Notes on: Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal, and Marta Esquilin (2007) Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life
Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist Vol. 62, No. 4, 271–286 DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271

Dave Harris

They describe racial micro-aggressions as 'brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards POC' (271). They created their taxonomy through 'a review of the social psychological literature on aversive racism, from formulations regarding the manifestation and impact of everyday racism, and from reading numerous personal narratives of councillors (both White and those of colour) on their racial/cultural awakening'. There are three forms 'micro-assault, micro-insults, and micro-invalidation'. They are likely in all interracial encounters. They can impair therapeutic alliances.

Racism continues in the USA as a divisive force haunting policies and practices. Racial inequities are 'deeply ingrained… Nearly invisible'. White privilege is largely unrealised and so is unintentional discrimination against POC. This produces problems in the mental health professions where most graduates are White. The interactions between White therapists and clients of colour are particularly relevant, because White therapists are 'not immune from inheriting the racial biases of their forebears', and may require help developing cultural competence. This may take the form of awareness of themselves as racial and cultural beings and of their biases, and awareness of the world views of their culturally diverse clients. This can be blocked if White clinicians do not understand how the therapy process itself is affected by race and how they might themselves create impasses producing early termination of treatment or underuse. So far there is 'no conceptual or theoretical model of racial micro-aggressions'.

Racism has changed into more subtle forms, modern or symbolic or aversive. These suggest that racism is disguised and covert, no longer publicly displayed, but 'more ambiguous and nebulous… More difficult to identify and acknowledge' (272). It is associated with modern conservatism, but aversive racism 'is more characteristic of White liberals' who may be strongly motivated by egalitarian values at the conscious level, but  'anti-minority feelings' that are less conscious and covert level. Generally, aversive racists are the least consciously negative, modern and symbolic racists more prejudiced, and the old-fashioned biological racists the most prejudiced of all. Many studies described the difficulties of assessing discrimination through aversive racism or implicit bias and there is a danger that it might remain invisible. However 'the daily common experiences of racial aggression that characterise aversive racism'might be significantly more influential on racial anger and frustration, and more difficult to confront and deal with (272)

Racial micro-aggressions is the best term to use, first coined by Peirce to refer to '"subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are "put downs""' (273). They send denigrating messages (sic) to POC. There is a similar word 'microinequities"' in the business world referring to being overlooked or under respected, perhaps 'subtle snubs or dismissive looks, gestures and times' common in everyday conversations. They look innocent but they are detrimental and they do impair performance by 'sapping the psychic and spiritual energy of recipients' [and he quotes work including his own here]

We need a new awareness of how they work and the impact they have. Their own taxonomy 'is grounded in several lines of empirical and experiential evidence in the professional literature and in personal narratives'. There is the work on aversive racism [ cited 273], apparently based on disassociation between implicit and explicit sexual stereotyping, or the ambiguity of every day racial discrimination, or the daily manifestation of racism, or work on race -related stress and perceived discrimination — these 'all seem to lend empirical support to the concept of racial micro-aggressions' [a bit esoteric and obscure]. Then there are personal narratives and life histories written by both White and POC psychologists [another list]. These and other research literature consulted led them to the conclusion that there were lots of examples and incidents of racial micro-aggressions, the formulation of these was consistent with the research literature, and they seem to manifest themselves in three distinct forms.

Micro-aggressions can be environmental, displayed in an office setting for example, through the 'sheer exclusion of decorations all literature that represents various racial groups' (274). There are three major subtypes: (A) micro-assault, explicit and meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling 'avoidant behaviour' or purposeful discrimination — using racial epithets, discouraging interactions, deliberately snapping somebody, displaying a swastika. These are most similar to old-fashioned racism, conscious and deliberate although usually limited to private situations that allow some anonymity. They become public only if people lose control feel relatively safe. These are not the main focus of the article. (B) micro-insults. These convey rudeness in insensitivity and attempt to demean someone's racial heritage identity, 'subtle snubs' they might be unknown to the perpetrator but they nevertheless 'clearly convey hidden insulting message', and include telling candidates that they believe the most qualified person should get the job regardless of race, containing the message that people of colour are not qualified. There are 'not necessarily aggressions, but context is important', and if a recipient hears them frequently, they are likely 'to experience them as aggressions'. They can also be non-verbal as when White teachers fail to acknowledge students in the classroom or White people avoid eye contact — 'the message conveyed to POC is that their contributions are unimportant' (C) micro-invalidation. Here thoughts feelings or realities are excluded negated or nullified, by things like compliments for speaking good English or being asked where they were born. This negates their 'US American heritage' and conveys that 'there are perpetual foreigners'. Colourblindness can negate their experiences racial or cultural beings, and so can being told to ignore as 'petty'examples of discrimination. (275) Table 1 provides nine categories, figure 1 presents three large classes.

Experiencing racial micro-aggressions create psychological dilemmas that can lead to 'increased levels of anger mistrust and loss of self esteem' for POC, and prevent White people from seeing a different reality. A 'real-life incident' demonstrates the issues:

Sue himself travelled with an African-American colleague on a plane and were told by a White flight attendant that they could sit anywhere, although when three White men in suits entered the plane they were told that they could sit in front of them, and they were then asked if they would mind moving to the back of the (small) plane to redistribute the weight. This produced negative reactions and feelings that they'd been singled out. They complied but felt 'resentment, irritation, and anger' and had physical reactions. Eventually they protested but the flight attendant denied any racism and got defensive. Luckily, they confirmed each other's experience.

