘just a bit of fun’. One participant described how she would ridicule herself and make jokes about her cultural heritage because, for her, to do so was easier than to bear others doing it to her. In her mind, by depreciating herself, she deterred others from doing so.

During my research, many who shared their experiences of these ‘jokes’ were unknowingly describing instances of microaggressions. Microaggressions can be defined as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities. They can occur either intentionally or unintentionally, consciously or subconsciously. The degree of offence they cause varies depending on the nature of what is being expressed. Regardless, whatever is expressed, it communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative slights to the target person or group. A typical example of a microaggression would be a person clutching to their belongings when a black man passes them, as is comically portrayed in this video from 2008. A more recent example is when the Daily Mail reported that Idris Elba was considered to play the role of James Bond by a Sony executive. The news prompted one reader to comment,

This is what happens when you put a woman in charge of a movie studio.

The implication of such actions and statements is in the assumptions they hold about the target person/group. In the video, the assumption is that black men are, by default, seen as criminals. Similarly, on the mere thought of considering Idris Elba as James Bond, the Sony executive is viewed as incompetent and her incompetency is attributed to her gender. Although microaggressions may not be an explicit or overt form of discrimination (such as ‘I hate you because you are x’), they are still founded on the same prejudices which lead to discrimination. Microaggressions therefore become a way of expressing one’s deeper prejudices without overtly stating them; it is a subtle form of discrimination towards a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation and/or religion.

Earlier this year, TIME published an article entitled “‘MicroaggressionIs the New Racism on Campus. However, contrary to what the headline seems to suggest, it does little to inform its readers of what microaggression is or the negative experiences associated with microaggressions. Instead, it dismisses issues surrounding the term and erroneously concludes that those who advocate the term make ‘being white…in itself, a microaggression’. However identifying microaggressions is not an activity for dichotomising between white and black. Rather it is to recognise how racism has changed in the post-Civil Rights era. Microaggressions are a form of subtle racism that impact the psychological health of an individual. Many of the ‘jokes’ that participants experienced in my research affected their sense of self-worth and created complex issues within their psyche. Furthermore, actions which are deemed acceptable today may very well be deemed as overtly racist and unacceptable in the future. For that change to occur, new ideas and terms must emerge through an in-depth analysis of contemporary circumstances. By initiating conversations and challenging social norms, one can begin to identify how discrimination manifests itself and, subsequently, develop ways to adapt and tackle these manifestations of discrimination.

Discussions on how discrimination changes is vital in pinpointing social problems within society. Microaggressions are based on a person’s prejudices and lead to discriminatory actions. The belittlement of a person occurs due to existing stereotypes and discourses prevalent within popular culture. How this is expressed may vary accordingly. However, rather than dismissing new concepts and ideas on how prejudice is expressed, it is upon us to identify different expressions of racism, sexism and so forth. Through starting the conversation, building awareness and pinpointing discrimination, strategies can be developed to tackle and address the problems they inflict to an individual’s psychological health and the problems they pose for equality within a society. By doing such things, the corpus of information on discrimination develops and we as a society becomes more acute in our awareness of prejudice and its ill effects on all of us.