What's the Big Deal with Microaggressions?
We all engage in microaggressions. We all experience them. Part of the issue is that we experience them differently, both in frequency and in our perception.
There’s a lot of hemming and hawing in our culture right now about how people “can’t say anything” anymore. How people are “too sensitive”. But really, when someone is experiencing regular aggression from people around them-- at work, at school, while buying groceries-- and they are hurt by it, who is the sensitive one? The one who is sad because they can’t say whatever offensive thing they want without someone becoming offended... or the one who is having people say offensive things to them all day? Hmmm…
Let’s think about it this way-- Someone punches you in the arm. You have a bruise. You get punched in the arm again. Your bruise is even worse. Is it surprising that now it hurts you more when you are punched in the arm than when someone without a bruise is punched in the arm?
The person who punched you might wonder why it hurt you so badly. Why are you being such a baby? They didn’t even hit you that hard?! But they might not realize they punched you in the exact same place you’d just been punched twice already.
This is where perception comes into play. If you say something to someone, but you didn’t mean it to be hurtful, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t hurtful. We have all had this experience. You said something that landed differently for someone (spouse, coworker, friend) than you thought. Why did you have that miscommunication? YOU ARE NOT THE SAME PERSON. You can’t read their mind. It’s not possible. You don’t know what experiences they’ve had… today, yesterday, three years ago, or as children that might lead to their perception of your words.
So, we’ve established that this happens to all of us. How does this miscommunication in our everyday relationships differ from microaggressions?
Microaggressions are based in systemic oppression. By their very nature, they are related to power and because they are systemic, you can be assured that these comments are something the receiver is hearing all the time. Not only are they a reminder of their lack of power in society, but they are a reminder that their experiences are not the norm. They are a reminder of prejudice and discrimination they’ve experienced as a result of their identity. They may be a reminder of abuse they’ve experienced as a result of their identity.
While microaggressions might seem micro to the person saying or doing them, their impact is in no way micro, and can have a big affect on the environment in your business, school, or organization.