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'You're so articulate': Why microaggressions wear people down

When Dr. Derald Wing Sue gives presentations around the country, people often compliment him on his good English speaking.

His response? “Thank you. I hope so, I was born here.”

Sue said this is an example of a microaggression – an everyday slight, putdown or insult toward marginalized groups. Often, these come from well-intentioned individuals who are unaware they are saying anything offensive, Sue said, speaking to Jeannie Yandel on KUOW's The Record. (We asked KUOW listeners to tell us about their experiences with microaggressions. Read their responses below.)

He said such seemingly small comments are the morphing of overt racism in America into a much more subtle form of bias. Sue is a professor of psychology at Teachers College, Columbia University.

In this example, the person delivering the microaggression believes that he or she is giving a compliment, but the message being sent to the receiver is, “You are a perpetual alien in your own country, you are not a true American.”

If the recipient, like Sue, takes offense, he could be perceived as misreading the intent of the comment or being too sensitive. “It is very difficult for them to understand the hidden meaning of their microaggression," he said.

Microaggressions aren’t just in offhand comments – they can be nonverbal too.

An example: a white woman clutching her purse a little tighter near a black male. Sue said assumptions of dangerousness and criminality are characteristic of the microaggressions black people receive.

Each small gesture might seem trivial, but for the person who receives them, they can accumulate over years – especially if the recipient has been subjected to different microaggressions several times a day.

“All our research on microaggressions reveal that microaggressions take a tremendous psychological and physical toll on the marginalized group member,” which can take the form of loss of productivity at school and work or a decrease in subjective well-being, Sue said.

Combating microaggressions can be tricky. Sue said recipients of microaggressions find themselves in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.

“We found that the majority of people of color did not do anything, were told not to do anything, but by that decision what happened was that it took a psychological toll on them," Sue said. "They sat there and seethed away with anger and frustration. But they were also very hard on themselves by saying, ‘I’m a coward. Why didn’t I at least do something about it?"

But doing something about it isn’t always possible. Microaggressions occur so quickly, Sue said, that an incident can be over before a person can think, “Did what I think happened really happen?” Recipients also may be conflicted, wondering if the slight was intentional and whether they will be considered a troublemaker if they respond.

Sue has some advice though: “You’ve got to take care of yourself.” Educating your perpetrator is beyond that scope, he said. He recommended finding a support group, people who will validate your feelings and help you cope.

He argues the real responsibility for removing microaggressions rests with educational institutions. “Why is the responsibility for change always on the shoulders of people of color? And this is where I feel institutions of higher education have failed. They have failed to acknowledge the existence of bias and prejudice on the campus.”

And don't kid yourself that you would never do such a thing to someone else, he said.

“All of us are socialized into the society, and it really is the height of arrogance or naiveté to think that any of us are immune from inheriting biases that are deeply embedded in this society and culture. They come out in ways that we’re not aware of,” Sue said.

He said microaggressions cause more harm "than the overt forms of racism that we witness today.”

“The white supremacist has less to do with the quality of my life, as a person of color, than the well-intentioned individuals who go to the voting booths, who educate children, who decide who they want to hire," he said.

"These are good, moral, decent individuals who experience that, but yet they are the ones that are making the decisions that create the inequities in our society.”

Produced for the Web by Kara McDermott.

Additional resources recommended by Dr. Sue:

Why you can trust KUOW