Jason J. Ashe, M.Div., Th.M., Taylor M. Darden, M.A., & Danielle L. Beatty Moody, Ph.D.
Department of Human Services Psychology, Behavioral Medicine, Clinical, and Community Subprograms
University of Maryland, Baltimore County
Within the past several months, the idiom “walking on eggshells” has taken on a revived meaning as emotional burdens arise from experiences of race and racism. Indeed, conversations regarding political correctness, racial tensions, and national identity have become increasingly ubiquitous in our daily environments throughout the U.S. Across many settings, what used to be seemingly innocent cursory chats and mildly inquisitive conversations between acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues have shifted to silent, expeditious excursions to the store, the curbside, the printer, or the restroom. Many of us are avoiding or significantly limiting any form of communication with persons who may not look like us, i.e., the other, for fear of either learning or confirming that their perspective on certain matters are different from our own. In an effort to stave off a potentially negative outcome, we are in a mode of avoidance. Indeed, empirical research underscores that cross-racial interactions create an emotional and cognitive load in both Whites and African Americans as demonstrated in subsequent poorer executive control, particularly in those demonstrating implicit-racial bias [towards the other] (Richeson & Shelton, 2007). Chiefly, a thread backstitching the fear, ambivalence, discomfort, burden, and threat sewn into these interactions is microaggressions, a consequence of our complicated relationship with race in the U.S.
In 1970, Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggressions to refer to “subtle and often automatic exchanges or ‘put downs’” (Pierce, 1970, pp. 277). Through personal and anecdotal evidence, and empirical research (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Wills, 1977), Pierce drew the conclusion that potentially ambiguous, derogatory racial slights and insults reflected racial animus directed at African Americans by Whites. Although it has been a while since Pierce’s proposal, the relevance and occurrence of these events continues, and perhaps has intensified over time. Indeed, thirty years later, Sue et al. (2007) in an issue of the American Psychologist, built upon Pierce’s pioneering work to define racial microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.”
Expansively, microaggressions are [un]intentional offenses or insults against cultural identities or persons commonly of socio-historically dislocated and marginalized groups. They reflect the presentation of racism without utilizing more overt, blatant, and major forms of prejudice. Microaggressions are the impulsive reactions or behaviors in response to our implicit biases or certain stereotypes promulgated by sociocultural representations. For instance, perhaps we frightfully glare when a person of Middle Eastern descent boards our plane to Boston… or we ask an Asian-American appearing individual, “So, where are you really from?” because Little Rock, Arkansas seems quite unlikely. Surely these examples of microaggressions* seem extreme and offensive. But if we are honest, we may have to confront the truth that we too perpetuate microaggressions. Often hasty and imperceptible, we banter with college students about how “ethnic” names are difficult to pronounce; or upon seeing a Latino patient enter the clinic, we hurriedly enter Medicaid in their insurance file because we presume undocumentation.
We as Health Psychologists are charged to actively uphold the goal of reducing health disparities that persist and are perpetuated in part by race as a social construct, and thus, by experiences of racism, such as microaggressions. The effects of racism and microaggressions are important and signal a social justice concern, in part because of the consequential adverse health outcomes. And most importantly, we must hold each other and ourselves accountable to the conviction that we often operationalize characteristics, personalities, and behaviors according to implicit bias, which makes us complicit in espousing these biases.
Microaggressions are remarkably menacing because even Health Psychologists can [un]intentionally promote and perpetuate stereotypes, prejudices, and racist ideologies that are latent in cultural nuances. We should not recapitulate power differentials by ascribing to this premise that people of color, gender and sexual minorities, immigrants, and others who experience microaggressions are sheerly responsible for explaining, proving, or combatting the “-isms” of oppression, bigotry, and slighted insults. Unreservedly, we understand that we cannot be complicit in propagating microaggressions for the sake of maintaining the façade of a peaceful circumstance, especially knowing that the aftermath may be far-reaching. With this in mind, we must sponsor and implement programs/workshops for clinicians and researchers to promote open dialogue on microaggressions and their subsequent effects, incentivizing a consciousness of global reverence, pride and self-love, empowerment, and acceptance of cultural, racial, and gender identities.
Furthermore, Health Psychologists must constantly remember that multifaceted experiences translate into multifaceted, individual-level health outcomes. For this reason, we are obliged to further integrate the study of microaggressions as a formidable and important aspect of the experience of racism with regard to understanding related physical health outcomes and health disparities, and accomplishing health equity. It is important for researchers to recognize the salience of such interpersonal experiences and their nuanced nature. We submit that our greatest value is indeed in our ability to be curious about and embrace that which is different from us. This journey will indeed be long, but worth it, as marginalized groups deserve to live in a society free of microaggressions and the adverse consequences that result.
* Further examples of microaggressions span the horizons of empirical research, social media articles, and multimedia projects. Warning: External content includes racial slurs, profanity, and triggering anecdotes.
Bean, A. (2014, March 03). I, Too, Am Harvard. Retrieved October 07, 2017, from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uAMTSPGZRiI
Hernández, P., Carranza, M., & Almeida, R. (2010). Mental health professionals’ adaptive responses to racial microaggressions: An exploratory study. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 41(3), 202–209.
Nigatu, H. (2013, December 9). 21 Racial Microaggressions You Hear On A Daily Basis. Retrieved October 07, 2017, from https://www.buzzfeed.com/hnigatu/racial-microagressions-you-hear-on-a-daily-basis?utm_term=.eqy42k91v#.oyQgY9BlA
Pierce, C. M. (1970). Offensive Mechanisms. In F. B. Barbour (Ed.), The Black Seventies (pp. 265-282). Boston, MA: Porter Sargent Publisher.
Pierce, C. M., Carew, J. V., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Wills, D. (1977). An Experiment in Racism. Education and Urban Society, 10(1), 61–87.
Richeson, J. A., & Shelton, J. N. (2007). Negotiating interracial interactions: Costs, consequences, and possibilities. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 16(6), 316–320.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–86.