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“But You Speak So Well”: How Latinos Experience Subtle Racism


By Silvia L. Mazzula, PhD (Asst. Professor of Psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, CUNY). Dr. Mazzula is also the President-Elect of the Latino Psychological Association of New Jersey.

Last month marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and across the U.S., many Americans proclaimed that Dr. King’s dream had indeed come true. Perhaps many people believe this because overt acts of racism aren’t as common and are typically frowned upon. However, covert forms of racism are all too common.

These more subtle forms of racism are called “microaggressions” and communicate hostile and racial insults. Microaggressions are things said or done – many times unconsciously – that reflect a person’s inner thinking, stereotypes and prejudices. They are difficult to recognize because they are brief, innocuous, and often difficult to see.  Why are they important to talk about?  Because microaggressions are pervasive and have a detrimental impact on people’s psychological and physiological well-being.

What kinds of microaggressions do Latinas/os experience?

If you are Latina or Latino, you may have heard comments such as, “Wow, you speak so well… You are not like them… You are really smart… OR You are different and they will really like you.” You might even be asked repeatedly where you are from if your first answer is a city or state in the U.S.

The take away messages from these simple statements are clear for many of us who study microaggressions and racism: You are not acting like those Latinas/os who don’t quite behave like the “norm” – which essentially is referring to White Anglo-American.  After experiencing a microaggression, you might wonder, “Were they giving me a compliment or telling me that people from my culture are less than” or “Were they really curious about where I live or were they telling me that I don’t belong – that I’m not American?”

As a Latina, I have heard similar comments over and over again- as a student, as a professional, and as a faculty member.   When you bring it up to someone, you might get responses similar to the ones I received in the past –  that you are overreacting, thinking too much about a simple statement, or bringing up the ‘race card’ when it wasn’t there.

Research tells us microaggressions are an all too common experience for Latinas/os

My colleague, Dr. Kevin Nadal, and I recently presented a paper at the 2013 APA Convention on Latinas/os’ experiences with microaggressions1.  Our findings prove microaggressions are very real experiences for many Latinos/as living in the United States. Almost all of our participants, 98%, had experienced some type of microaggression within the last six months! We also found that when people experience microaggressions, they tend to experience mental health issues like depression and a more negative outlook of the world.

When examining gender, ethnic background and place of birth, we found the following:

  1. Latina women experienced more microaggressions at work and at school than Latino men,

  2. Latinas and Latinos of Dominican descent experienced being exoticized and treated as a sexual object more than other Latinos,

  3. Puerto Ricans experienced being treated as second-class citizens or as criminals, more than any other Latino ethnic group,

  4. Young Latinos/as, and those with lower levels of education, experienced being invalidated more than older Latinos and those with more education, and

  5. Latinos/as born outside of the U.S. were more likely to be treated as inferior compared to Latina/os born here.

Our study highlights how very real microaggressions are for Latinos/as and how having multiple oppressed identities can increase the impact of these insidious acts. The challenge to end microaggressions is a difficult and often painful task.

Because we all have biases and prejudices, we can start by asking ourselves one simple question. How do I participate in microaggressions in my day-to-day interactions and conversations? When we start to reflect on this question honestly and deliberately, we will begin put a stop to microaggressions.  But, it must start within each one of us first.

How I personally check against microaggressions

I  am conscious to not laugh or participate in racial or ethnic jokes that demean, stereotype, or “other” groups that are different than me (even like me).  When I’m feeling a little bold, I even point out to the “jokester” that they are being microaggressive.  This also includes ending racist and microaggressive jokes at my own dinner table. It may not be much, but it’s one simple thing that I can actively do.

What you can do to address microaggressions

Addressing microaggressive acts can be difficult and taxing to your emotional well being, especially with your loved ones and in your professional lives.  Sometimes, it’s helpful to first process the experience with someone who understands.  Speaking to someone who understands will not only help you think through what happened, but also help validate that what you experienced was real and that there is nothing wrong with you.

We want to hear from you – Tell us in the comments:

  1. What do you do to stop microaggressions in your day-to-day interactions and conversations?

  2. What do you do to take care of yourself if you are a target of these insidious and harmful acts?

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1 Microaggressions were assessed with The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS; Nadal, 2011).

Nadal, K. L. (2011). The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS): Construction, reliability, and validity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(4), 470-480. doi: 10.1037/a0025193

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