Microaggressions- those inadvertent and subtle messages that demean, insult, and invalidate a person- are routine occurrences for people of color, women, LBGT individuals, those with physical or intellectual disabilities, older Americans, and non-Christian individuals. Microaggression is a term coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce (1) in his study of racism in the media. Derald W. Sue and David Sue (2) extended the definition adding "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to a target group." Microaggressions are communicated verbally or nonverbally, and intentionally or unintentionally. Microaggressions tend to occur when the person committing them claims to be unaware of cultural differences, thus denying any intended bias. Because the counseling relationship is a snapshot of our racial realities, microaggressions can occur within the counseling relationship. Greene and Blitz (3) found that microaggressions against people of color and LGBT individuals seeking mental health services result in clients being subjected to more scrutiny in the counseling setting, being misdiagnosed, receiving ineffective treatment, and being misunderstood- thus having their needs unfulfilled.
Types, Themes, and Dilemmas
Derald W. Sue (4) categorized three subtypes of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are blatant, deliberate, verbal and nonverbal attacks intended to express discrimination. Microinsults are rude, unintentional actions or comments that demean a person's racial/ethnic, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or religious identity. Microinvalidations are comments or behaviors that discount, question, or diminish the thoughts, beliefs, feelings, or worldview/reality of the recipient.
Sue (5) developed 16 distinct categories of microaggression themes and designated the subtle (or blatant) message being conveyed by the implications including Second Class Citizen, Traditional Gender Role Prejudice and Stereotyping, Criminality/ Assumption of Criminal Status, and Pathologizing Cultural Values/ Communication Styles. Sue demonstrated the impact that microaggressions inflict on marginalized groups by developing four psychological dilemmas. Dilemma one is Clash of Sociodemographic Realities that demonstrates the clash of realities of Whites who deny being racist and being capable of discrimination; and minorities who believe Whites are racist and enjoy their position of power and superiority. Dilemma two is the Invisibility of Unintentional Expression of Bias that describes how the majority group can inflict a microaggression and be oblivious of its impact on the targeted individual. Dilemma three is the Perceived Minimal Harm of Microaggressions that refers to the reaction from the person in power being confronted with the microaggression. The person in power may feel that the recipient is acting "too sensitive" or touchy. They do not understand why their statements are perceived as harmful. They may even believe the communication was innocent and the recipient should "get over it" or "just let it go." The fourth dilemma is the Catch-22 of Responding to Microaggressions that involves the action/reaction of the recipient of the microaggression. The recipient of the microaggression may question the situation: Did that really happen? Can I prove that happened? Should I say anything? Will anything happen if I respond?" The receiver considers whether their actions will be negatively interpreted or stereotyped (e.g., being viewed as the "angry Black man"). Selfquestioning can be exhausting and can take an emotional and physical toll on the individual. However, by not addressing the microaggression, the receiver carries the weight of the experience on his/her shoulders, which also contributes to mental health complications.
In my Social and Cultural Diversity in Counseling class, I asked my students to provide personal narratives of either being the recipient of a microaggression, or delivering a microaggression to another person. I selected a few of their personal narratives to demonstrate the psychological and physical impact of receiving microaggressive remarks from another person, and how the microaggressive types, themes, and dilemmas are played out in their everyday lives. Although the students gave their permission, initials are being used.
LG is an African American female who experienced a microinsult with the theme of Assumption of Criminality. This illustrates...