Microaggressions and what they mean 

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While overt discriminatory statements have become politically in-correct in America, “microaggressions” continue to perpetuate messages of inequality, sometimes unintended.

Examples: “You’re a credit to your race” and “You’re so articulate.”

Among the first to delve into microaggressions, Dr. Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, defines them as “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,” the American Psychological Association reports.

“These incidents may appear small, banal and trivial, but we’re beginning to find they assail the mental health of recipients,” he told the APA.

In a 2007 article, Sue proposed classifying racial microaggressions into three types, the APA notes:

• Microassaults — Intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas or serving white people before persons of color in a restaurant. 

• Microinsults — Verbal and nonverbal subtleties that convey insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. For example, a worker might ask a colleague of color how he got his job, implying affirmative action played a role.

• Microinvalidations — Excluding, negating or nullifying thoughts, feelings or experiences of a person of color. One example: Asking an Asian American where she was born, which subtly suggests she’s a foreigner, or commenting that she “speaks good English.”

Keith Barnes, executive director of Pikes Peak Community College’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion program, says microaggressions often come from people who have little interaction with minorities.

Because they’re often unknowingly used, Barnes seizes the opportunity, at times, to “have a sit-down conversation ... so [the offender] can grow from it.”

Woody Longmire, director of college and career readiness at Harrison School District 2, says microaggressions have been used to downplay someone’s educational achievement, such as, “I wouldn’t expect you to understand our budget.”

Or, news media will report high test scores from a largely minority district, but then undercut that by noting a high percentage of students receive free or reduced lunches. “It has the connotation that just because you’re poor, you can’t learn,” he says.

Rosemary Lytle, president of the NAACP state conference for Colorado, Montana and Wyoming, says this method of demeaning people of color has been around a long time and includes phrasing in which the word “black” carries a negative connotation, such as “the pot calling the kettle black” or “a black mark.”

She long ago abandoned using the phrase “in the black” when referring to being solvent. Rather, she simply says, “We showed a profit.”

Moreover, Lytle says the word “Black” when referring to Black people should be capitalized. “I didn’t want to lowercase myself,” she says. “When I was working as a reporter, I used to always write it uppercase, and sometimes they would change it and sometimes not, and when it got through [capitalized], that was a victory.”

Some news organizations capitalize the word, while others do not. The Indy has decided to capitalize it.

Lytle also says the proper usage is to say Black people. “If you say Blacks, I know you don’t know any Black people,” she says.


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