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Understanding Microaggressions and Bias

By Lee Oglesby, YWCA Racial Justice Coordinator Assistant
January 24, 2019
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You may hear the terms “bias” and “microaggression” come up in conversations about race, but they are words that are often misunderstood. What do they mean and how do you identify them?

What is Bias?

Biases are the opinions or judgments we hold about a person or group of people without evidence to confirm or contradict that idea. Biases can paint someone in a positive or negative light. We all have biases. They come from the natural inclination to organize people into groups with common traits. However, failure to see and correct our own biases can cause a lot of harm.

What are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions occur when biases influence action. They are the verbal and nonverbal slights and insults that remind marginalized people that they are “outsiders” living in the dominant culture. Whether intentional or not, microaggressions have a lasting impact. Especially for people of color, they are an everyday reminder that stereotypes regularly outweigh individuality. They are reflections of the large, systemic biases and injustices that we see throughout society.

Microaggressions can be spoken aloud:

  • “You speak good English.”
  • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
  • “Where are you really from?”
  • “Everyone can succeed in this country if they work hard enough.”

They can also be actions like mistaking a person of color for a service worker, or ignoring them at a store counter while serving the white person in line behind them.

How to Respond and Intervene

While a single microaggression may not have a large impact, the accumulation of daily slights and insults over time can have a lasting effect. Each one of us has the power to prevent this harm and intervene when we see a microaggression in progress. There are many ways to offer support, but one good first step is to ask clarifying questions. Asking “What do you mean?” forces someone committing a microagression to slow down and consider the impact their words have on the individual in front of them.

To learn more about microaggressions and how you can respond, register for the Microaggressions and Bias 101 Workshop on Wednesday, February 20, 2019.