As an Asian-American, Derald Wing Sue, PhD, says he often gets compliments for speaking good English. Such "praise," he says, is a typical example of a "microagression," the brief and pervasive verbal, behavioral or environmental slights that—intentionally or not—communicate hostility.
"The hidden message is that I am a perpetual alien in my own country," said Sue, who researches microaggressions as a psychology professor at Columbia University's Teachers College.
At an APA 2011 Annual Convention session, Sue and other psychologists discussed their work in the area and their frustration that many people don't recognize microaggressions' detrimental psychological consequences.
"People dismiss them as harmless, trivial and innocuous," said Sue. In fact, in 2007, when he first published an article on the topic in the American Psychologist, several white colleagues told him he was "making a mountain out of a molehill" and that microaggressions were no different from the everyday putdowns all people experience.
But research indicates they are far different. "Study after study suggests that the emotional reactions are anger, rage, depression and hopelessness," he said. "Microaggressions have been found to be quite psychologically painful to the recipient and they tend to be found to impair performance in education, employment and [access to] health care by breeding inequities."
Unlike the hurts and insults that might happen among whites, he explained, microaggressions symbolize oppression. And these affronts are difficult to define because perpetrators often have no idea that their comments were hurtful. "It's hard to prove," Sue said. "If you tell someone that their comments felt insulting, they will deny it and give other reasons for what was said. And the more you push it, the more defensive the perpetrator becomes."
Of course, microaggressions are not born only out of racial and ethnic prejudice. Women, people with different sexual orientations and people with disabilities are also common targets. Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, discussed the insults gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people face. Perhaps worse for this group, he said, is that many LGBT people say they get microaggressions from their family members. And microaggression, left unaddressed, can lead to worse consequences.
"The theory is that heterosexism has gone away, but hate crimes are still occurring," said Nadal, assistant professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York.
Speaker Richard Keller, PhD, a blind professor also at Teacher's College, has researched microaggressions perpetrated against people with disabilities for four years. The microaggression he personally experiences is people's tendency to talk more loudly to him than they do to other people, as if they are somehow compensating for his inability to see.
"It's pervasive," said Keller. "They assume helplessness. There's infantilization. You are desexualized. You are a second-class citizen."
Christina Capodilupo, PhD, of the University of Hartford, discussed her study of microaggressions directed at women. "While there are laws to prevent sexism, it's complicated because [gender discrimination] is so embedded in our society," she said. Just look at Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign, she said. The media often focused on her figure and wardrobe, coverage male candidates don't get.
"The media has a way of reducing women to their appearance," Capodilupo said.
What's needed, said Sue, is a greater understanding of the impact microaggressions have. "I don't think people realize that they are continuous and cumulative," he said. "From the day a person of color wakes up in this society, they are subjected to an onslaught."