Understanding microaggression through education

Header image saying A message from Dr. Samonte

I’m sure at one point or another in our lives, each of us has been in a position where we felt we weren’t welcome in a certain situation, or someone made a comment that made us feel small, uncomfortable, or unappreciated.

“It’s just a joke. You know that’s not what I meant,” is usually what the person who made the remark says when they realize they’ve hurt someone’s feelings or crossed a line with their comment.

An Asian-American born in the U.S. may hear those comments when they demonstrate they are hurt or offended at the question, “where are you really from?” A person of color may be belittled when told they are overreacting when a coworker calls them “one of the good ones.” A member of the LGBTQIA+ community may be considered overly sensitive if they become angry when someone says, “that’s so gay.” And a father of an autistic child may not be understood when he expresses his disapproval of the phrase: “You are such a retard.”

These examples of “harmless comments” or “jokes” are hurtful and also known as microaggressions.

Microaggressions are a comment, question, or action that is based on the perception of a person’s identity. Often, but not always, they are not intentional. They are indirect, and unexpected and go with rationalized prejudice. Microaggressions can come from people you engage with in an otherwise friendly way. Many people who commit microaggressions are unaware that they’ve said or done anything offensive, but their words make the other person feel uncomfortable, disrespected, invalidated, angry or confused. The person on the receiving end of these comments isn’t sure if speaking up will make things better or worse, so most times they end up not saying anything at all.

Microaggressions erode a person’s sense of belonging and impact a person’s sense of safety and overall happiness.

People are often unaware of how their words or actions impact someone whose experiences differ so much from their own. Instances of microaggression have real effects on people’s lives. Being unaware isn’t an excuse for perpetuating harmful behaviors or beliefs.

Where do microaggressions come from? They typically emerge from our deeply rooted biases against those who are different from us. Frequently a result of our upbringing, many people don’t even realize they possess these biases until they come face-to-face with someone in a conversation or a confrontation.

We are all human and we all make mistakes. Our perspectives are limited, and it is natural not to understand how others experience the world. How we choose to respond once we are made aware of our biases and actions and the way they manifest themselves as microaggressions is what matters the most. 

Here are some examples of common actions that are microaggressions:

  • A white man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes by them;
  • A Black couple is seated at a table in the restaurant next to the kitchen despite other empty and more desirable tables at the front; 
  • A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse; 
  • Complimenting a colleague’s English under the assumption they weren’t born and raised in an English-speaking country;
  • Excluding a coworker with a disability from an after-work event due to the assumption, they aren’t capable of participating; 
  • Assuming an older coworker can’t use or learn to use the latest technology; 
  • Continuing to use words or phrases that other people find offensive.

What do you do when you’ve learned that you have committed a microaggression? First, try not to focus on guilt. Instead, use the encounter as a springboard for driving your personal growth.

Here are ways we can productively channel the negative experience into meaningful action:

  • Educate ourselves. Being exposed to diverse perspectives can help uncover unconscious biases and build awareness to our actions. 
  • Have an open and honest conversation with the person you’ve committed the microaggression towards. It may be uncomfortable at first but listening to their perspective will help you learn how your actions affect others. 
  • If you see a microaggression unfolding, speak up and intervene. It can be as simple as asking, “what makes you say that?” or “I don’t get the joke, can you explain it to me?” If you are not in a position where it feels safe to speak up at the moment, consider approaching the microaggressor later. 
  • Raise awareness of microaggressions among your family, friends, and coworkers. As we continue to educate and grow, we should share resources and raise awareness about microaggressions that exist, and the fact that we are all capable of unintentionally committing them.

DEI awareness is a journey. We have a long way to go. I am humbled to be with you along the way. We belong here.

And please do not forget to smile and say hi! Your kindness means the world to others.

Thank you,

Alexies Samonte, M.D., MBA, FAAP (She/Her)
Vice President
Sponsoring Institution Diversity, Equity and Inclusion