If you are following news on social media trends, you will notice that the www is ripe with examples of all kinds of language; to begin with, there are those who display plain inappropriate, racist, stereotypical language. Those are the “trolls” that everyone hates. Somewhere else, we find those who in theory appear to be “well-meaning” people, who for some reason are challenged in their assumptions about what it means to be “feminist”, or an “ally” of gay/lesbian communities, or supportive of the “body acceptance movement”. They usually come across as insensitive, ignorant or uninformed. The second case is the one that demonstrate how complex communication about culture can be. How is it that some people think of themselves as open minded and diversity-loving, hold assumptions that neglect and offend who they seek to support?

I sought to understand this cognitive paradox, and found that the answer lies in the social phenomenon of “symbolic racism”. This is not the discriminatory mindset of those who draw swastikas in the walls, or use the language of islamophobes, anti-LGBT or hold white supremacist ideologies. Rather, symbolic racism underlies the subtle, more indirect and many times unconscious ways of expressing cultural derogatory and stereotypical ideas or denying the views and experiences of minorities or marginalized groups. It can be noticed in comments that tend to invisibilize injustice or in views that justify prejudices based on gender, race or nationality.

Those who have a symbolic racist mindset would rather see themselves as pragmatists or patriots than racists. They in fact, would feel deeply offended if others deem them racist. This is why expert psychologist from Columbia University, Derald Wing Sue, has a particular label for them: aversive racists. As Professor Sue explains, these people would feel deeply offended if they are deemed racist because ‘aversive racists’ truly believe that they are non-prejudiced, have egalitarian values and would never consciously discriminate.

I have also observed in my professional practice while working with international students, how many of them were frequently exposed to comments that would frame their success or failure in cultural or racial terms, even by those who appeared to be friendly. Some were told: ‘you are so intelligent… you are a credit to your race!’ This typical form of bias is known as ‘ascription of intelligence’ and is based on stereotypes around intellectual competence based on nationality or race.

Let me be clear: a prejudiced way of speaking is everyday language that people internalize from various sources: social media, radicalized political speech and comments from some famous people. To my mind comes the big news caused by some remarks made about tennis player Serena Williams baby´s skin color, followed by the surprise and anger of those who were confronted with the implicit racism of those remarks.

The Language of Microaggression

In his book ‘Microaggressions in Every Day Life’ (2010) Derald Sue explains how microaggressive behavior and actions thrive when individuals are unaware of their own biases and prejudices. He has defined Microaggressions as daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile and derogatory insults with racial, gender or religious undertones, to a target person or group.

Microaggressions are uttered on a regular basis, and have multiple forms or intentions. Some are presented as innocent curiosity about someone´s origin; for example, when people ask: ‘Where are you really from? You don´t look like a (X) at all!’ Other comments signal disbelief about someone´s abilities given their cultural background: ‘I had not imagined that you speak our language so well!’ Finally, just like my friend, some people make comments that invisibilize the experience of others who are different: ‘when I look at you, I don´t see color’.
Microaggressions can also be expressed in actions. For example, when a man or woman clutches their purse or check their wallet in the presence of someone from a different race or culture; or when a store owner follows someone from a minority group, different race or culture around the store with the assumption that they might rob something.

Health Risks

Often times, microaggressions are presented as jokes about certain individuals or groups. When targeted individuals hear these comments, they feel compelled to dismiss or laugh them off. It is just a bad joke or silly remark, right? Wrong! Research has shown that in some contexts, minorities or marginalized groups tend to hear microaggressive comments almost every day, and they pay a high price for it.

As Professor Sue and others remind us, more often than not, these remarks have a deeply negative impact leading people from minority groups to increased risk for coronary heart disease, diabetes, hypertension, allergies and asthma. Of course, mental health problems are also on the rise when people are frequently targeted.

So, ask yourself if you are being exposed to microaggressive language, or the other way around: are you aware of how your own biases or prejudices come across as you speak with others who are different? Could it be that microaggressive comments are part of your everyday communication? If that is the case, it´s time to become aware and stop, because microaggression is toxic and it can emotionally poison both those are targeted as well as those who engage in it.