Adrienne A. Williams, Ph.D.
“Oh, you probably got into that program because you are half black.”
I heard many statements like this while applying for, and attending, college. Usually these were said in a manner-of-fact tone, or alternatively, excited – congratulating me on some perceived rare accomplishment for black people. While I did not detect animosity from the speakers, these types of statements were hurtful and made me angry. At the time, I did not know the word to describe why I was so angry. The word “racist” didn’t seem to quite fit – these were not hostile put-downs or attempts to be mean to me. But, somehow, they felt degrading nonetheless.
The term for the statements I was hearing is microaggressions. In this issue of The Health Psychologist, Jason J. Ashe, M.Div., Th.M., Taylor M. Darden, M.A., and Danielle L. Beatty Moody, Ph.D have contributed an article entitled, “Paying Closer Attention to Microaggressions and Their Consequences,” which describes some of the background and psychological and physical health impacts of microaggressions.
Microaggressions are subtle statements or actions that convey concepts rooted in stereotypes such as racial superiority/inferiority. The implicit biases that are ubiquitous in American culture often show up as microaggressions. Often well-meaning people are unaware that a statement or action they have made is a microaggression. However, microaggressions have significant consequences, and have been implicated as a contributing factor to health outcomes for multiple health conditions.
Once I learned about microaggressions, it was clearer to me why the statements said to me were so demeaning. American culture is largely individualistic. Being independent and self-reliant are highly valued. We have expressions such as, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” which emphasizes the benefits of standing out as an individual (which contrasts with more collectivist expressions such as, “The nail that sticks out gets hammered”). I began to understand that the statements had deprived me of my individual identity. While I saw my white counterparts being praised for their accomplishments because of their intelligence, talents, and hard-work – all individual characteristics – my accomplishments were not afforded the same privilege. Rather, I was seen as a part of a group – a group often not seen as intelligent, talented, or hard-working – thus my accomplishments were attributed to the aid given to that group, rather than to my own individual characteristics. It became clear that my failures would also be attributed to my group.
Microagressions are not limited to race. They impact people of many stereotyped groups, including sexual and gender minorities, religions, obese people, people with mental illness, unmarried adults, and others.
Due to the impacts on health of our patients, our colleagues, and ourselves, I encourage all readers to pay attention to when they hear microaggressions in their day-to-day lives, and the cultural narratives these statements strengthen. If you are not sure where to start, I would suggest observing media coverage and conversations surrounding mass shootings in the U.S. Note which shooters are described as aberrant individuals, and which are described as linked to a group, with group affiliation being assumed to be a contributing factor in the crime (whether or not they were actually members of a group). Notice which shooters are described as deserving some compassion due to experiencing prior mistreatment, and which are described as parts of groups of bad people. These descriptions deprive all other members of those groups of their individuality and burden them with stereotypes. Noticing and addressing microaggressions is a small step that every health psychologist can take to help improve psychological and physical health through culture change.
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