Microaggressions Cause Invisible Harm To People From Marginalized Backgrounds

Microaggressions Cause Invisible Harm To People From Marginalized Backgrounds

“Life is a catwalk and brings us into the limelight of human and social interaction. It teaches us to watch sympathetically, listen responsively, and feel united with the world around us” - Eric Pevernagie

Since the time of birth, humans are compelled to interact with each other, whether they like it or not. A mother’s nonchalant attitude towards her newborn offspring can jeopardize their lives. No matter how misanthropic people’s outlook may be, it would be impossible to live isolated from mankind. Being a social animal, the choices are limited where one can confine oneself in a cell yet continue to survive without external support. Even Uncle Scrooge from A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens had to eventually surrender his scoffing self to return to humanity. Without the circle of family, friends and co-workers, people can end up entangled in their despondency leading to both mental and physical ailments.

In a nutshell, social interaction, with all its complexities and problems, is indispensable for human beings.

Naturally, where two or more people come into contact, there will be exchange of words. Words have meanings that can be interpreted in different ways according to the expressions, emotions, attitude, body language and the thought process that serves as context. There are a variety of other factors that can affect the speech and comprehension of people within a group causing happiness, hurt, anger, misunderstanding, offence, suspicion and other such feelings that can get aroused to either deepen or to break associations. Depending on a person’s character, uttered words may have many shades of interpretation. Thus, sincerity, sympathy, taunt, innuendo, sarcasm, arrogance, pride, racism, ethnic biases, etc. become reflective in one’s style of speaking. Unquestionably, conversation is crucial territory that needs to be tread upon with much care, lest it causes fissures in relationships tearing people apart from one another rather than gluing them together.

On the same parameter, there is a certain technique “microaggression” that we consciously and sometimes, quite innocently, employ in our daily communication with others that is explicitly offensive, though concealed in words that may not seem unpleasant. This is in the form of a comment or action that subtly expresses a biased mindset toward a member of a marginalized group, like a racial minority, a specific social stratum, the transgender community, etc. An example of racial micro-aggression would be a digital photo project run by a Fordham University student featuring minority students holding up placards with comments like “You’re really pretty for a dark-skinned girl”.

Emily Skop, a researcher at the University of Colorado, argues that microaggression lies in its invisibility to the perpetrators, who typically find it difficult to believe that they possess prejudicial attitudes. One can say with confidence that the subconscious mind contains biases and assumptions which, at different periods of time and circumstances, are reflected in our statements and comments. From children to adults, anyone is capable of using words and phrases that clearly smell of microaggression.

While this may be something of an everyday happening for the offender, microaggressions can have a detrimental effect on the victims’ physical and mental health. According to research conducted by Ella F. Washington, those who are more vulnerable to the adverse impact are career professionals who, during the course of their employment may suffer from depression, prolonged stress and trauma, headaches, high blood pressure and insomnia. According to her research, microaggressions are aimed at traditionally marginalized identity groups, although anyone belonging to any background or profession could be vulnerable. So in terms of racial bias, she provides an excellent example where a Black woman is being addressed as: “You aren’t like the other Black people I know,” indicating the person is different from the stereotypes of Black people, whereas one for a white male might be, “Oh, you don’t ever have to worry about fitting in,” indicating that all white men are always comfortable and accepted. These types give the idea that because someone is X, they probably are or are not like Y.

In our society too, there is an even higher tendency to engage in microaggressions at all levels. From homes to educational institutions, we are either subjected to or subject others to microaggressions. Intelligent children from humble backgrounds who get into a school of repute will likely find their classmates sneering at them for the minutest of mistakes or slips. One can disregard the children’s behavior, but what about the teachers, who may rub the fact in that so and so must be appreciated despite the fact that they live in slums or villages. Being constantly reminded of one’s adversities does not always have a positive influence. Many crimes are committed by the emotionally weak, who may not have the strength to bear a continuous onslaught of deliberate or inadvertent sarcastic comments.

Another area where microaggressions can be witnessed is where girls, seemingly from a specific background get married in a different family setup. A good example would be that of a city girl marrying a villager. She may try to fit in the new environment making her best efforts to please everyone, but could be exposed to taunts about her urban lifestyle. Similarly, a village damsel marrying a city dweller could be made a laughing stock for her rural up-bringing. This rural-urban bias is observed on many social fronts in offices, on the roads and in our society’s institutions.

Just as the English language contains words and phrases laced with microaggression, so does our local vernacular. Thus where a “black list” means negative and “white list” means positive, words such as “paindu” (uncultured), “musalli” (convert of low social status), “kammi” (artisans) are reflective of our prejudices. Then there are certain places that have been branded as having peculiar characteristics, say some countries of the Global South where people are not as advanced. Intellectuals or high academic achievers are looked upon with surprise and commented upon in the terms: “You don’t seem to be from such and such place,” or “You are too sophisticated to belong to that country.”

One might argue that there is no point in being sensitive about such casual remarks or making it an issue. Ignoring them would be a better way to not care, but scholars are scholars. They are concerned about human development, therefore they dig into obscure realms of knowledge to unearth phenomenon that cause adversity to humans. Whether we accept it or not, the fact is that microaggressions do affect both the physical and mental states of the people. They definitely can push their creativity curve downwards. Therefore, awareness is necessary to tone down the arrogance of the ‘perpetrators’ and blend the ‘victims’ in a culturally, ethnically, linguistically diverse world to make it a better place for all.

The writer is a lawyer and author, and an Adjunct Faculty at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE)