Ask Kids & Race: What is a ‘Microaggression’?

By Katharine Strange

A lot of white people (including myself) want to be respectful and kind to all people, but sometimes find anti-racist terminology confusing. We were raised in nearly all-white schools and taught to be “colorblind.” Now that we are living in more multicultural or multiracial spaces, we fear that we will screw up and say the wrong thing.

If that is you, you’ve come to the right place. I’m here to answer questions and help you figure out this etiquette, which may be new to you. If you have questions, feel free to email me at askme@talkingrace.org Questions can be asked anonymously.

Our first question is: What is a microagression? 

To put it simply, a microagression is a casual slight based on someone’s race, ethnicity, country of origin, ability, gender, or sexual orientation. (Basically, any factor outside their control) It’s when a person from a majority group makes a (perhaps unintentionally) disparaging remark or action toward someone from a minority group.

That’s still kind of confusing, right?

Here’s an example:

The director of Kids & Race, Jasen, is a black man with an afro. While walking through a predominantly white neighborhood, a white person rolled down their car window to yell at him, “I LOVE YOUR HAIR!”

Why is this a microagression? The white man was giving Jasen a compliment, you may be thinking to yourself. The white man probably meant it as a compliment, but he doesn’t know what it’s like to be a black person whose hair is constantly judged, commented on, and even TOUCHED by strangers. When Jasen heard that comment, the man might as well have been saying, “LOOK IT’S A BLACK PERSON IN MY VERY NEIGHBORHOOD!”

What can we learn from this situation?

1. Don’t roll down your car window and yell at people, it’s generally poor etiquette

2. If you’re not a black person, keep your thoughts about black people’s hair to yourself. I know you think you’re being nice but receiving these comments doesn’t feel nice.

3. NEVER TOUCH A BLACK PERSON’S HAIR

Here’s another example, not based on race, but on physical condition. When I was pregnant, it was all people would ever talk to me about. It was like I lost my identity as a person with ideas and interests and became PREGNANT WOMAN. I tried to handle it gracefully, but it was really irritating sometimes. Strangers constantly made comments about the size and shape of my body and some even touched my belly. Do I even need to tell you this is bad etiquette? 

What can we learn from this situation?

1.     Don’t make any comment to a pregnant woman you wouldn’t make to a not-pregnant woman. (i.e. “you’re huge!” or “Look at your belly!”)

2.     If you do make an “innocent” comment and someone snaps at you, it’s probably because you’re the tenth person to say that thing to them.

It comes down to this: there are things people say or do with good intentions, but it ends up communicating a message like “you’re weird” or “you don’t belong here.” This is especially problematic when it comes to a person from a majority group making a comment to someone in a minority group.

Now you’ve made me feel nervous about making small talk! What am I supposed to say to strangers?

One of the first things we notice about another person is if they are a different race or gender from us. That is totally normal and DOES NOT make you a racist! However, it doesn’t need to be your opening line to someone.

There are plenty of polite topics that cross race, gender, ethnicity, etc. Weather, sports, current events, “I like your shoes” are all great things to say.

Bottom line: try to think about how your words or actions will be perceived by another person. If you screw up, it’s OK, just apologize and try to do better in the future.

Got a question about race? Our crack team at Kids & Race is here to help! Email askme@talkingrace.org