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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring 2019


Eye on Psi Chi

Spring 2019 | Volume 23 | Issue 3

You Don't Act Asian:

Discussing the Impact of and Adequate Responses to Microaggressions

George Bate,
Loyola University Chicago (IL)

https://doi.org/10.24839/2164-9812.Eye23.3.37

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

As opposed to old-fashioned discrimination, modern racism often manifests itself in subtle, yet similarly harmful ways. Microaggressions embody this more ambiguous discrimination and refer to the insults that are unintentionally or intentionally directed toward individuals of a marginalized group (Sue, 2010). Such indiscretions are particularly evident in academic settings and can, subsequently, foster feelings of discomfort and lack of belonging in individuals of diverse backgrounds across race, self-identified gender, sexual orientation, and ability.

Although a statistical lens highlights the raw prevalence of these indiscretions, grasping this deeply intimate and relational issue through a more personal, emotionally resonant account yields unique insights regarding the affective troubles caused by and potential for administrative amelioration of microaggressions. In this sense, by reflecting upon my own perceptions of microaggressions experienced in a close friend, I will argue that developing a universal policy for tackling microaggressions is misguided in that microaggressions exist on a spectrum of severity that warrant different responses depending on a person’s feelings.

A universally applicable policy would mirror the broad zero-tolerance approach many universities adopt regarding violence and drug enforcement by automatically and punitively responding to potential perpetrators of microaggressions with a prescribed, standardized punishment applicable to all. These approaches lack necessary empirical foundation outlining their effectiveness in countering violence and drug abuse and should, therefore, be avoided when considering organizational solutions to the present issue (American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force, 2008). The drawbacks to such a policy will be further outlined in another section of this article. Conversely, in addition to encouraging students to directly confront discrimination, universities could organize administrative bodies tasked with providing support for students of diverse backgrounds who endure the emotional and psychological toll this form of modern racism or sexism can have on an individual.

Witnessing the Varied Effects of Different Microaggressions

Although I have not directly experienced microaggressions, James, a close friend of mine, has faced a range of disparaging questions and remarks pertaining to his Korean heritage. A seemingly menial, yet particularly poignant use of a microaggression was evident when a classmate at high school once asked James to translate a passage of Hamlet into Korean, assuming that James spoke fluent Korean. Similarly, James is frequently faced with comments such as “you don’t act Asian” whenever his behavior aligns with that of a stereotypical White male such as playing lacrosse.

James typically laughs off such comments, delivered out of curiosity rather than malice. However, I notice that some remarks annoy him and are insulting, which coordinates with the notion outlined by Nadal et al. (2011) that microaggressions can invalidate others and cause distress. For example, James often shifts the conversation to avoid lingering on these remarks because they made him feel uncomfortable. Other times, James has told me that he is truly not offended and understands the context in which certain comments are delivered, whether they are intended as a joke or if they are spoken out of curiosity. In this sense, James endured some microaggressions that were difficult to withstand and other microaggressions that he did not find offensive, indicating that there exists a continuum of severity for microaggressions that require different feedback.

The Drawbacks of a Universal Policy to Counter Microaggressions

Coordinating with James’ varying reactions to different types of microaggressions, I believe it is unnecessary to develop a universally applicable maxim of how to respond to microaggressions. Instead, students should base their reactions on calculated judgments of the situation and, more importantly, how they feel in the moment. Because microaggressions elicit a wide range of emotional reactions, as evidenced by Nadal et al. (2011), establishing a rigid policy that all microaggressions should be confronted or that all microaggressions should be ignored would prove problematic. Being directed to call attention to every questionable remark could encourage individuals to engage in mental filtering by continually focusing on the negativity of others’ comments (Lukianoff & Haidt, 2015). However, the inverse policy of choosing to wholly ignore microaggressions is similarly flawed in that some microaggressions embody the malicious and subtle prejudices of modern racists and, therefore, warrant confrontation.

Due to this, an individual’s emotional and cognitive reaction to the situation must be the sole gauge of whether a person should call attention to microaggressions. Individuals must be encouraged to reasonably judge a situation and highlight a microaggression if they feel offended or belittled. For example, if James was not offended by the request to translate Hamlet, the incident may not necessitate any form of confrontation. However, if James felt invalidated by the suggestion that he does not act Asian, then I believe he should confront the perpetrator.

In other terms, due to the aforementioned wide scope of various microaggressions that can disparately impact different individuals, James’ cognitive evaluation of the situation and, subsequent, emotional reaction of feeling offended or not should determine his reaction. Because perceptions of potential microaggressions can vary greatly, any resultant feelings of uncertainty, discomfort, embarrassment or other negative emotions are the only reliable judge of whether a comment or behavior constitutes as a microaggression and, therefore, if it warrants confrontation. Therefore, such a flexible approach allows individuals to use their emotional reactions to dictate their response, rather than relying on a flawed conception that all microaggressions are the same.

