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I'm All Too Familiar With Microaggressions––What You Should Know About Dealing With Them

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I sat on a panel with other queer people recently and when it was over and all of the viewers were off of the Zoom call, we had a short check-in and gave each other space to talk about how the talk went and how we were feeling. Being queer and/or transgender is exhausting — and a lot of that weariness comes from the multiple microaggressions we experience each day and then questioning ourselves and our friends about how to handle them.

Other marginalized groups, and especially when those identities intersect, feel the impact of these slights too. And while “micro” may lead you to believe that microaggressions are small and easy to let slide, they’re just as harmful as blatant discrimination and can be harder to shake off.

Microaggressions are comments, behaviors, or looks that communicate negative messages to marginalized or non-dominant groups and people. They’re often quick, subtle, and done without thought. They are born from folks’ biases around gender, race, sexuality, and body types and abilities. The word was coined in the 1970s by Harvard Medical School psychologist Chester Pierce after observing insults exchanged between white and Black students. Columbia University psychologist Derald Sue popularized the word in 2007. Here are some examples of microaggressions:

“Can I touch your hair?”

“You pass really well.”

“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”

“Who is the real mother?”

“Your pain would get better if you lost some weight.”

“If your name wasn’t so feminine, I wouldn’t have misgendered you.”

Sigh. Scream. Cry. While some people know not to say this shit, fewer people understand why they shouldn’t. Unfortunately, more people don’t hesitate to say these things and also believe they are either being helpful or justified in their mistakes.

The conversation I had with other queer folks after our panel centered on what we felt on a day-to-day basis after navigating others’ biases. We felt a disconnect between what we experienced and the reaction to those emotions when we tried to explain them to others. When called out, microaggressions are often met with some level of gaslighting, even if not intentional, when we mention them to offenders.

Dr. Kevin Nadal, a psychology professor at John Jay College, wrote an article called Sexual Orientation Microaggressions: “Death by a Thousand Cuts” for Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Youth that showed the impact heteronormative biases had on the mental health of queer youth. Microaggressions hurt queer adults too and the accumulation of them adds up to a constant force of discrimination. We are worn down by a sense of not fitting in and of not being enough while trying to prove that we do and we are. We feel like inconveniences. We think we are “too much” because we are constantly being the ones to advocate for ourselves and are seen as constant squeaky wheels.

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Other marginalized groups experience this too and I want to tell myself and anyone who has ever had someone’s intent centered over the impact it had on you: You are enough. You are valid. You deserve respect. You deserve better. But you don’t have to fight every battle. You have every right to hold people accountable, but I have also learned that protecting myself is more important in some cases. I get tired of being vocal, the one to gently remind folks of their language, and the one to ask for what should have been offered.

I’m not going to police how you deal with microaggressions, but I will suggest finding safe and sustainable ways that work for you. Also, some microaggressions are harder to describe or point out and you might need a friend or someone who was there to validate your experience. Context matters, but I tend to trust my gut. If something sounds off, it usually is. When someone says something offensive and hurtful, my instinct is to react, correct, and teach. Sometimes I do this lovingly and other times I do it with a sharp tongue. I’m learning to take a deep breath before either approach and consider what the outcome will be. I don’t mind confronting people but if I’m doing it in person, I first determine if my physical safety could be jeopardized by speaking up.

This is the first question of five Dr. Nadal lists in his Guide to Responding To Microaggressions as a way to help you decide what to do once you have determined you have encountered a microaggression:

If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?

If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?

If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., co-worker, family member, etc.)

If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?

If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?

These questions are not without a lot of emotional labor. You are often making quick decisions while under the stress of frustration, sadness, anger, or embarrassment while already trying to manage the microaggressor’s reaction to your callout. Sometimes I respond to people with humor for them to see their mistake. Sometimes I ignore the comment and commit to finding peace with that choice. While I often have passive aggressive comments dancing in my head, I tend to be very direct with people. I don’t want any of my words to be misunderstood when I decide to advocate for myself.

If you are the person being called out, please listen. Don’t center yourself or try to explain what you “really meant.” Don’t plead ignorance or get defensive. Apologize, thank the person for pointing out your mistake, and then go and research why what you said was harmful. Don’t ask the person you offended to do this work for you.

I know that most microaggressions aren’t meant to hurt me. But after a day of many unintentional injuries, I feel beaten up. I remind myself that what I’m feeling is real and valid but I also give myself permission to let go of the negative thoughts that aren’t benefiting me. Talking to a friend or my partner helps affirm who I am, and makes it easier to keep moving in a world that isn’t learning fast enough for many of us.

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