The working definition of microaggressions is that they are the "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group."
So let's break this down:
Brief & Commonplace: This is not the overt cross-burning racism that's easy to spot. In fact, that's why microaggressions at times, can be more harmful, because the victim is often left with the internal debate of how to respond. If you are attuned to hear them, you probably couldn't make it through a single day without witnessing at least one microaggression (if not delivering one yourself).
Intentional or Unintentional: Again, another tricky aspect of receiving the brunt of a microaggression is that they often come from well-intentioned individuals who have no idea that what they are doing or saying is offensive. This can often lead to a response of defensiveness or denial ("I'm not racist. I have black friends.") which is sadly just another form of a microagression. A great example of an unintentional microaggression is "You don't talk Black" or "I don't even see you as Mexican." I suppose on the surface they are phrased as compliments, but the underlying message is that you are the exception to a stereotype at best, or at worst, that you do not embody the race or culture with which you identify and thus are to be praised for that.
Verbal, Behavioral or Environmental: Microaggressions can be even more difficult to point out when they aren't verbal. For example, a person clutching their bag as they walk past a black man. Environmental microaggressions point to more of a subtle systemic racism such as upper management or a board of directors having no people of color. College campuses or dated team mascots are other examples of environmental microaggressions that send a message that one race, gender, religion or sexual orientation is more welcome than another.
There are even different themes around microaggressions. Here are just a few. Do any sound familiar?
Colorblindness: "When I look at you I don't see color." or "American is a melting pot."
Alien in One's Own Land: "Where are you from?" or "You speak great English."
Criminality: A store owner follows a person of color around while they shop or a man clicks his car door lock as he pulls up to a stop sign where a black man is waiting to cross.
Sexual Objectification: A male stranger puts his hands on a woman's hips to walk by her.
So why am I spending this much time on what could be viewed by some as insignificant social interactions? Because they are happening all the time, and simply put, it gets old people. This video captures what I'm saying pretty perfectly (and contains a few well placed curse words). Microaggressions have been described as "death by a thousand cuts" because they wear you down after time. In fact, research has shown that navigating these covert forms of oppression takes from an individual's capacity for adaptive functioning and problem solving and can also contribute to low self-esteem (Dovidio & Gaertner, 2000).
So next time a well-intentioned comment doesn't quite get the reaction you'd hoped for, perhaps consider the underlying messages that may have been received. Holding an awareness for microaggressions also allows you to become an ally for those who experience them on a daily basis.