We’ve all been guilty of saying something insensitive, rude, perhaps even borderline discriminatory. Sometimes we speak before we think. But imagine if you were on the receiving end of repeated verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights or snubs that left you feeling insulted, invalidated, and isolated? These throwaway comments, also known as microaggressions, are causing long term damage to BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) people’s health and self-esteem.
There have been many occasions when I’ve had to pause and consider whether I just heard what someone said correctly. Did they really just say that? Because of the subtlety of a microaggression - a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalised group - I’m often left wondering if it’s just all in my imagination. Other times though, I just know.
A specific and very recent example springs to mind. I regularly travel to visit my Poole based colleagues, meaning I sometimes stay overnight, in a much less diverse area than London where I live. On this particular occasion, my battle with the hotel WiFi sends me down to the reception in PJs and wet hair, post shower with my curls drenched in leave-in conditioner. The staff are in the back office huddled around a fire alarm panel that’s beeping. Although there are three of them, I understand that they’re managing a potentially serious situation and remain patient. In the meantime, another woman arrives and our mutual frustration of a lack of customer service gets us talking. She tells me that it’s her birthday and about the awful journey she’s had with her baby and husband, who are waiting hungrily back in their room.
The friendly chat puts me in good spirits and so, when a member of staff emerges, and the woman expresses her frustration at waiting, I tell her she can go first. Straight after that the staff member returns to the important task at hand with her colleagues who are now on a call trying to work out what the issue is. I’m still waiting. But that’s ok. I think of my years in customer service, and the stress the unexpected can cause. For 30 minutes, I wait, twiddling my thumbs and thinking about what I’m going to tune into on Netflix, when an elderly white couple walks in and stands at the reception desk beside me. They chat between themselves and I have my eyes trained on the door of the back-office, willing someone to come and help us.
So, when the same staff member who saw me standing at the reception before, comes back out and asks the couple how she can help them, I’m speechless. I look over at them and inhale sharply as they answer, “We’d like to check in please.” I can’t not respond; I have to stand up for myself. “Sorry, shall I just wait then?” I say, incredulous that I’m having to exert this rarely seen confrontational side of myself.
“Oh, are you waiting?” The man says, “We thought you worked here.”
Instantly, I’m hit in the gut with what I already knew; they assumed I work here because of the colour of my skin, and, I surmise, think that I’m pretty bad at my job for not greeting or serving them when they arrived. I look to the staff member who has served the white guests before me, knowing how long I had been waiting. She says nothing. Feelings of rage, hurt and exhaustion sit on my chest and I’ve suddenly forgotten why I was at the reception in the first place. I head back to my room, WiFi-less and too upset to care.
Death by a thousand cuts
To some, my experience could be passed off as a genuine misunderstanding. I was in pink pyjamas and my hair was soaking wet, but I was standing by a vehicle sign-in sheet, so I could have worked there. The receptionist had seen me standing there for over 30 minutes, but she could have been rattled by the previous issues she had been dealing with. Maybe they really didn’t mean it.
An honest mistake? An isolated incident? Regardless, indignities like these occur every day in all forms and forces and are incredibly hurtful. I’m in good company. Former US President Barack Obama was mistaken for a valet on multiple occasions before he ran for office. His wife, Michelle Obama, has been mistaken for a sales assistant. People of colour regularly share their experiences of being mistaken for staff under the hashtag #IDontWorkHere on Twitter. It’s just one example on the spectrum of racial microaggressions people of colour face.
By their nature, microaggressions are difficult to deal with. When the aggressor is unaware that they’ve done something wrong, and the victim is uncertain of exactly why they are feeling offended, it puts them in a psychological bind: question them, and denial will surely follow, ignore it, and you’ll likely be left to worry. When this is constant, the victim can begin to internalise the incident, police themselves and their loved ones, and question the legitimacy of their experiences.
Columbia professor Derald Sue has carried out extensive studies on the topic. He expanded on the concept of microaggressions to include its effects on marginalised groups. Research shows that microaggressions have become a commonplace experience for many black and brown people because they seem to occur constantly in their daily lives.
Isolated, I could put this situation behind me and not pick it apart for an explanation.
But, no matter the incident, whether you’ve just been told you’re the prettiest black girl someone has ever seen, or you’ve been mistaken for the waiter on your way back from a restaurant toilet, these behaviours don’t just hurt a person’s feelings. Being repeatedly dismissed and alienated reinforces the differences in power and can eventually have long-lasting effects on health.
No harm, no foul?
Social stressors - stress that stems from one’s relationships with others and from the social environment - adversely affect health through biological responses. The presence of high levels of stress hormones in the bloodstream for long periods of time can lead to wear-and-tear on the body, such as reducing the immune system’s functioning. Research also suggests that those who experience discrimination suffer poorer mental health and may even be at increased risk of physical health conditions, including cardiovascular disease and obesity.
Other detrimental consequences of racial microaggressions are that they perpetuate stereotype threat - ‘a psychological threat that arises when one is in a situation or doing something for which a negative stereotype about one's marginalised group applies’, encourage society to adopt a belief that devalues social group identities, and are partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
In my case, I’ve not forgotten that evening at the hotel. And I have a secret stash of microaggressions memories I could whip out and list here. They don’t go away, they rarely fade. In my lower moments, these experiences can be a weapon I use upon myself; I start by thinking about what I have to do to change people’s perceptions on me: dress in a more sophisticated way, straighten my hair, smile more. Then I burn with self-loathing realising the colour of my skin means I will always be subject to a lower status to my white counterparts, and nothing I can do will change that.
Then, in my stronger, more stubborn, and more resilient moments, I talk about it. I research and find other stories like mine, and realise I’m not alone. Although the likelihood of my doing this will not decrease the chances of it happening to me again, it makes me feel better to know that I can be part of educating even just a few people on the reality of being a black woman in a white world.