Racial Microaggressions

By: Dr. Sela Kleiman, C.Psych

Within a few minutes of their first conversation, a White individual inquisitively asks a racialized minority a seemingly innocuous question they have likely been asked numerous times previously, “So, where are you from?” Now, imagine the above scenario but with the actors’ roles reversed (i.e., the racialized minority asks the White individual the same question). Which event is more common? Many people who live in Canada and the U.S would intuitively respond that the first scenario is more likely. The reason for this difference requires a contextual understanding of race relations; that is, knowing which social groups are dominant and as a consequence of this, who defines those that are normal from those that deviate from the norm. In our society, both historically and presently, White folks hold a disproportionate amount of power in society to institute and promulgate these definitions. Perhaps it is not surprising then, that as a result, White people receive messages daily which serve to confirm their sense of being normal. Contrarily, racial minorities often receive messages that convey the opposite sentiment. Given these realities, the question, “So, where are you from?” becomes rife with meaning. Indeed, what comes across as innocent curiosity may be read by those receiving it as reinforcement of a sense of un-belonging, especially given the frequency with which this event may occur. Inter-racial interactions between dominant and non-dominant group members are never just an isolated event; instead, they are historically and contextually grounded within the broader social systems that one lives.

The above incident highlights one of many examples of racial microaggressions which are subtle slights, jabs, and insults which convey demeaning messages to racialized minorities by dominant group members. Perpetrators of racial microaggressions are often well-meaning White folks, mostly unaware of the effect of their actions. This manifestation of racism, of course, stands in contradistinction to the overt, consciously directed racism more typical of a bygone era. And though most can agree that a dramatic decrease in “old-fashioned racism” is a good thing, one consequence has been that contemporary racism falls below the radar of most. Indeed, its subtle and insidious nature makes modern-day racism appear virtually non-existent to those who perpetuate it. Unfortunately, a consequence of this is that racism is referenced as a problem “over there” or “back then” and as such not given the warranted attention. 

Research on racial microaggressions has exploded in recent years (read Derald Wing Sue as a starting point), and various empirical studies have documented their varied manifestations. Moreover, researchers have documented its adverse psychological and physiological effects. As a starting point, it is critical for clinicians working with clients to be aware of current racial dynamics so that discussions of race and racism are not minimized or ignored in therapy. By ignoring these critical issues, therapists unwittingly disempower their clients by locating the root of mental health issues associated with racism within the individual rather than due to prevailing social forces. Clinicians who convey this message risk perpetuating the very thing that may in part be responsible for their client’s mental health issues.