When we think of racism or sexism or homophobia or any kind of prejudice, we often automatically think of big, overt acts of hostility - name calling, intentional negative treatment or violence. But prejudice is not just about the obvious mistreatment or the horrific acts we hear about in the news - it’s often much more subtle and more pervasive than that. In fact, societal 'isms' form part of our individual and collective psyches and they play out in little and big ways all the time.
These subtle expressions of prejudice are sometimes referred to as micro-aggressions - and include a range of verbal and non-verbal behaviours, such as: crossing the street when we see someone approaching, choosing not to sit next to someone on the train, making less eye contact with someone, nodding or smiling at someone less, assuming someone is more junior than they are, ignoring someone’s contribution, assuming someone has a husband or wife (rather than a same-sex partner) - things we do without realising, that reveal our unconscious biases.
Think about when you meet someone and you “instantly click” with them or, alternatively, when you have a negative first impression of someone - that’s your brain making a decision and a judgment about the other person with very little or no evidence. It’s a gut reaction.
Gut reactions can be a useful source of data when making decisions, but this is also where our biases and prejudices come from.
We all have biases (yes, all!) even though we don’t like to admit it. We have been taught that we should not be prejudiced, and that discrimination is wrong, so we do our best to hide or suppress our biases and appear objective, but they still “leak out” in these micro ways – both non-verbally and verbally.
This is what researchers call modern or aversive prejudice and it plays out in our interactions and decisions at a day to day level. It’s not as overt as “traditional” prejudice, but in some ways, it’s harder to tackle because it is so subtle. That’s why the concept of micro-aggression is helpful – it gives us a word that captures the subtle and routine impact of prejudice and marginalisation that many people experience all the time in modern society.
So what's wrong with the word?
Having said that, there are two broad reasons why I feel the term is misleading and can actually be unhelpful.
1. It’s not really an aggression
Aggression implies there is something intentionally hostile about the act – but that’s not the case here. In fact, very often, they are unintentional, and the person may not even be aware of doing it, let along being aware of the impact or implication.
For example: When someone tells a Black or ethnic minority person "you are so articulate": this is a compliment on the surface, but it implies that Black/ ethnic minority people aren't normally articulate. It’s a subtle message, that is not intended and usually uttered without reflection.
Or take the classic one – asking someone (of colour), “Where are you from?”. On the surface this comes from a good place: wanting to make a connection and learn more about someone. But when a person is asked that question repeatedly (especially then they have already said they are from ‘here’, and they are then asked “Where are you really from?”), the implication is that you couldn’t really be from here, that you don’t belong here. It’s a small way of ‘othering’.
These small acts clearly have an impact (both, on the individual and in terms of contributing to structural inequality), so they should not be underestimated. However, they are usually not driven by conscious hostility. They are more like Freudian slips that reveal our unconscious thinking. It’s important to understand where they come from and the impact they have. However, the word ‘aggression’ makes it sound more intentional and hostile than it actually is and the term can makes people feel angry, shameful and defensive when you bring it up, which isn’t necessary or helpful.
So for those who may feel ‘accused’ of being racist (or sexist or prejudiced in any way) - because you may have said things like this (which, in all honesty, is probably most of us): We understand that it was not your intention to hurt anyone. Racism is pervasive and we use the term broadly, but nobody is likening you to the white-hat-wearing neo-Nazi – we’re just trying to raise awareness of how it feels to be on the receiving end of statements or questions like that, and asking for a little sensitivity and awareness next time. That’s all.
P.S. Maybe a more accurate question – if you’re wondering what to say instead – might be “where were you born?” or “where did you grow up?” (Although you might want to challenge yourself to reflect on what your motivation is for asking that and what you think the answer tells you about the person...)
2. It’s not micro
Although the actions might seem small, their impact can be very significant for the person on the receiving end – particularly when repeated over time. Derogatory jokes, for example, might seem like harmless office banter, but when they are routinely addressed to certain types or groups of people, they make people from that group feel less respected and less valued, and it can corrode their self-esteem and sense of belonging.
Tiffany Alvoid and others have compared them to paper cuts – getting one or two is not a big deal, you might not even notice, but if you’re getting paper cuts all the time and your arms are covered in them (particularly when it’s not happening to others around you as much) then it can be debilitating.
And it’s not just about the impact on the individual. They contribute to inequality at a larger scale because microaggressions are disproportionally directed to people who are from less powerful or marginalised groups. That’s why they are also sometimes called micro-inequities.
As this article points out, “while anyone can be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior, microaggressions are directed at people with less power, such as women, people of color, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer people.”
That’s definitely not micro when you consider the impact on people and organisations.
As another article points out: “The normalization of microaggressions is antithetical to a well-rounded society with equal opportunities for marginalized individuals”.
So what should we do?
The good news is that in the same way that micro-aggressions can have a negative impact on recipients, the opposite – micro-affirmations – can have a reparative and positive impact.
A simple smile, nod or sign of acknowledgement can make someone’s day brighter and it can give them the encouragement to speak up that they need. A few words of recognition – like highlighting someone’s contribution by naming them, or amplifying their idea in a meeting – can counter the impact of exclusion someone may have experienced otherwise.
And if you’re a leader or in a position of power, then you are also role modelling and setting the tone for how others should act, which can have further, positive, knock-on effects in your organisation.
Here’s a little list to get you started...
1. Know yourself. Make an effort to understand and reflect on your own biases and blindspots so you can begin to become aware of how they might be playing out in your everyday interactions, decisions and micro-behaviours.
2. Pause. Stop and reflect before making that joke or comment or asking that question. Ask yourself where it’s coming from and what impact it might have. Challenge your assumptions.
3. Impact not intention. It’s not about how you feel, or even about how you “would feel” if it was you, it’s about how the other person is impacted so try to understand their point of view rather than being focused on your own.
4. Adopt a growth mindset. It’s OKAY to make a mistake as long as we’re willing to learn and course-correct. Lower your defences and be open to feedback.
5. Widen your horizon. Don’t rely on the ‘usual suspects’ all the time. Actively try to get different perspectives, particularly from marginalised voices.
6. Challenge exclusion when you see it. This doesn’t always mean blaming and shaming in public, it could be subtle nudges to help people think and act more inclusively. For example, expressing disagreement with a biased view or derogatory joke, giving clear and constructive feedback about why something might be unacceptable, asking a challenging question, or giving someone a different point of view to help them reflect on their bias and understand the impact.
7. Support others. Amplify voices that are less heard. Openly acknowledge peoples’ contribution, naming and recognising them publicly. Be vocal where it matters (not just on social media). It shouldn’t always fall to people in marginalised groups to speak up (this can be emotionally draining and feel socially risky) so use your voice, your power, your platform to be an active ally.
Small acts of inclusion can go a long way.
 Dovidio, J. F., & Gaertner, S. L. (2000). Aversive racism and selection decisions: 1989 and 1999. Psychological Science, 11(4), 315–319.