RED ZONE: Microaggressions carry harmful effects over time

Microaggressions are statements or actions that can send denigrating messages to a person or specific marginalized group, according to E. J. R. David, an associate professor in UAA’s Department of Psychology.

“Microaggressions are these subtle — and many times, unintentional, sometimes even well-meaning, words or actions or even subtle kinds of behaviors that communicate to another person or group that they are inferior somehow,” David said.

They have been considered to be a lasting result of moments in history that are examples of oppression and discrimination. David says that microaggressions are more subtle forms of these historical occurrences, often presented as gestures and exchanges that are demeaning to others, such as people using offensive terms to refer to others or even expressing disgust towards a culture’s food.

In an article that David had written for the Huffington Post in August, “White Supremacy Is Winning in My University,” he addressed the existence of racist slights occurring within UAA. He said that the failure of the University to directly condemn acts such as the Charlottesville attack could mean the failure of UAA leadership in combating even the smaller forms of racism and white supremacy.

“If my university leaders cannot identify and condemn even the most blatant forms of racism and white supremacy, how can they be aware of the subtle forms of racism and white supremacy that take place everyday?” David wrote. “And if they can’t even name the problem — if they can’t even talk about racism and white supremacy — how are we supposed to believe that they see it, that they are aware of it, that they are going to address it, and that they are capable of tackling it?”

Movements such as the civil rights movement have made obvious expressions of bias and prejudice less acceptable over time. Still, the effects are reflected in the forms of microaggressions.

“When we think of bias, prejudice and discrimination, typically we think of the history of this country. Many people might think of slavery, which is a great example of oppression, of discrimination — racism, more specifically,” David said. “Historically, we can easily identify instances of prejudice and discrimination. Society has changed, so now prejudices and acts of discrimination are not as blatant and not as obvious anymore.”

These small behaviors or comments contain messages that are racist, homophobic or sexist, along with other types of prejudice. David has faced his own experiences as a person of color and immigrant in the United States.

“I’m an immigrant to this country. I was not born in this country; I was born in the Philippines, but I’ve been here for a very long time,” David said. “People will make comments about me, like the way I speak English right now. For example, they might say ‘Oh, you speak English very well,’ which is not something they would say to another person.”

David also says that his own friends experience similar microaggressions regarding their ethnicity or the color of their skin.

“Many of my Asian-American friends have gotten this, too. People will say ‘Hey, where are you from?’ and you’ll be like, ‘Oh, yeah, Anchorage, Alaska.’ And then they’ll be like, ‘No, where are you really from?'” David said.

Statements like these can imply that the non-white person is not a true American or assumes that they are an outsider, David says. They deny the person of color’s reality.

Claudia Lampman is the director of the Department of Psychology and says that microaggressions can have harmful effects, particularly if they are experienced repeatedly over time. Some people may experience them more often than others based on what marginalized groups they belong to, like ethnicity and gender.

“It’s the cumulative effect of microaggressions that’s harmful for an individual and for any group,” Lampman said. “It is what happens when you live with this day in and day out… If you have multiple group memberships at the same time, you might get more microaggressions than the average person.”

Lampman also says that sexual-based microaggressions are still prominent in the workplace and in schools. As a woman in the workplace with an administrative position, Lampman has witnessed various forms of this discrimination.

One instance involved a male colleague assuming that Lampman’s back pain was related to her wearing high heels. On a number of occasions, Lampman has noticed the differences in the ways people address male and female professors.

“One of the microaggressions on college campuses with gender that is so common is male professors being called doctor or professor and female professors being called by their first name,” Lampman said. “My husband is a professor of psychology, we’re about the same age, and we both teach here. Early on in our academic years, we were out hiking and we came across a student that we both knew. Her husband was hiking with her, and she introduced her husband and she said, ‘Oh, I want to introduce you to my professors. This is Dr. Petraitis and Claudia.’ I cannot tell you how many times that’s happened.”

These ongoing experiences of microaggressions can end up creating a lasting impact on the individual and contribute to psychological distress, according to Lampman.

“It’s the kind of thing that can have a ‘drip, drip, drip’ effect on you. It wears you down to the point where you make choices that will allow you to avoid having to deal with that sort of stuff on a regular basis,” Lampman said.

As chair of the Title IX Campus Climate Committee, Lampman, along with other students and faculty, works to discuss issues regarding sexual assault, misconduct and harassment. She says that even small actions escalate behavior, and if no one intervenes, it can be considered subtle approval.

“If you’re sitting there in a situation where a comment is made about someone that was over the line… If you don’t intervene — if someone doesn’t intervene — you just sort of give it tacit approval for that behavior,” Lampman said. “If nobody calls that person on that comment, then it’s like saying that comment’s okay. When you get that sort of tacit approval, it emboldens somebody to do something more.”

Moira Pyhala, president of UAA’s Generation Action club and a sexual assault survivor, also says that bystander intervention is essential to combating sexual assault and rape culture, no matter how small the gesture. Generation Action works to promote awareness for reproductive rights, LGBTQ issues and other social justice matters, and part of their initiative is to start the conversation and education.

“If nobody has ever taught that these things are inappropriate, how to stop them if they already know it’s inappropriate, or even how to protect yourself against it, then there’s no way to really help the issue other than education,” Pyhala said.

A lack of comprehensive training and education to help identify inappropriate or unsafe situations can escalate situations, but Pyhala said that people can make small gestures for a variety of situations. This can include speaking up about someone doing something inappropriate or hurtful.

“I always call it out, just straight up. Even if it does spark a controversial conversation, it’s so much more worth it to have a conversation about it and maybe open their eyes to something than to not to,” Pyhala said.

Lampman said that it’s important to note that microaggressions usually happen below a conscious level and that everyone is guilty of committing them.

“Someone who is looking at the man in the room — a man who is speaking to a man even though the question that was asked came from a woman in the room, they’re not consciously doing that,” Lampman said. “They’re often made by members of the dominant culture, but not always. I would say we all do this. Everybody does this. At one level or another, everybody commits microaggressions.”

There is still a responsibility to correct each other when it happens. This addresses the issue at the lowest level possible and can have a positive impact.

“If all of us deal with things at the lowest level possible, it sends a strong message that on our campus, we don’t tolerate this kind of stuff,” Lampman said.

Some may see microaggressions as a joke or a pre-emptive censorship on free speech, but David suggests that people should be non-defensive and not automatically disregard the feelings of others.

“I think the most important response that we need to have is to hear that and to understand that instead of invalidating their experience, saying that ‘Oh, you’re just being overly sensitive’ or ‘I was just joking,’” David said. “If you want to speak as freely, hatefully and recklessly as you want, then be prepared to experience pushback.”

Although some people may disregard microaggressions and their effects, the words and behaviors preserve the ongoing stigmas within society. Rape culture, sexism and other representations of bias continue to live through microaggressions, but they can be combated through conversation. It takes speaking up and keeping an open mind to ensure that today’s society can move towards a more understanding culture.