Walks down State Street bring me utter contentment, but the small of my back is a sacred space. When placing your hands on me while passing or pursing your lips at me to whistle when I’m walking, you create a small invisible cut. You can call me fragile, but that is only because empathy is not easily doled out by those who are exempt from maltreatment of gender-based microaggressions.
Blatant gender-based discrimination is easily recognized, which is understandable, considering how history outlines it clearly in books and news stories. But discrimination is not always obvious nor deemed newsworthy. For example, you do not often read articles about female doctors being mistaken as nurses or women of color being asked how they get their hair “like that.” In fact, it was not until 2017 that the term microaggression was added to the Merriam Webster Dictionary, defined as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Subtly is a dangerous word in this definition — the invisibility of microaggressions causes discrimination against women at every intersecting identity to go unnoticed until there is death by the thousandth cut.
Microaggressions are most commonly thought to occur in the classroom through name mispronunciations by teachers or in the office through inappropriate comments from the boss. While this definitely occurs, microaggressions are not limited to the academic and professional world. Instead, they are present anywhere minorities are sexually objectified, deemed second-class citizens, assumed as inferior, invisible or invalid. Hence, the sidewalk is a stage for microaggressions just as much as a boardroom.
It is not legal for a person to initiate a violent attack and it is not socially acceptable to be overtly biased. Because of this, implicit biases and seemingly invisible acts of violence fester and create a “victimhood culture,” where pain and discrimination are compared to blatant crimes or verbal attacks. Why is sensitivity deemed a weakness?
The intent of the perpetrator and the setting where discrimination takes place are not what deeply cuts the victim. Instead, what matters is the impact. Critics deem the term microaggression as a buzzword that constricts free speech and argue it is simply a vehicle to advance the liberal agenda, but public health experts say otherwise. The real-life implications of implicit biases and microaggressions are not to be ignored, for it is only a matter of time before you may reach the thousandth cut.
In order to recognize and identify these cuts that have the potential to become life-consuming, we must explore microaggressions in the context of psychology. However, trauma is considered to be a factor that constitutes proper and accepted “victimhood”, and what constitutes a valid trauma is hotly debated. According to the DSM–5, or the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, in order for an event to be considered traumatic, it must involve “actual or threatened death, serious injury, or sexual violation.” Subtle discrimination does not meet this criterion. However, it has the potential of manifesting traumatic implications when implicit micro-insults are continuously added to injury. When a person internalizes small encounters or comments that have a negative impact, they may develop mental health problems that encompass a poor perception of success or trigger past memories of discrimination that have not been emotionally resolved. We should not diminish how one feels but instead disambiguate the root cause.
Finding this root cause is further complicated by the presence of multiple identities, for microaggressions are not singular. According to intersectionality theorists, people with multiple oppressed identities are more susceptible to psychological health impediments further exacerbated by frequent exposure to multifaceted microaggressions. For example, women as a whole are more likely to be sexually harassed at work, but LGBTQ+ women were exposed to an even greater presence of microaggressions and harassment in the workplace in comparison to heterosexual women.
Research finds that frequent exposure to microaggressions, whether on the basis of race, gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity, is linked with elevated levels of depression and insidious trauma. In a study of 405 undergraduate students from a large midwestern university, depressive symptoms were directly linked to microaggressions and suicidal thoughts. Such presence of high-level stress hormones in the bloodstream can lead to permanent bodily damage. Additionally, in a study across three racial groups, there was a positive correlation found between microaggression-induced stress and hypertension that is correlated to heart disease.
What can be done to address the impact of microaggressions?
Feminist Audre Lorde says “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house,” but research points to how humans can be subject to behavioral changes as long as we recognize our biases and our needed change in attitude. First, we need exposure to different environments, individuals and ideas to help drop our defenses and improve our self-education to avoid causing harm to others. Then we must put in the work to dismantle the master’s house.
The following are a small list of gender-based examples of microaggressions that you can change: women deserve the same salary, they should not be overlooked for physical tasks, they should not be expected to cook and clean, they should not be called “sluts” or other slurs, they should not be required to masculinize their behavior to be deemed hireable, they should not be catcalled and they should not be deemed as second-class citizens. This list is nowhere near exhaustive and excludes the intersections of race, sexuality, religion and ethnicity, key factors for those who face a multitude of intersecting micro-discriminations.
Something as seemingly innocent as an ignorant comment or an inappropriate gesture is, in fact, one of a thousand cuts. As with all lifeforms, handle with care.
Julia Maloney is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.