A few years ago, whilst I was still at school, one of my closest friends came up to me and said “you will not believe what just happened to me”. She went on to tell me about how she had been stopped by someone who asked her a question that, if you are a person of colour, will most likely make your eyes roll: “WheRE aRe YOu fRoM”. When she proceeded to tell this man that she was from London, his reply unfortunately reflected an experience that many Black women face. He told my friend that she was lying. Why? Because she is Black, and to him, you could not possibly be Black and British. At the time, all we could do was laugh, how could this man tell her she was wrong about her own nationality? It was not until recently that I realised that this is just one example of a microaggression, one that she has since experienced daily. A few years later, I was on a night out with another of my best friends. A guy was talking to her and I saw her shake her head and laugh out of annoyance. When we were alone again I asked why she was shaking her head, she told me the guy was attempting to ‘flirt’ with her by saying “You know, I’ve never been with a Black girl before”. For many of you reading this, you may not understand the complete extent to which these two experiences are so derogatory and offensive. And that is one of the main reasons why microaggressions are such a serious problem that have some of the greatest consequences.
Microaggressions are defined by Derald W. Sue as “The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that...those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people”. What makes microaggressions so dangerous is the fact that they are so subtle, and often done subconsciously, so they become normalised. They are often said without qualms for those who do it, and often the impact that years of microaggressions have on those who are victim to it, are dangerously unacknowledged. Many groups experience microaggressions, this of course includes, (but is not limited to) black men, and non-black women, however, there is something slightly more unnerving and worrying about the microaggressions Black women are subject to. These microaggressions seek to insult Black women for both their gender and their race; many are misogynoir microaggressions.
I have seen a lot of backlash against Black women who speak out against microaggressions, labelling them as being ‘too sensitive’ or making more problems where there are supposedly none. Firstly, let's stop gaslighting the experiences of Black women. Secondly, lets unpack some of these microaggressions so we can see exactly why they are in fact a serious problem:
“You’re pretty for a Black girl”- This is in no way, a compliment. Whether the intention or not, this phrase is equating Black women to ‘ugly’ as a default. It suggests that it is a rarity that a woman can be both attractive and Black. This has ties to Eurocentric beauty standards that have been used to alienate Black women for centuries in order to oppress them further.
“I thought you were intimidating before I knew you”- Now this one is perhaps even more subtle than the first. This is heard in many settings for Black women including friendship groups, dating settings, the workplace and professional places. Now the problem with this microaggression is that it reinforces the stereotype of the ‘angry Black woman’. This is a heavily misogynoir idea that has been used to justify the mistreatment of Black women by falsely labelling them as ‘overly aggressive’. It is a justification often used by Police officers who assault and murder Black women.
“Can I touch your hair?”- This is a degrading question. It is also quite a strange question because, spoiler alert, hair feels like… hair (crazy right?). You ask to stroke someone’s pet, not to stroke another human being. In addition to this, this question ‘others’ Black women because it emphasises an idea that Black women’s hair is different to the norm or is abnormal.
As you can see from the three examples above, many microaggressions are rooted in severely racist ideas, many that date back to colonialism and slavery. They subtly reproduce these ideas often subconsciously. Microaggressions therefore go unchecked and unpunished. Many microaggressions are also said as compliments, which means, as previously said, when Black women speak against them, they are often met with gaslighting which can have a heavy toll on one’s mental state. What makes the consequences of microaggressions so potent is the fact that they are a daily occurrence; just imagine the effect that being told your skin colour is ugly, or that you are aggressive and abnormal, or that your experience is invalid regularly would have on your self worth. Multiple studies reveal that continued exposure to microaggressions do in fact increase rates of mental health issues amongst victims, including anxiety, depression, increased stress and low self esteem.
Microaggressions are so ingrained in social norms, this does not mean that they are okay. In attempts to become a better ally and anti-racist, many people will make mistakes, you may carry out microaggressions against Black women without knowing. The key thing is being open to people informing you of this, being prepared to apologise and learn. A quick search of ‘microaggressions’ in any search engine, and you will see hundreds of articles about people’s experiences, studies, more examples of microaggressions and ways to avoid feeding into microaggressions, so do the research. This is a necessary amount of learning that we all need to become aware of and work on, so let's keep on following the road to social justice.