Microaggressions: Part 2 of 3 – examples and impact

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

On Wednesday, March 2, 2016, The Harman Firm, LLP published the first part of its three-part article titled Microaggressions. The second part, which follows below, discusses practical examples of microaggressions and their impact on those subjected to them.

Microaggressions are hidden messages that are sent: (i) verbally (“You speak good English” to Latino or Asian coworker, suggesting that Latino and Asian Americans, because of their ethnicity, are foreigners and not ‘real Americans,’ regardless of their birth place); (ii) nonverbally (clutching one’s purse more tightly when a black man passes on the sidewalk, conveying the belief that Black people are prone to crime and are “up to no good”) and; (iii) environmentally (using American Indian mascots during football games, suggesting that American Indians are savages or otherwise outsiders and demeaning their culture and traditions).

The producer of a microaggression need not intend to hurt the person at whom the remark or conduct is aimed. For example, Matt Lauer, journalist and host of NBC’s The Today Show, was criticized for a remark he made during an interview with Mary Barra, the first female CEO of a major global automaker, shortly after she became General Motors’ CEO. Mr. Lauer asked Ms. Barra whether she could be both a good mother and an effective CEO of a major company. Mr. Lauer’s statement revealed a judgment about the competence of a female executive that would never be made about a male executive; it would be strange for a journalist to ask a male CEO whether he could be a good father and an effective CEO of a major company. Mr. Lauer’s question assumes that by virtue of being female, Ms. Barra was doing her children a disservice by taking the CEO position. This example shows that although overt sexism in the American workforce appears to be on the decline, it is instead becoming “more subtle and ambiguous.” Although Mr. Lauer did not mean to insult or demean Ms. Barra, his question came from and reinforced the stereotype of women as mothers above all else.

According to Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. of Columbia University, microaggressions have “powerful detrimental consequences” on disadvantaged groups. Microaggressions have been found to: (i) assail the mental health of recipients, (ii) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (iii) perpetuate stereotypes, (iv) create physical health problems, (v) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (vi) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (vii) create inequities in education, employment and health care. In sum, what one person may view as an offhand comment can have a significant impact on another’s life, especially when he or she is subjected to these comments repeatedly and from multiple sources.

The third and final part of this article will discuss the application of microaggression to employment discrimination law.