Sunday, October 4, 2015


"Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership" (from Diversity in the Classroom, UCLA Diversity & Faculty Development, 2014).

So many of us have experienced these microagressions for one reason or another: being female, black, Hispanic/Latino, Asian, Indian, overweight, underweight, disabled, and even the invisibly/chronically ill. There are few people in the world who can escape being the target of microagressions so long as any group of people feel superior to another for whatever reason. The healthy feeling superior to the sick. Men feeling superior to women. Whites feeling superior to blacks or well, to almost anyone (no, not all whites feel this way I am aware of that, but some of them do). Blacks feeling superior to Latinos. Etc. the list could go on.

I know, and I will take full responsibility, that I have at some times been the victim of microagressions AND I have been the agressor. (The time(s) I walked a little faster when a black man walked behind me) I believe that any of us can fall into these roles at any time unwillingly and unknowingly. What may seem and sound like a simple, "innocent" comment or gesture could sincerely hurt the person(s) you are addressing or coming into contact with. Am I saying that we need to walk on eggshells and censor everything we say and do? No, not at all. But we do need to make an effort to use more conscious language and be aware of our behavior so we can begin to change it.

This week, I asked a few of my friends to tell me about some of the microagressions they've experienced. Interestingly enough, most microagressions occur as seemingly innocent comments or even as a failed attempt at a compliment! Here's what some of them shared: (everything from racial snubs/insults to comments about weight)

Verbal Microagressions:
My face after someone says these things...
  • You don't look Jamaican......
  • Your mom is Puerto Rican? She looks black.
  • Oh, you're from Mexico? Your English is so good.
  • I didn't think you were Mexican, you act very Chicano
  • You're beautiful, you don't look Mexican!
  • What ARE you?
  • You don't LOOK Japanese.
  • Your [yoga] practice is so good considering your [bigger] body.
Nonverbal Microagressions:
  • I was at a Asian restaurant within the past year. I was trying to get past a stranger to get to the buffet and he thought I was waiting to take his plate for him. Like, no mofo, I'm not wearing the worker's restaurant shirts!
  • My all time "favorite" it has happened many times: when I'm in a line for something and an older white person (has always been this demographic) cuts in front of me like I'm invisible.
As you can see, most of these occur to people based on their race/culture or better yet their outer appearance. It's easier to target what we can see. But what about those microagressions that occur around facets of our identity that you can't see or that don't seem like a "big deal" simply because you actually believe you're giving a compliment?

In the world of the chronically and invisibly ill we say things like "things not to say to someone who is ill." Let's start to call these "things" what they are: MICROAGRESSIONS. They are hostile, negative, deragatory, messages targeted at those of us who are in a marginalized group. Period. 

The more people I meet in the world of the invisibly ill, the more I realize what a problem it really is. Let me share some examples for those of you still confused:

1. You're too young to be this sick. 
Message: This illness is your fault. I can discount anything you say because someone your age should be healthy. What did you do wrong to get this? Your illness doesn't matter because of your age.

2. I wish I could stay at home and sleep all day.
Message: I think you are lazy. It's unfair that I have to work and you "get to" stay at home and do nothing. 

3. At least it's not cancer. 
Message: Your illness doesn't matter. It isn't severe. You should not be complaining or unhappy. You don't have a right to be upset about your illness because it's not ....X...

4. (When asking for help with something) Come on, you can do it, just try a little harder! Or You REALLY can't do...(X)...?!
Message: I don't believe you are as sick or in as much pain as you say you are. You are not trying. Stop being so dramatic/weak

5. You don't look sick.
Message: You are lying. Someone who looks like you couldn't possibly be in pain or ill. Prove it to me. I don't believe you. 

All of these have been said to me and to many others on numerous occasions, by doctors, nurses, well meaning friends and family and even strangers. The end result is always the same: anger, frustration, sadness and guilt on my part. 

Maybe this disease IS my fault. 
Maybe I could work full time if I just tried a little harder, or ate more vegetables. 
Maybe it isn't as bad as I think because I don't have to do chemo...
Maybe I am lazy
Maybe I shouldn't wear makeup or look nice or healthy so my illness can be taken seriously

Luckily, these feelings subside much faster these days. I don't let them consume me or define me. I realize that most people are ignorant of the fact that these kinds of comments are harmful or just downright rude. They don't understand how complex, debilitating and life-altering diseases like Lupus and Scleroderma can be. They are uncomfortable with discussing ANY illness in general so they say the first thing that comes to mind or what they THINK will be helpful or consoling. I tend to shrug it off or educate them, like I did the last time I was in the ER and the doc said "you're too young for all these problems" and I quickly corrected him and said: 

Actually, I am the perfect age. Lupus mostly affects African American and Latina women in their childbearing years, and I'm 30. 

He proceeded to look at me wide-eyed, then quickly half smiled and left the room. 

Yet so many of us say and do these things on an everyday basis, for example the simple question- "Where are YOU from?"(side eye, confused stare). A seemingly simple question that can be so complex, layered and even insulting for some people. But we, as a society, don't think twice about it. (I have started telling people I am from my mother's womb) 

Or like we don't think twice when we ask a woman "Why don't you have any kids? or Why aren't you married?" Or, in my opinion when we ask anyone "How'd you lose so much weight?" If the individual hasn't willingly divulged such personal information it is not your place to ask. Many of these seemingly innocent questions or statements can carry so much emotional baggage and hurt for the person being asked that it is unfair of us to place this burden on them. When people ask me how I've lost so much weight recently or tell me how "great" I look...I have to reply "it's not by choice.." Which they still don't understand and insist that I should "enjoy" being so thin..despite the fact that it was caused by intestinal problems, painful mouth sores and Lupus complications...yeah sure..I'll enjoy being "thin" at the complete detriment to my overall health and well being... 

Again, I am not advocating for not getting to know someone. For not asking them questions or for censoring our every word. I am simply asking the world to make a conscious effort to think before they speak or act. To consider how we say things just as much as we consider what we say. To smile and nod at the black man before just avoiding eye contact and crossing the street. To realize that all of us, in some way probably belong to one if not several of these marginalized groups and that "membership" into some of these groups isn't marked by skin color, assistive devices or body parts. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for posting this! I appreciate being made more aware of microagressions and am going to be more careful in my conversation with everyone, especially those in ____fill in the blank____ minorities.