Being mindful of microaggressions: What are they and what mentors and programs can do

domino-665547_1280Written by Anne Godlasky, USA TODAY

Many Americans have experienced “microaggressions,” but not as many know it.

Microaggressions are the “constant and continuing reality of slights, insults, invalidations and indignities visited upon marginalized groups by well-intentioned, moral and decent family members, friends, neighbors, coworkers, students, teachers, clerks, waiters and waitresses, employers, health care professionals and educators,” writes Derald Wing Sue in the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life.

Here’s an example borrowed from Justin Simien’s book Dear White People:

“Yeah, but you’re not black black,” translates to: “Since all of your positive qualities are not ones I know to be affiliated with your race, I refuse to acknowledge the fact that you’re black.”

It can also mean asking someone to act as a token or representative of their entire race. For example: “You’re black, why do you think more black people didn’t turn out for Clinton?”

And, of course, microaggressions can extend to other groups, too, such as a woman’s intellectual ability being subtly questioned at work or someone saying “that’s so gay” to indicate something they dislike.

They’re not overt. They’re hard to point out and if you do, get ready to be told you’re being overly sensitive or playing a race card/woman card/gay card.

“People of color or other stigmatized and marginalized groups who may be feeling distress because of microaggressions — and aggressions that are not so micro — it can definitely build up,” says Monnica Williams, a psychology professor at the University of Connecticut. “Research shows it can cause anxiety, depression, PTSD, substance use and even OCD.”

Microaggressions can also be environmental, for instance, having to walk by a Confederate flag on the way to work, says Williams.

To manage the onslaught, Williams suggests surrounding yourself with your people.

“Find social support — people who get it and can remind you that there is not something wrong with who you are, but it’s a result of … this broken society,” says Williams. “And try to have some space away from these stressful triggers.”

How to make sure you’re not committing a microaggression? Putting yourself in the other person’s shoes and thinking before speaking — just like your parents always said.

Bottom Line for Mentors and Mentoring Programs

Arguably the most important thing to keep in mind about microaggressions is the fact that it is not necessarily the experience of a microaggression in isolation that is difficult for those experiencing them, although that can also be challenging. Rather, it is the cumulative effect of repeated exposure that is most damaging to an individual’s wellbeing. It is possible for the most resilient and even temperament to be worn ragged over time through these repeated exposures.

So what are a few steps mentors and programs can take to help mitigate the impact of microaggressions? First, be mindful of your assumptions, or what you take for granted. This can include the assumption that others feel the same as you do about topics such as politics or religion. This could also include the understanding that what does not bother you may still legitimately bother someone else. Second, is your program or meeting space a welcoming one? Place yourself in the shoes of your mentee or staff and imagine how they would interpret their surroundings. With microaggressions, a little consideration can go a long way in creating an environment where mentors, mentees, and staff feel comfortable and appreciated. Such considerations can serve to benefit your mentees and your programs in the long run.