In the summer of 2012, Saagar attended a formal family lunch to which he was invited by his friend. His friend’s grandmother turned to him and asked, ”How does it feel to be the only foreign person to be sitting down?” (Hidden message: All the other foreign persons present there were waiters.) He was a bit shocked by that but just laughed it off. I wonder how many times he had faced such occasions where he had no choice but to do that.
Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalised group membership. This term was coined by social scientists at Harvard in the 1970s to describe an inequitable treatment of another person in a manner that is not overtly “aggressive”, yet which might stem from negligence, ignorance, or what we now call unconscious bias. Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalised group, such as the poor and the disabled.
Here are some other examples of microaggressions:
- A White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. (Hidden message: You and your group are criminals.)
- A female physician wearing a stethoscope is mistaken as a nurse. (Hidden message: Women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles. Women are less capable than men. Happens with me a lot.)
- The outfit worn by a TV reality-show mom is described as “classless and trashy.” (Hidden message: Lower-class people are tasteless and unsophisticated.)
Microaggressions are active manifestations and/or a reflection of our worldviews of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability. Even though these biases are implicit, they can be deeply damaging. The deaths of African-Americans at the hands of the police in Ferguson, Cleveland and on Staten Island have reignited a debate about race.
Is it a pure co-incidence that people from black and minority ethnic groups living in the UK are:
- more likely to be diagnosed with mental health problems
- more likely to be diagnosed and admitted to hospital
- more likely to experience a poor outcome from treatment
- more likely to disengage from mainstream mental health services, leading to social exclusion and a deterioration in their mental health?