by Lauren Pelkey

If you have recently heard of the term microaggressions for the first time and aren’t really sure what they are and how they are harmful, then I’m glad you’re here. This is a good place to start.

So let’s start with the basics. What is a microaggression?

As said by Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue, PhD, “Microaggressions are everyday slights, indignities, and put-downs directed, generally to people of color, by unintentional individuals who are unaware that they are engaging in a demeaning type of action.” 

In other words, it’s an offensive comment that you are ignorantly unaware is causing harm.

Although microaggressions occur within all marginalized groups, like disabled people, and the LGBTQ community, they occur most often against people of color, and even more specifically, Black people.

How are microaggressions harmful?

Although they may come off as small offenses on the surface, they are often said so frequently to BIPOC that it can lead to depression and take a real toll on mental health. The best explanation I have seen to explain this harm in more detail is this video: How microaggressions are like mosquito bites

This video uses the analogy of being bitten by mosquitoes. Some people get bitten by mosquitoes overwhelmingly more than other people. A mosquito bite once in a while is annoying and can sting, but it will likely not send you to the hospital right away. But getting constantly bitten by mosquitoes can cause a full-body sting, send you into a fit of rage because of how annoying and painful all of the bites are, and beyond that, some mosquitoes can carry life-threatening or even deadly diseases. (In the video they say “it’s not that big of a deal” which I find problematic, but the overall metaphor works well.)

7 Common Microaggressions

Chances are, at one point or another, you probably said or did one of the things listed below and unintentionally really hurt someone. You likely didn’t mean it, but intentions really don’t matter at the end of the day if the outcome is harmful.  

Today we are going to go over some common microaggressions that happen to BIPOC over and over again so that hopefully you learn something new and never, ever hurt someone again.

1. Microaggression: “Wow, you are so well-spoken/articulate!” or “You sound so White!”

Translation: I didn’t expect you to be so articulate because my perception of how Black people speak is not articulate and overall, less educated, and eloquent than White people.

Explanation: By acting surprised and pointing out the eloquence of someone’s speech, you are essentially saying that you didn’t expect that level of intelligence or articulateness based on the color of their skin. Even though you think you’re giving someone a compliment, you are actually giving a backhanded compliment and really highlighting the biases that you have in terms of Black people and their communication abilities.

common microaggressions, pangea dreams

2. Microaggression: “You’re not even Black!” or “You’re the whitest Black person I know!”

Translation: I mean this as a compliment because you are well-spoken, educated, intelligent, dress like me, and listen to similar music to me – all of the things that I equate with Whiteness aka superior and not Blackness aka inferior.

Explanation: By saying this, you are a.) perpetuating a stereotype that all White people are well-spoken, educated, and intelligent and that all Black people are not well spoken, uneducated, and unintelligent b.) you are saying that all Black people are the exact same. c.) telling someone who they are and stripping away their identity.

Ajah Hales said it best, “There is nothing exceptional about a Black woman who reads or listens to John Mayer or excels at chemistry or likes beach vacations. Your Black friend enjoying the same activities as you doesn’t make her less Black, but your thinking it does makes you less cultured.” 

3. Microaggression: “But where are you REALLY from?”

Translation: Even though you already told me that you’re from New Jersey I will keep pressing because you look different which means you can’t be FROM the USA and I feel entitled to know your ancestry to satisfy my sneaking suspicion of your foreignness. 

Explanation: By asking someone where they “really” are from you are implying that they must be foreign because they look different than you. You are identifying “otherness” in someone. If someone tells you they are from New Jersey, they are from New Jersey.

I would suggest building a relationship with someone first, and if you are curious about their heritage, ask because you want to learn more about that person and gain a deeper understanding of them, versus satisfying your need to justify your suspicion of foreignness. 

4. Microaggression: “You’re so exotic!”

Translation: You have darker skin and look different than me so you must be of foreign ancestry and I would like to point out your “otherness.”

Explanation: Exotic is an adjective and is defined as originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country. It is an adjective to describe plants and animals – not humans. When you call someone exotic or tell them that they are exotic looking you are alienating them and making them feel like a distant foreign being. 

5. Microaggression: ***Returns from day at the beach, holds arm up to BIPOC to compare skin colors*** “Look, I’m almost as dark as you are!”

Translation: In a strange way I am trying to relate to you, but I am clueless to the fact that my temporary tan is revered as a beautiful “summer glow” when your natural darker skin is often equated to “less than” in society. 

Explanation: As Olivia Christine of @OChristine says, “There is not a Black person on Earth who wants you to compare your arm’s new tan to their skin.”

And as said by Vrinda Jagota, When they compare their skin tone to mine, it feels like appropriation, a co-option of Brownness without ever having to deal with the oppression people of color face for their skin color.” 

common microaggressions, pangea dreams
Photo by @jazminantoinette

6. Microaggression: “Your hair is so cool!” ***Reaches out and touches Black woman’s hair***

Translation: I feel entitled to invade your personal space and touch your hair without asking and also, your hair is so foreign and so out of the normal to me that I am going nuts over it. I need to know what it feels like in order to satisfy my own needs without thinking about how this will make you feel. (Ps. Don’t even ask to touch a Black woman’s hair, ever. Just don’t.)

Explanation: As Gloria Atanmo of @Glographics says, “these instances can serve as reminders that our existence isn’t yet normalized if White people in professional spaces are acting like Black hair is an exhibit or something to pet like at a zoo.” 

7. Microaggression: “I don’t see color”

Translation: I am trying to tell you that I am not a racist and that I am so not racist in fact that I don’t even identify other races of people.

Explanation: When you say that you don’t see color you are a.) a liar, because, you definitely do b.) stripping away the experiences, racial injustices, and oppression that BIPOC have experienced in a multitude of different ways. By saying this you are not acknowledging that biases and racism exist and are belittling the experiences of BIPOC. 

We hope this has helped to explain some of the most common microaggressions said to BIPOC, specifically Black people, and the harm that these phrases can cause. We hope you have learned something new and now that you know some of these common microaggressions, you can not only never do or say any of the things listed above again, but can also call them out when you see them. 

Please also take a moment to check out the below materials that we found extremely helpful in researching and writing this post.

Cited Sources:

Blog post written by Lauren Pelkey, Bali Retreat 2017 Alumna, Director of Operations of Pangea Dreams, and creator of Wanderluluu. Find her on her website, or IG @wanderluluu.