Understanding Microaggressions as a White Person
Written by: Katie Lawliss, Psy.D.
The term racial microaggression is defined as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group” (Sue et al, 2007). Unfortunately, people of color experience microaggressions in their everyday lives. White people commit microaggressions, even without knowing. My hope is that by gaining a better understanding of what microaggressions really are, white people can do better to ensure they are not causing harm from their biases.
Monnica T. Williams named sixteen categories of racial microaggressions.
Not a true citizen: reinforcing notions that non-white people are not American
Racial categorization and sameness: The push to categorize people into a “one size fits all” racial box that neglects the complexity of identity
Assumptions about intelligence, competence, or status: assumptions based on someone’s racial and ethnic background that is based in stereotypes
False color-blindness/invalidation racial or ethnic identity: the idea that an individual’s racial ethnic identity should not be acknowledged or recognized leading to invalidation
Criminality or dangerousness: the stereotype that people of color are more likely to commit crimes or cause bodily harm to others
Denial of individual racism: attempting to make a case that they are not racially biased
Myth of meritocracy/race is irrelevant for success: denying that white privilege has impacted their success and contributes success to only their personal efforts
Reverse racism hostility: hostility related to feelings that people of color are given unfair advantages due to their race and therefore white people are being treated unjustly
Pathologizing minority culture or experience: criticism of cultural differences
Second class citizen/ignored: a lack of respect, consideration, and care for people of color
Tokenism: using a person of color to promote the illusion of inclusivity, rather than the qualities or talents of the individual
Attempting to connect using stereotypes: using stereotyped ethnic speech or behavior to be understood and accepted
Exoticism or eroticization: interacting with people of color according to sexualized stereotypes or categorizing their characteristics as exotic in some way
Avoidance and distancing: measures taken to prevent physical contact or closeness
Environmental exclusion: a lack of representation in decorations, literature, media, and more
Environmental attacks: when decorations or depictions are knowingly affronting or insulting to a person’s culture, heritage, or history.
As a white person, we may notice certain categories of microaggressions more than others and overall, we are less likely to notice microaggressions at all. However, according to research conducted by Monnica T. Williams, microaggressions are stressful, anxiety producing, and traumatizing.
Here are some examples of microaggressions that may seem less obvious:
“I would have never guessed you were valedictorian”– this disbelief comes from the racially charged stereotype that Black people are not seen as intelligent. This falls under the microaggression category of assumptions about intelligence, competence, or status.
“All lives matter” – This is invalidating a person’s race being part of their identity to be considered and celebrated, and is an invalidation of the unique struggles that come with being a minority. This falls under the false color-blindness/invalidation racial or ethnic identity category of microaggressions.
“You speak so well, you sound white”– This demonstrates the racially charged idea that whiteness is preferred. Statements like this are examples of pathologizing minority culture and appearance.
“People are racist towards white people. White people are the ones being targeted and canceled now” – This is an example of reverse racism hostility. It neglects the historical and current privileges white people have and the current and historical oppression of people of color.
“I believe that the most qualified person should get the job”– This is the myth of meritocracy and downplays the disadvantages that people of color experience due their race. Therefore insinuating that people of color just need to work harder to get where they want to be.
I encourage you to think about what microaggressions you may be committing without realizing, as well as identifying the microaggressions that you observe from the people around you. Notice what it is like to gain an understanding of the ways stereotypes and white supremacy have infiltrated what you say to others, even unintentionally. This may feel anxiety provoking at first, or you may feel avoidant of engaging with this at all. Notice what thoughts you have when you consider how you can be more mindful of the words you say and educate others on how their words may be harmful. I encourage you to move through the discomfort and make a choice that can help you grow and help those around you feel safer. We can all do better and we need to start by trying.
Williams, M. T. (2020). Managing microaggressions: Addressing everyday racism in therapeutic spaces. Oxford University Press.