After delivering an talk years ago, a woman approached Columbia University professor Dr. Derald Wing Sue and asked where he was from. After Sue responded, “Portland, Oregon,” the woman repeated the question, implying she believed Sue had not been born in the United States.
In his keynote at the University of Wisconsin’s Diversity Forum Monday, Sue said the experience was an example of “microagressions,” which are brief verbal, behavioral or environmental exchanges that intentionally or unintentionally communicate negative or insulting slights to marginalized groups in society.
Common examples of microaggressions can be the questions like, “Where were you born?” or comments like, “You speak excellent English,” Sue said.
These comments reflect everyday “manifestations of microaggressions” that people are generally unaware they are making, Sue added these slights unconsciously communicate to marginalized people that they are perpetual foreigners in their own country and not “true Americans.”
“Microaggressions are subtle, stunning, often automatic, verbal and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put downs,’” Sue said.
These actions can also be nonverbal, such as when people check their wallets, lock their cars or hold their breath when around people of color and can be delivered through dismissive looks and gestures, Sue said.
Sue said these microagressions are sometimes perpetuated in higher education, citing that although only 33 percent of the population is white Euro-American male, they occupy more than 80 percent of tenured posts in higher education.
Sue said when administrators of universities are predominantly white, it sends a message to students and people of color on campus they are not welcome there. It also sends the message if people of color choose to remain on campus they will be “uncomfortable” and can only go so far up in the hierarchy.
However, Sue noted white men are not the enemies, but that white supremacy is.
Sue said his intention is to make these transgressions visible, as perpetrators are often unaware of their comments. Sue also said people on the receiving end of this aggression struggle with formulating a response as they do not know if the comment was intentional or what the consequences will be if they do respond, he said.
“If [people] don’t see that this is invisible to them … they won’t be able to change,” Sue said.
Other common microaggressions Sue noted were African-American students being complimented for being bright and articulate, sending the hidden message that most African-Americans are inarticulate and lack intelligence, or female residents wearing stethoscopes being mistaken for nurses, sending the message that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles and women are less capable than men.
“As a person of color you have to take care of yourself, because a change in this institution or any institution is slow. Taking care of yourself means finding a support group … [people] who will validate your experiential reality,” Sue said.