Reflections on Microaggressions

6th April 2020

Microaggression: ‘a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination or prejudice

Understanding Microaggression

Recently I took a taxi to visit a university who wanted to talk to me about a diversity and inclusion e-learning course. They let me know their particularly focus would be on “microaggressions” – looking at your watch when someone is talking, interrupting them, or maybe asking someone where they are from (highlighting the difference between them and you). Maybe unwittingly you can let someone feel they don’t belong somewhere quite as much as yourself when you were asking from genuine curiosity.

Prior to my trip, a friend asked me what I was working on and I talked about microaggressions. His mouth fell open and he remarked “what are we meant to do – all become mannequins?” It was an understandable reaction as, on the face of it, microaggressions seem a world away from what we recognise as traditional aggression – something I learnt more about during my journey.

Physical Attack

My taxi driver was from Ethiopia originally. He had driven off-duty members of the police, who took drugs in his cab and threatened him with arrest when he asked them to stop. He was scared when people drank too much, got aggressive and gave him a volley of racist abuse. His wife had been physically attacked.

I must say, my observation is that the thousand cuts of microaggression can be hugely damaging, as they can be deniable and even enter the realm of gas lighting “no you took that the wrong way “ or “I never said that”. When you react, sometimes emotionally, you can be blamed as someone who is overly defensive. Both physical and psychological harm are serious.

Blind Spots

We all have blind spots and sometimes we do need to let someone know if for whatever reason “you are giving that person a bit of a hard time”. Sometimes that’s all it takes. If they deny it and carry on, others may begin to join in: giving someone objectives which set them up to fail, taking their ideas and presenting them as their own, or making comments which upset whilst hiding behind “it was only a joke”. It is so important that a group effort is made to stop this happening.

Collective Approach

I reflected that it’s excellent that universities and other institutions are looking at the issue of microbehaviours and microaggressions. Sometimes though, I reflect that although we may raise issues around which academics get access to funding, who is mentored up the organisation but on the wider campus community there are still people being subjected to hate crime and physical attacks.

Universities need to reach out of the social economic culture of their senior management teams and into their wider community so everyone feels they can speak up and be listened to, whether that be a microbehaviour or an actual physical attack.


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