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  • Writer's pictureTshegofatso Moilwe

Understanding Microaggressions

In last month’s blog post, we talked about the cycle of inequalities that exist in contemporary South Africa. Today, however, we’re going to zoom in on the subject and talk about one direct result of that cycle: the “microaggression”.

A microaggression is an indirect or subtle slight that can make the recipient feel they’re unworthy. We can be victims of microaggressions, but equally, we can be perpetrators of them. They come about because of unconscious biases (i.e., stereotypes) that we have internalised. We might hold an unconscious - negative - bias against one group, and a favourable bias towards another.

What are examples of microaggressions?

  • Abnormality and gas lighting: “She’s really pretty for a dark skinned girl”; “When I look at you, I don’t see colour”; “When I look at you, I don’t see a woman”; “You are so articulate”; “You are mature for your age”.

  • Assumption of criminality: When a young man of colour walks through a neighbourhood, security is called.

  • Assumption about role suitability based on race: Assuming a black person works at a store and asking them for assistance.

  • Classism: Not helping a shopper because of how they are dressed; turning to look at a person walking into a restaurant (you don’t belong here); avoiding eye contact with a person you deem to be of a lower social standing than you.

  • Infantilizing behaviour: Speaking slowly to an elderly person, or to a person with a disability.

People often don’t realise they’re perpetuating stereotypes, and it’s only when they take a step back that they start to understand the mechanisms that govern their behaviour.

A few key points:

  • Microaggressions don’t have to be verbal.

  • Microaggressions don’t have to be intentional - though they sometimes are.

  • Microaggressions don’t have to be overt - their ability to subtly undermine someone is part of their power.

  • Microaggressions can often come from a well-meaning place; yet this only serves to highlight how ingrained someone’s biases are (“despite being part of group X, you can do Y”).

If we’re the victim, how should we deal with them?

Microaggressions can be difficult to deal with because they’re almost invisible - yet no less painful for it.

One way to deal with a microaggression is through open and honest dialogue. It’s important to tell the person in the moment that their statement, opinion or question is hurtful, and to give them reasons why.

If you’re dealing with someone reasonable, they’ll apologise and seek to do better. They might think more carefully about their speech in future. But someone who is purposefully causing pain needs to be avoided, and if they’re your manager in the workplace, HR should have a word. A repeat offender will be quickly rooted out.

Why do microaggressions exist?

They exist because of the stories we tell ourselves about other groups of people. That person, and that group, is perceived as “separate” or “other” to us, and is assigned a position in our internal hierarchy as a result.

Of course, such thinking is reductive: we do not necessarily know the person, nor have we given ourselves a chance to get acquainted. We are in a sense pre-judging their capabilities and treating them in a stereotypical fashion in the process.

How do we move forward?

Self-reflection is key. If we feel we are the victim of a microaggression, can we honestly say we haven’t acted as a perpetrator in the past? If we have, why? What modes of thinking have we adopted that need changing?

By starting with the self, and continually working on the self, we can then reach outwards. Ultimately, it is a lifelong journey of self-improvement, governed by positive self-talk, and open and honest dialogue with others.

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