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Is It You or Is It Racist? The Insidious Impact of Microaggressions on Mental Health

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By Debra Roberts, PhD (Howard University) and Sherry Molock, PhD (George Washington University)

Several years ago, I was at a national psychological conference presenting several papers.  I was walking through the lobby wearing an Afrocentric mud cloth jacket when a woman came up to me, handed me her tote and asked me to take her luggage to her room.  I remember thinking, “She can’t possibly think I am a staff person at the hotel because of my jacket” but I decided that I would take her luggage to her room. When she tried to tip me, I pointed to my conference badge with the presenter ribbon on it and replied: “Oh, that’s not necessary; you and I are both attending the same conference.”  The woman turned red, profusely apologized and tried to buy me dinner for the remainder of the conference.  – Sherry Molock, PhD

Honest mistake or racist act?

Perhaps, if you are African American, you may have similar stories to tell:

  1. Have people marveled at how “articulate you are” or asked you if an African American student is “ ‘black smart’ or really smart?”

  2. Has anyone ever said something that made you question whether what was said had racist undertones or were you just being overly sensitive?

  3. Have you ever been followed in a department store for SWB – “shopping while black” or had your son pulled over numerous times for DWB – “driving while black?”

And, if you aren’t African American, you may have witnessed similar interactions happening to others around you.

Sometimes we don’t know how we should respond to such incidents because they are more subtle and not overtly racist.  But sometimes people engage in covert racism, which can involve statements, and behaviors that are more subtle or aversive, where the person engaging in the behavior is not aware that the behavior is racist or discriminatory and would feel offended if you labeled it as such.

These more subtle forms of racism are called microaggressions, and the dangerous thing about microaggressions is while they may be small intentional or unintentional offenses, they can accumulate and become burdensome over time for those who experience them.  One of the most insidious features of microaggressions is that sometimes it is hard to confront because it is so subtle.  Because they tend to involve small incidences or indirect insults, it is easy for the perpetrators to dismiss or negate your perception that the behavior or comment was racist.  After a while, you may begin to question whether you are being overly sensitive or imagining things yourself!

However, for those who are the targets of such microaggressions, it is important to acknowledge any discomfort you may experience as a result of the perpetrator’s comments and/or acts, cognitively and physiologically.

Whether or not we are aware of it, our bodies respond to circumstances (including racism) in our surroundings.  We often think of stress as some vague thing that happens to us; but stress is actually defined as “our response to conditions or stimuli in the environment.”

These conditions or stimuli can be referred to as stressors, and Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identifies three different types of responses to stressors that they refer to as positive, tolerable and toxic.

  1. A positive stress response includes behavior that is normal, and is also an essential part of healthy development.

  2. Tolerable stress responses activate the body’s alert systems to a greater degree than the positive stress response, often due to more severe, longer-lasting events such as institutional racism.

  3. The last, and most harmful, is the toxic stress response that often occurs when one experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity.  This may include emotional/physical abuse, economic hardship, exposure to violence, and exposure to racism – whether the acts are overt or subtle.  Toxic stress has been linked to severe illnesses such as depression, autoimmune disorders such as lupus and Crohn’s disease, and other disorders that compromise our physical and psychological well-being.

Given the potentially harmful effects of these stressors, it is important to at least be mindful of our responses to these triggers.  There are healthy and unhealthy responses.  Among a host of healthy coping strategies at our disposal are prayer and meditation.  Regardless of our religious/spiritual beliefs, there is room for one or the other or both in our lives.  One particular form of meditation that seems to be getting a great deal of attention among researchers who study our response to stress is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness is simply an awareness of what is happening in the moment, observing your thoughts and feelings without judging them.  Mindfulness meditation often involves sitting in a quiet space while focusing on your physical, physiological and/or emotional state.  Although it is not necessary to use any particular tools, many people find that music and/or guided instructions are helpful during this process.  Whether you are a novice or seasoned practitioner a number of free mindfulness meditations can be found online.

Meditation has been linked to improved mood, decreased stress, and better immune function.  So, whether we are in the midst of observing race-based injustices on a national/global level or experiencing our own personal microaggressions, the nature of our response is a key factor in preserving our physical and psychological health.

In addition to practicing mindfulness and mediation, it can also be empowering to directly address microaggressive behaviors.  Before responding, think about what is your goal. To express how the behaviors made you feel? To affect behavioral change?  Sometimes it may be important just to let the person know that you are offended by the behavior and that the behaviors/statements are unacceptable. At other times, the incident can be the catalyst for some important ongoing discussions about race and discrimination. However you decide to respond, remember: microaggressions are real,  offensive and you can be empowered to respond to them in ways that maximize your mental and physical well being.

We want to hear from you! Tell us in the comments.

  1. How do you respond to daily microaggressions based on your race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.?

  2. How can we encourage others to be more mindful of the impact microaggressions may have?

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