This shows that micro-aggressions often gaining power by being invisible to the perpetrator and 'often times, the recipient'. Most White Americans believe themselves to be good human beings and find it difficult to believe that they 'possess biased racial attitudes and may engage in behaviours that are discriminatory'. Micro-aggressive acts can usually be explained 'by seemingly nonbiased and valid reasons'. Recipients are often left with doubt. It is difficult to identify micro-aggression. An overt racist act is easier to handle.

The real incident shows a number of dilemmas: (1) was there are micro-aggression or misinterpretation? Perceptions of POC do differ from those of Whites, especially over the prevalence of racism and the attitudes of White people — Black people are much more likely to see Whites as racially insensitive, and capable of racist behaviour. (2) micro-aggressions can be accompanied by sincerity on the part of the perpetrator, to whom meanings are invisible, and who reacted with disbelief. Racial micro-aggressions often 'become automatic… And… May become connected neurologically with the processing of emotions that surround prejudice' (277) [the implication being that they might produce automatic behaviour like greater aggression towards Black people, with reference to studies of the likelihood of police officers firing guns at Black criminals]. This leaves the obvious problem of proving that micro-aggressions of occurred, of judging between the two beliefs. 'Social psychological research tends to confirm the existence of unconscious racial biases in well-intentioned Whites', extends to 'nearly everyone born and raised in the United States', and that 'the most accurate assessment about whether racist acts of occurred in a particular situation is most likely to be made by those most disempowered' (278) [I don't know what sort of evidence this is or who defines this — two sources are cited] [the authors go on to suggest that micro-aggressions might be deliberate after all, to disguise prejudice behaviour, it 'provides an excuse to White people to claim that they are not prejudiced', although that's immediately followed by a view that the flight attendant 'did not realise that her "not seeing colour" invalidated both passengers: racial identity and experiential reality' [I'm still at a loss to see what she should have done. Tossed a coin? Used last in first out — but wouldn't that be colourblind?]. (3) racial micro-aggressions are often perceived to produce overreaction and to actually cause minimal harm, certainly compared to 'old-fashioned racism'. There is evidence that 'they are not minimally harmful' all that the 'cumulative effects can be quite devastating' [references on 279]. Their own experience confirms this, and continued exposure may take a particular toll. Micro-aggressions might be even more damaging. Some think it might even lead to diminished mortality [most of this is argued by Solorzano et al]. Sue himself thinks there is a '"conspiracy of silence"'. (4) victims of micro-aggressions find themselves in a series of dilemmas about whether it was deliberate and how they should respond, and if so how. They often rely on 'experiential reality that is contextual in nature and involves life experiences' — whether or not this sort of thing has happened before, whether these were nonrandom events, whether the colour of their skin was the only similarity connecting the events. [He tries to argue that White Americans do not evaluate their own behaviours in the same way, but see these events as singular so they cannot see a pattern of bias]. Deciding to react can also have different effects, and non-reaction can 'result and psychological harm, although responding with anger is also 'likely to engender negative consequences', including confirming stereotypes, hostility and anger for Black males, for example, leading to even greater hostility. Victims are therefore damned if they do react and damned if they don't, and they need new adaptive ways of handling micro-aggressions.

Turning to clinical practice [and a very brief discussion of this], clearly some positive coalition is required and this is threatened by any perceived bias or prejudice. Professionals are even more likely to commit to democracy fairness and humanistic values, and to be keen to address their own biases, but they can still exhibit them, especially with micro-aggressions, and because therapists have power, the effects are unknown, so a concerted and specific effort is required. A special set of micro-aggressions common in counselling practice is provided, under the same categories identified earlier — for example under colourblindness the therapist might insist that we are all unique, all individuals, and so on. There can also be a practice of 'devaluing and pathologising the cultural values of their ethnic minority clients' (281).

So overall, we need to make these invisible dimensions visible, by having a dialogue about them especially with the training of mental health professionals, missing so far in training [as an interesting aside about experience of training when White trainees often find it difficult to articulate their views when discussing race and display 'trembling voices and mispronunciation of words' (283) — 'such non-verbal behaviours also serve as a form of racial micro aggression' for Sue et al.

Racial self-awareness is required, critical self-examination, enquiring what it means to be White, increasing the ability to identify micro-aggressions, and pursuing more research. The absence of race and ethnicity from much psychological research 'is in itself micro-aggression' [in counselling I think]. We need more research to see how POC stave off the negative effects of micro-aggressions as well, what coping strategies the use and how others might develop them.

Micro-aggressions do seem to 'vary in their severity and impact... The racist intent of micro-insults and micro-in validations is less clear and present different dilemmas [to micro-assaults]' (284). It is still question whether the three forms are equally and impact, equally problematic, equally harmful and severe, have the same impact on racial identity. There is research to suggest that there may be an association with statuses, or that different ethnic groups are 'more likely to encounter certain forms of racial micro-aggressions than others', so that Asian-Americans are more likely to face themes about being alien in their own land, and Blacks with themes of criminality. There is also a problem of effective measurement and assessment. There are some instruments, but none of them specifically aimed at the different categories of racial micro-aggressions and their intentionality, and new instruments are required.

Racial micro-aggressions are potentially present in all human interactions, and they may take other forms as well, around gender sexual orientation and disability, for example. They are not just limited to relations between White and POC but may be 'interethnic'. In counselling, situations where the therapist is the POC and the client is White, or both the POC might be worth investigating. Generally, 'it is clear that no racial/ethnic group is immune from inheriting the racial biases of the society'.