What Are Microaggressions? 9 Subtle Insults You Need to Stop Saying
Microaggressions can be complicated to spot and even more difficult to address because of their deep roots and even deeper placement within the psyche of those who commit them—but they do damage just the same.
What is a microaggression?
You know an outright racist or prejudiced comment when you hear it, but microaggressions, teeny tiny seedlings of veiled non-acceptance that may hide larger prejudices, can be harder to spot. These everyday expressions have a casual subtlety that can leave both the culprit and the recipient clueless as to their literal meaning, yet they can still cause damage. “Because microaggressions are often communicated through language, it is very important to pay attention to how we talk, especially in the workplace and other social institutions like classrooms, courtrooms, and so on,” cautions Christine Mallinson, PhD, professor of language, literacy, and culture at the University of Maryland. Check yourself before you say any of these ten things, which are disrespectful to people of color, the LGBTQ community, and women. To be on the safe side, never start a sentence with these 10 phrases.
Microaggression: You’re so articulate.
The problem: Pointing out how well-spoken a person is might seem complimentary on the surface but the underlying sentiment, especially when expressed to someone of color, actually reads as one of surprise. A reaction of awe by someone who is White towards a person of color’s eloquence suggests that it is atypical for someone of color to be as intelligent—which is microaggressive behavior 101.
The solution: Never judge a book or its content by its cover. Compliments regarding someone’s speech or written clarity should be avoided unless the context requires specific judgment or critique as in the case of an exam, competitive debate, or paid speaking engagement. Any surprise over someone’s perceived intellect should not be outwardly expressed.
Microaggression: Where were you born?
The problem: Asking an individual where they were born immediately implies that they are were not born in this country and therefore not American, which is presumptuous and rude since you should not assume someone’s ethnicity based on their physical appearance. Questioning someone’s birthplace because they are not White or do not physically resemble the skin tone of the curious party is a perfect example of a microaggression and causes unintentional awkwardness.
The solution: Don’t ask. It’s best to avoid questions about birthplace unless it has already been established by that individual that they were not born in this country. Instead, ask yourself, “Why does it matter?” Here’s more on why you should stop asking people of color where they are from.
Microaggression: There is only one race, the human race.
The problem: The notion that the world is colorless fuels a denial of diversity. The world is made up of many cultures and ethnicities, all of which deserve recognition without judgment; ignoring racial differences does nothing to promote inclusion or acceptance.
The solution: Trade “there is only one race” for “all races are created and should be treated equally.” Colorblindness should not be confused for acceptance. Instead of seeing the world as “colorless,” it’s more important to recognize its diversities while considering and treating people of all cultures, colors, sexual orientations, and creeds equally and fairly. You should also delete “I don’t see color” from your vocabulary.
Microaggression: I’m not a racist, I have Black friends.
The problem: It is the actions, thoughts, and consideration towards people of races other than one’s own that determine racial appropriateness, not the number of Black people in your inner circle. The belief that having Black friends somehow exempts someone from being a racist is completely false and the attempt to utilize that narrative is microaggression at its worst.
The solution: It’s not who is in your purview but how you view the world. Authentically inclusive people believe that everyone should be treated equally despite color, gender, sexual orientation, or ethnicity—and that belief should always be the first explanation for anti-racism.
Microaggression: Wow you’re transgender? You don’t look it.
The problem: Telling someone that they don’t “look” transgender infers that all transgender people look the same and are somehow visibly recognizable.
The solution: Gender orientation has no general “look.” There is nothing flattering about expressing surprise to people that they’re doing a great job at looking like themselves. It is best to keep any feelings of delightful shock to yourself and skip statements of this nature. These are 16 more “compliments” that are actually pretty insulting.
Microaggression: You speak English so well.
The problem: When a White person calls out someone of color’s proficiency with the English language, it signals the assumption that English is not that person’s native tongue and that the individual is therefore foreign. Suppositions of this nature, with or without prior knowledge of someone’s ethnicity, are the backbone of microaggression because they speak to a belief that only White people can be native to America and speak “proper” English.
The solution: Enunciation doesn’t determine origin. Praise for an individual’s grasp of the English language should be avoided at all costs since there is no basis for assuming someone is not born in America because they don’t have any perceived American accent.
Microaggression: You are a credit to your gender.
The problem: Praising someone’s character or accomplishments and then throwing in “for a woman” essentially implies that other women are not known for having those characteristics or that they are somehow lesser than men.
The solution: There are good and bad in all genders. Complimenting someone based on their gender is actually a slight against that gender and winds up being just as insulting as if you judged them for it. Compliments should always be based on merit, not gender identity.
Microaggression: When I look at you, I don’t see race.
The problem: Avoidance by a White person of another individual’s color is denial that the other color even exists, which unfortunately suggests that anything other than Caucasian is insignificant. A person’s race represents their culture and should not be ignored, but rather acknowledged and accepted.
The solution: Every color and culture counts. A truly inclusive attitude means having no problem accepting someone else’s color and the cultural differences that come with it, but never using their color against them or as an excuse to treat them differently.
Microaggression: Is that your real hair?
The problem: Zeroing in on the length and/or texture of any person’s hair is unmannerly at best however questioning a woman of color about the authenticity of her hair suggests skepticism about its facade. It also supports the stereotypical notions about women of color and insecurities about their appearance.
The solution: Her hair isn’t your business. Fight the urge to ask a woman if her hair is real no matter what color she is. It can be a sensitive subject for some and even if it isn’t, a woman’s hair is her personal business and no one else’s and should have no bearing on how she is viewed or treated. In fact, this goes for men, too. Keep these examples in mind next time you ask, “What is a microaggression?” Next, read on to learn 12 everyday expressions that are actually racist.
For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.