A: The question above asked by a participant in my microaggressions course reminded me of an interaction that happened during a retreat some years ago. Two couples at the retreat who had been close friends asked me to mediate a conflict. The older couple – a man and woman, were both white. The younger couple, a male and female, were each from a different historically marginalized racial background. The younger couple, who had a small child, expressed their pain and anguish about the increasing distance they were feeling from the older couple. A significant contributor to their disconnection was that the younger couple did not experience the older couple as having an understanding of the impact of racism on their lives. They named some unconscious microaggressions they had experienced from the older couple in the past. They were concerned about the capacity of the older couple to support their child as she grew up in a world where she would likely be judged and experience microaggressions because of her ethnicity, just as they had.
As a Black mother, I listened with resonance and my own internal anguish hearing the experience of the younger couple and their deep desire to have community in protecting their child. When it was the older couple’s turn to speak, I turned to them, trusting that as certified trainers in Nonviolent Communication, they would be able to respond with empathy. Instead, the response that came included, to the best of my recollection, this message: “When you call me a white man, that’s racism and sexism. Race and gender are not real. You are imposing these on me and judging me. You are the ones oppressing us.” Even as the younger man tried to express again his and his partner’s longing for partnership in holding their concern for their child, naming several examples of racial slurs and experiences he had experienced as a child, the older couple intensified their claim that the younger couple was harming them by referring to their race and gender. Finally, the conversation ended when the older woman expressed fear about her husband’s physical well being because of the stress of the interaction. No resolution was reached at that retreat.
This was one of those rare situations where I was truly gobsmacked. The older couple did not respond with any of the empathy in which they had been well-trained. Instead, they flipped the conversation around, asserting that they were the ones who were being subjected to a discriminatory attack. There are several pieces to unpack in this interaction, but I want to focus on one element now. Was the younger couple engaging in a microaggression by referencing the older couple’s race, the man’s gender, and the privilege that they experience because of those things? Can a BIPOC person commit a microaggression against a white person?
Let’s first look at the definition of racial microaggressions. Sue et al. (2007), psychologists who have greatly advanced the work on microaggressions first begun by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, offer this definition for racial microaggressions:
“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.” (page 271).
This definition has been expanded to include social groups that experience lower rank (e.g., folks with disabilities, women, folks who identify as LGBTQIA, religious minorities, etc). After reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (Wilkerson, 2020), I also am clear that microaggressions serve another purpose. They (un)consciously serve to reinforce the subordinate social position, or caste, of various groups in society. Wilkerson notes that since its founding, US society has operated on a caste system, with Black people relegated to the lowest caste, white people to the highest caste, and people from other ethnic groups generally distributed in the middle castes. The race you were born into defined, often legally but many times through social norms and expectations, where you could live, who you could love, what kind of work you did, and so much more. When we encounter someone who defies the (un)conscious expectations we would have for a person of their caste, microaggressions serve as a reinforcement of caste norms. Through microaggressions we remind the transgressing person that someone from their caste is not supposed to have an advanced degree, or live in certain places, or shop in certain stores. The activation of caste norms stimulates microaggressions that either give voice to surprise that the person is departing from caste norms and marks them as an exception (you are so articulate!) or attempts to return them to caste appropriate behavior (let me show you where the sale items are).
There are several elements in this framing that lead one to question if the younger couple’s naming of the race and gender of the older couple described above is actually a microaggression. First, an important element of microaggressions is the pervasiveness of the experience. BIPOC folks experience microaggressions ALL THE TIME! When I go to the store, I am followed by security, offered price checks by cashiers, directed to the lower priced items by floor clerks. When I interact with medical professionals, they often use simple language that leaves out nuanced medical information. When I teach a class, people compliment me on how well I speak, express amazement and delight about my academic achievement or ask me where they could find the trainer. All of these are examples of the myriad of racial microaggressions I experience in daily life. The prefix “micro” in the word microaggressions refers not to the intensity or magnitude of the experience, but instead to the pervasiveness of these interactions, each containing an implicit derogatory message, that occur between people, across groups.
Describing the older couple being called white as a microaggression does not reflect either characteristic of microaggressions. Microaggressions are pervasive and they carry an implicit message about a group’s rank in society. If someone tells me their identity, referring to that identity by calling them male, female, trans, black, white, Asian, Latinx, indigenous is the same as identifying that they are tall or short, brown-eyed or blue-eyed, long haired or short haired. Descriptive words are not inherently negative or positive. It’s when those words become proxies for hidden meanings and stereotypes that they become problematic. When we talk about needing “extra support for Black students,” when we really mean “students who are not academically successful,” we are conveying a hidden message. That message is rooted in stereotypes that Black students are not academically successful and conveys a message that any Black student at that site will need support. It reinforces caste stereotypes about the intelligence and potential for achievement of Black people. That message is quite different than “we need extra support for students who are struggling, regardless of race.”
