Casually thrown around remarks about others often reflect unconscious stereotypes. Ndella Longley explains why microagressions aren’t as innocent as they seem.
‘You act really white, for a black person,’ she says. ‘Interesting,’ I say, ‘and how exactly is a black person supposed to act? And what characteristics do I display that appear typically ‘white’? Oh and by the way, I’m mixed race.’ Okay, maybe this was not my real response, but one I thought up about twenty minutes after. But that doesn’t make it any less true. As a mixed race person I don’t identify strongly with the race of either of my parents, nor do I identify strongly as ‘mixed race’, an extremely fluid concept. My point here is to illustrate the nature of a microaggression, an unintentionally harmful comment borne out of ingrained prejudices and subconscious ignorance.
The term ‘microaggression’ is a relatively new one. Essentially it means what it implies – a tiny, harmful act. These miniature, psychological slaps in the face occur daily, and in multiple forms. Microaggressions aren’t limited to race. They can be based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, hair colour, accent and any other number of elements that society uses to categorise people. And certainly everyone is guilty of them to a greater or lesser extent, whether consciously or not.
If there is no conscious intention to offend, why are microaggressions so bad? The key to their damaging effect is exactly that they are unconscious. In casually thrown about remarks such as ‘Where are you really from?’ we make assumptions about people based on their cultural differences and lifestyle choices. The scary part is that these assumptions reflect deeply ingrained stereotypes, and that people can be completely unaware of the preconceptions they make about others. For example, I’m from Brighton and it’s often assumed that my family are tree-hugging, hemp loving hippies. I suppose it would also be safe to assume that I eat Brighton rock for breakfast and live next door to Brighton locals Fatboy Slim and Bianca from Eastenders.
The main repercussion of microaggressions is marginalisation. As a recipient you become aware of being different, you become ‘the other’. Categorising is a human psychological need, and it is not necessarily a bad thing, but it is important that we are aware of the types of categorisation that might be negative and harmful, intentionally or not.
My point is not to instil guilt or place blame, but to incite awareness. No one wants to feel like they don’t belong, or be picked out for something they have no control over. We need to become more aware of the minute and the major prejudices present in our society. Reducing microaggressions has the potential to diminish the idea of ‘the other’ and build a stronger shared identity. Basically, we need to stop giving each other tiny, psychological slaps in the face.