By Tori DeAngelis – originally published as “Unmasking ‘racial micro aggressions”
Two colleagues—one Asian-American, the other African-American—board a small plane. A flight attendant tells them they can sit anywhere, so they choose seats near the front of the plane and across the aisle from each another so they can talk.
At the last minute, three white men enter the plane and take the seats in front of them. Just before takeoff, the flight attendant, who is white, asks the two colleagues if they would mind moving to the back of the plane to better balance the plane’s load. Both react with anger, sharing the same sense that they are being singled out to symbolically “sit at the back of the bus.” When they express these feelings to the attendant, she indignantly denies the charge, saying she was merely trying to ensure the flight’s safety and give the two some privacy.
Were the colleagues being overly sensitive, or was the flight attendant being racist?
For Teachers College, Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue, PhD—the Asian-American colleague on the plane, incidentally—the onus falls on the flight attendant. In his view, she was guilty of a “racial microaggression”—one of the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color by well-intentioned white people who are unaware of the hidden messages being sent to them,” in Sue’s definition.
In other words, she was acting with bias—she just didn’t know it, he says.
Sue and his team are developing a theory and classification system to describe and measure the phenomenon to help people of color understand what is going on and perhaps to educate white people as well, Sue says.
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions, because it’s scary to them,” he contends. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”
To better understand the type and range of these incidents, Sue and other researchers are also exploring the concept among specific groups and documenting how a regular dose of these psychological slings and arrows may erode people’s mental health, job performance and the quality of social experience.
In his landmark work on stereotype threat, for instance, Stanford University psychology professor Claude Steele, PhD, has shown that African-Americans and women perform worse on academic tests when primed with stereotypes about race or gender. Women who were primed with stereotypes about women’s poor math performance do worse on math tests. Blacks’ intelligence test scores plunge when they’re primed with stereotypes about blacks’ inferior intelligence.
Whites unconsciously racist
Meanwhile, social psychologists Jack Dovidio, PhD, of Yale University, and Samuel L. Gaertner, PhD, of the University of Delaware, have demonstrated across several studies that many well-intentioned whites who consciously believe in and profess equality unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous circumstances. In experimental job interviews, for example, whites tend not to discriminate against black candidates when their qualifications are as strong or as weak as whites’.
But when candidates’ qualifications are similarly ambiguous, whites tend to favor white over black candidates, the team has found. The team calls this pattern “aversive racism,” referring in part to whites’ aversion to being seen as prejudiced, given their conscious adherence to egalitarian principles.
Sue adds to these findings by naming, detailing and classifying the actual manifestations of aversive racism. His work illuminates the internal experiences of people affected by microaggressions—a new direction, since past research on prejudice and discrimination has focused on whites’ attitudes and behaviors, notes Dovidio.
“The study of microaggressions looks at the impact of these subtle racial expressions from the perspective of the people being victimized, so it adds to our psychological understanding of the whole process of stigmatization and bias,” Dovidio says.
Research shows that uncertainty is very distressing to people, Dovidio adds. “It’s the uncertainty of microaggressions that can have such a tremendous impact on people of color,” including on the job, in academic performance and even in therapy, he and others find.
Vocabulary of racial microaggressions
Sue first proposed a classification of racial microaggressions in a 2007 article on how they manifest in clinical practice in the American Psychologist (Vol. 2, No. 4). There, he notes three types of current racial transgressions: