Microaggressions: Is the Term Inclusive or Outdated?

The ever evolving terminology of DEI

Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist, brought the term “microaggressions” — coined in the 1970s by Harvard University professor Chester Pierce to describe the subtle, everyday ways that people of color experience non-inclusive behavior. As Ruchika Tulshyan states in their article We Need to Retire the Term “Microaggressions”:

“The term microaggression doesn’t fully capture the actions’ emotional and material effects or how they impact women and people of color’s career progressions. In fact, researchers found that experiencing what we know as microaggressions can be just as harmful, if not more, than more overt forms of racism.”

Tulshyan offers the term ‘exclusionary behaviors’ to replace microaggressions

I often say in my allyship training, micro because it is small, aggression because it hurts. It’s really the cumulative toll of these behaviors that have a very detrimental impact to people in underrepresented groups. Regardless of what word you choose to use, make sure when using it that you emphasize how harmful and painful these behaviors are. Don’t brush them off as if it was just a small event or an honest mistake, people need to be held accountable for their non-inclusive behavior.

These exclusionary behaviors are small and harmful statements most people have said, heard, or participated in. They happen at a much higher frequency to women, people of color, those in the LGBTQ+ community, and those with disabilities.

 

Some of the most common exclusionary behaviors

Questions or comments like:
  • Where are you really from?
  • Stop being bossy (to a woman).
  • What are you?
  • Let me explain that you (or you would not understand).
  • What do you all speak in (country)?
  • You don’t act like a normal (BIPOC, woman, disability, LGBTQ+) person.
  • I don’t see you as a (BIPOC, woman, disability, LGBTQ+)
  • You don’t speak (language)?
  • People think it’s weird I listen to (music).
  • You smell like (ethnic food).
  • Can I touch your hair?
  • Is that a (BIPOC) culture thing?
  • Tell us what it is like to be (BIPOC, woman, disability, LGBTQ+).

Other common exclusionary behaviors are interruptions, taking credit for someone else’s idea, or splaining to someone else. There are many flavors of splaining – mansplaining, whitesplaining, straightsplaining, non-disabled explaining. Splaining is when the majority group explains what it’s like to be someone from an underrepresented group when they don’t have the context of those lived experiences.

 

Allies always follow the lead of people different from them

They never assume they know what it’s like to be the other person or make broad assumptions based on their limited lens. You might be thinking to yourself, people actually say these things out loud? Compare notes with somebody different than you. You’d be surprised that these things are extremely common amongst people with diverse backgrounds and are incredibly frequent. They still happen today. These are not issues of the past.

The toll that these non-inclusive behaviors take is cumulative. One or two are easier to shrug off than 3 or 4. And, after 5+, people hit a tipping point. This is known as weathering. Weathering is the aggregated impact of racism, from the systemic to interpersonal, leading to premature biological aging and worse health outcomes for Black people.

When we stand by and let exclusionary behavior happen, we are bystanders. By definition, if you are not speaking up when bad things happen you are contributing to the problem.

 

Allies are not bystanders, they’re upstanders

Meaning they don’t stand by when non-inclusive things happen on their watch. If someone says something or does something that’s not inclusive to someone when they are present, allies take action.

Upstanders ask themselves these questions:

  • What if I say nothing?
  • Am I okay with this happening again?
  • What if my child/friend did this?

By reflecting on these thought questions, you deepen your thinking and move beyond a primal emotional reaction to a more well thought-out response. You can choose your words more carefully and practice empathy towards the person that needs help understanding why their behavior was harmful. More importantly, it signals to the people around witnessing the behavior that this is not okay. And, it creates safety for the person that’s being minimized. They feel like someone’s got their back.

 

Want to do better, and not sure where to start? That is why we developed the Lead Like an Ally virtual self-paced training program, perfect for organizations struggling with accountability for diversity. You can also check out all of our other virtual and live program offerings.