The Benefits of Microaggression Support Organizations

Despite the benefits of adopting this individualized method of dealing with microaggressions, universities should consider having organizations to aid students who experience microaggressions. Many students, including myself, are relatively naive to the realities of life post-graduation, and the transition from an insulated upbringing to a university environment can be quite jarring. Therefore, students may not be equipped with the confidence and interpersonal skills necessary to identify and combat microaggressions. Distinct organizations of faculty and students specifically educated about microaggressions could exist where students can reach out to trained individuals in order to discuss these injustices and formally report them if necessary.

Relating back to James, I believe if our high school had such an organization, he could have had an outlet to discuss his feelings in response to the microaggressions he endured. However, universities must be wary of blindly encouraging students to report all microaggressions to an administrative body. This could perpetuate a culture of infantilization and over-sensitivity, a notion Lukianoff and Haidt (2015) warn against, because this policy may encourage students to always refer to others in handling a questionable situation and, as noted previously, identify the negativity in every remark. Constantly delegating to others to ameliorate issues inadequately prepares students for tackling events outside of the insulated academic bubble. Therefore, universities should consider installing organizations to offer support, even though it is imperative not to foster a total reliance on these organizations, but instead train students to personally manage microaggressions in order to more adequately prepare for life after college.

This suggestion of training students to constructively confront discrimination and directly address microaggressions will further ameliorate this issue. Specifically, when students are faced with microaggressions or similarly taxing discriminatory behavior from classmates or faculty, arousing cognitive dissonance in the perpetrator can highlight the discrepancy between their recent behavior and seemingly positive self-image. For example, if an individual commits a sexist microaggression, addressing this behavior by questioning how the perpetrator’s mother or sister would feel if they witnessed this action may discourage future indiscretions.

Similarly, verbally highlighting one’s emotions and overtly displaying nonverbal cues in response to the microaggression directly and immediately convey to perpetrators that their behavior is unacceptable. In addition, approaching potentially tumultuous confrontations in a respectful manner may prove more successful than personal accusations of racism or sexism, which could lead to a compensatory defensive attitude in the confronted individual (Plous, 2010; Whitley & Kite, 2010). Collectively, these mere suggestions are some of the varied avenues to address microaggressions that students can adopt and that universities can equip students with through adequate training.

Conclusion

Ultimately, individuals must use their feelings and reason to determine whether a microaggression warrants a response. Individualized interpretation and, subsequently, individualized reaction is optimal in that constant reliance on a universal policy or overarching administrative body is problematic. Although opposition to this argument may exist, ultimately, solutions will originate from productive dialogues with others, so students such as James can feel more comfortable and protected at school.

References

American Psychological Association Zero Tolerance Task Force. (2008). Are zero tolerance policies effective in the schools?: An evidentiary review and recommendations. American Psychologist, 63, 852–862. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.63.9.852

Lukianoff, G., & Haidt, J. (2015, September). The coddling of the American mind. The Atlantic, 2015(7), 8–9. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/

Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Issa, M. A., Meterko, V., Leon, J., & Wideman, M. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: Processes and coping mechanisms for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 5, 21–46. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15538605.2011.554606

Plous, S. (2000). Responding to overt displays of prejudice: A role-playing exercise. Teaching of Psychology, 27, 198–200. https://doi.org/10.1207/S15328023TOP2703_07

Sue, D. W. (2010, November 17). Microaggressions: More than just race: Can microaggressions be directed at women or gay people? Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race

Whitley, B. E., Jr., & Kite, M. E. (2010). The psychology of prejudice and discrimination (2nd ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


George Bate is a recent Loyola University Chicago graduate and current research assistant who works in Dr. Maryse Richards’ Risk and Resilience Lab and Dr. Scott Tindale’s Social Psychology Lab. Before graduating, George worked under Dr. Erick Mann as an undergraduate research assistant and Assistant to the Chair of the Department of Historical and Policy Studies in the Division of Social Science and Business at Oakton Community College. After transferring to Loyola, George published and presented an independent research project regarding ethical differences in anxious and depressed individuals at several academic conferences and received the 2018 Eugene B. Zechmeister Award for Outstanding Scholarship in Psychology at Loyola. In his free time, George enjoys watching movies, playing soccer, and spending time with his family. In the near future, George plans on applying to graduate programs in clinical psychology for enrollment in 2019.

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