Stereotypes & Micro Aggressions: (More Than) “Comments That Sting”

A recent New York Times story called attention to “micro aggressions” or “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults.” The term might be relatively new, but the fundamental interactional status processes that it captures have been studied since the 1950s.*

There is a well-established body of theory and research documenting why, when and how automatic mental associations trigger unconscious behaviors that shape social situations that are often high stakes. We’ve known for a long time that women in work groups are more likely than men to be interrupted, and often report that their ideas are ignored or mistakenly credited to a male coworker. African Americans often feel that they have to perform twice as well as their white coworkers to be given the same level of recognition. Ideas often sound better when offered by someone perceived to be attractive.

As Shelley Correll and Patricia Ridgeway (2003) explain:

What all of these observations have in common is that some members of a group seem to have real advantages that are denied to others. They have more opportunities to speak, their ideas are taken more seriously, and they have more influence over other group members. (…) These hierarchies of evaluation, influence, and participation are referred to as the ‘power and prestige structure’ or the ‘status structures’ of the group.

Various theories explain how these structures emerge and are maintained, and how they contribute to other aspects of social inequality.

I am not a huge fan of reinventing the wheel here, but perhaps the term “micro aggression” provides an additional, more accessible way to draw attention to the complex processes briefly outlined above. But, perhaps, given the numerous hostile reactions to the Times article, the problem is not one of simplification but precisely the opposite. Here’s one comment to the article that did capture the issues well:

Many commenters here seem to believe that “innocent” and inadvertent utterances that promote stereotypes should be forgiven because no offense was intended. I disagree. (…) There is also the victim-blaming argument echoed by bullies throughout time: “Toughen up,” which does nothing to address, for example, stereotype-fueled hiring bias. We can either make excuses for complacency, and ignore the harm that our collective contributions to stereotyping do to others, or we can try changing the societal status quo by objecting to such utterances, making people aware that some of the stereotypes they “inadvertently” perpetuate tacitly condone a society where a multitude of groups have fewer opportunities because of unconscious systemic bias.

The key here is that some of these micro aggressions occur (and/or are salient in) high-stakes situations, such as job interviews, workgroup discussions, or even taking the SAT – in other words, they can subtly shape the results of these situations. So micro aggressions aren’t just annoyances. They have real consequences that transcend the specific moment in which the micro aggression occurs. In addition, their effect is cumulative; individually, they can be brushed off, but after a while it is difficult for anyone who hears them to remain immune to their underlying message. Finally, micro aggressions can be really subtle, making it harder to call out the perpetrator without appearing like one is overreacting. This includes things like mistakenly introducing someone as someone else of the same race, or commenting on “how articulate” an African American is, to more consequential incidents like attributing a woman’s idea to the male coworker sitting next to her.

Personally, as a non-native speaker of English I’ve experienced my share of these situations. I am routinely asked things like: “Did you know any English when you came to the U.S.?” I usually respond politely but am often tempted to say: “No, I somehow learned all my English as I completed a doctoral program at an Ivy League school – I am that kind of a genius.” Some people repeat something they just said replacing a word they perceive as sophisticated with one they perceive as more colloquial. The underlying message of many of these is that having an accent somehow detracts from your general intelligence.

Why do these seemingly small things matter? Because they shape how we view ourselves, as well as how others perceive us and our abilities (step 3 in the figure below). Self- and third party evaluations, in turn, affect our aspirations and decisions about what fields we want to pursue, the jobs we see ourselves holding, etc. (1). Finally, individuals in a society form collective, broadly shared beliefs about who does what based on what’s around (2). Micro aggressions (stereotypes, status beliefs) contribute to processes in step 3 but shape things all the way up to macro-level forms of social stratification and inequality such as the gender segregation of paid work. If we change things at step 1 — e.g., by changing the composition of workplaces like schools — we can help to disrupt this “vicious cycle.”