When the younger man described being called racial slurs as a child, those words had (not-so-) hidden meanings. No one uses explicit racial slurs without meaning to activate the negative stereotypes of not good enough, lesser than, inferior. When the younger man called the older man “white” there was no hidden meaning conveyed. He was naming explicitly that as a white person, the older man would be less likely to have the extensive experience with the kinds of racialized bullying the young man had endured. He was not activating stereotypes that the white man would be of a lower caste. That stereotype does not exist in US society. There is no equivalence.
We also need to consider the pervasiveness of the experience. How often does the older man experience these kinds of interactions in every element of his life, that tell him he is perceived as less than others because he is white? I imagine the frequency in which he experiences this is quite different. And, when he does experience it, I imagine it is a direct expression of a real-time, explicit challenge between him and another person, not a subtle manifestation of the pervasive racism and caste structure that exists in society. When I walk into a store and someone asks if I want to know where the sale section is, that question is rooted in a social context that says: “Black people have been victims of generations of racism and oppression in this country. As a result, Black people have less disposable income than most other groups. And this Black person in front of me must not either.” At best, it continues to advance beliefs that all Black people are in the same economic situation. At worst, it results in the kind of experience Isabel Wilkerson described in Caste. She noted that despite Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker’s renown, he was detained and frisked when he entered a deli and, after quickly deciding not to make a purchase, attempted to leave right away. Unconscious stereotypes that Black people, not having economic resources, must intend to steal prompted the deli employee to assume that a Black man entering and leaving the store without purchasing something was breaking the law. When a white person experiences these same actions, being followed into a store or frisked, it is likely because other behavioral signs suggest they might be shoplifting. I’m not arguing that making these assumptions without explicit information is okay. But when it happens to BIPOC folks, it’s much more likely connected to the stereotypes about BIPOC folks than it is to relevant behavioral information they are offering in the moment. And because it’s connected to these stereotypes, they’re incredibly painful.
I imagine that the white couple at the retreat finds a hidden negative message or stereotype in someone calling them white, or responding to their whiteness, at a far lesser frequency than do the two people of color. And, I’m guessing many of the times when their race is mentioned at all, just like in this case, it was because whiteness was relevant to the situation. In a conversation about racial bias and discrimination, of course naming the person’s race is relevant. When I go to buy socks, it’s not.
It should be clear at this point that simply referencing another person’s race or gender is not inherently an example of a microaggression. And, that referencing the race of someone who is white, of the historically dominant race in the US, does not come with the same loaded, negative stereotypes that have been used to keep BIPOC folks in their respective castes.
It’s crucial in this situation to examine why the white couple responded so defensively to the BIPOC couple referencing their race (and in the man’s case, gender). Why do white folks levy charges of microaggressions against BIPOC folks who are trying to name what is going on in an interaction they find painful? One possibility is that so many people in the US don’t know how to talk about race. We’ve all been told that we must not be racist. We’re led to believe that racism is an intentional act – bad people making choices to act in discriminatory ways. Racist acts are things bad people choose to do. Without a nuanced, complex understanding of racism, our options can be quite limited. When someone points out that we’ve done or said something that might be based on assumptions about someone’s race, we might get defensive. “I’m not bad!! I’m a good person. I am not a racist.” We don’t yet have a model for talking about and responding to exactly the kinds of situations that microaggressions describe – differential treatment of members of one group that stem from (un)consciously held beliefs about members of that group.
Without a more nuanced framing or a model that can encompass the complexity of a socially constructed phenomenon that has been used to impact people with horrific real world consequences, we’re stuck. How do we hold the truth that we don’t believe race is real and don’t want to act on such painful stories about people, and yet may still be doing so because we’ve internalized the racist patterns of behavior that are so much a part of our culture? Someone in that stuck place might, when called-in after committing a microaggression, resort to a limited, flawed strategy. We might, consciously or unconsciously, believe that the only way to avoid the painful self-judgments that might arise if we admit we have committed a microaggression or racist act is if we make any mention of race bad. We demonize any discussion centered on race and assume that it is the mention of race that is the root of the problem. Doing so requires us to ignore the stereotypes, the painful impact, the historical inequities of who’s harmed, and say “It’s all equivalently problematic.” This is a rhetorical move that shuts down the conversation and allows a person to see their pain about race as a white person as equal to the pain about race a BIPOC person holds. It’s not a move that leads to any hope for the kind of authentic, albeit painful, dialogue that is needed to help us move from the unconscious exercise of stereotypes and caste norms into a truly more equitable world.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286.
Wilkerson, Isabel. (2020). Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents. Thorndike Press.
 It’s important to acknowledge here that white and male are labels that are often loaded terms that can and have been used disparagingly. A discussion of the dilemma this points to – understanding the relationship between individual and systemic pain, will be offered in another post.