Microaggressions – What Are They and How Do They Cause Harm?

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A microaggression is an often unintentional, indirect, and subtle form of discrimination against a member of a marginalized community.  Microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal.  The term was first used around 1970 by Harvard psychiatrist, Dr. Chester Pierce.  He used the term to refer to regular insults and dismissals he witnessed by non-Black individuals against individuals who are Black.  But microaggressions can apply to other communities too, including the disability community.  Studies have shown that microaggressions can have a major impact on a person’s psychological and physical health.

There are three types of microaggressions: (1) microassaults; (2) microinvalidation; and (3) microinsults.  Microassaults are intentional insults that are used to hurt the victim.  This could include abusive language or jokes at the expense of others.  Microinvalidations occur when someone attempts to discredit or minimize the experiences of a person from a marginalized group.  Often, this involves the speaker trying to discuss their own experiences as an example, discounting the experience of the marginalized individual.  Microinsults are rude, insensitive comments that disrespect a person’s heritage or identity.  For example, commenting that you are surprised by how eloquent of a speaker a person of color or a person with a disability is implies that most people of color or people with disabilities are not eloquent.  As relates to the disability community, microaggressions are an example of ableism, which assigns inferior worth to people with disabilities, limiting their potential.

Examples of microaggressions against persons with disabilities include belittling someone’s need for auxiliary aids to perform everyday tasks, complaining about accessible parking spots, treating people with disabilities as if they are children, or asking if you can pray for a person with a disability.  Each of these examples involves the making of assumptions about a person’s abilities without having lived in their shoes.  For example, asking if you can pray for a person with a disability implies that the person has something that needs “fixing.”  Treating people with disabilities as if they are children is called “infantilizing” and comes from the assumption that people with disabilities are fragile and need to be treated with “kid’s gloves.”  Another example of a microaggression is providing unsolicited comments to a person with a disability about medical procedures, treatment, or medication that may “solve” their disability.  Disabilities are an inherent part of the diversity of our society and the implication that a person with a disability needs to change something about themselves in order to function in society can be very harmful to a person’s sense of purpose, motivation, and overall psychological health.  Even labeling a person with a disability as “inspiring” can be a form of what is called “inspiration porn” – people with disabilities do not exist to provide inspiration and hope to you.

Many people think they don’t commit microaggressions because their intent was not to insult or offend the individual. Intentional or not, what matters is how the action or statement was received. If someone brings a microaggression you committed to your attention, it’s okay to feel confused and even defensive. However, it’s important to listen, validate the person, apologize, and change your behavior in the future. The person may not want to explain why your statement was a microaggression or offensive, and that is also okay.

dLCV is dedicated to ensuring that its work environment, along with the disability community and other marginalized populations, are free of microaggressions.  dLCV held a brown bag lunch for all staff in late February to discuss microaggressions in the workplace, moderated by a panel of graduate-level social work students.  If you are interested in learning more about implicit bias and microaggressions, you may want to explore the resources available on the George Washington University’s website below.