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Microaggressions: understanding subtle racism

Overt and blatant racism is easy to spot. It still exists, but there is an insidious version that many South Africans are subjected to far more often.

The highly publicised reaction by Ashwin Willemse to fellow SuperSport presenters Nick Mallet and Naas Botha during a broadcast highlighted something that many South Africans could identify with - microaggression.

After the clip was widely shared some said it was too soon to determine if Willemse was justified to end his participation in the broadcast, while others did not need to know the details to understand what had happened.

Willemse said he was not going to participate with people who would patronise him. It is unlikely that it was a one-off occurrence that would move him to react. It would more likely be the final straw after shrugging it off for some time or perhaps trying to address it.

What are microaggressions?

The term was created in the 1970's to describe comments that fall into three categories which undermine and patronise the person or group at which it is being directed.

They show prejudice and discrimination that could relate to racism, sexism, homophobia or directed at the disabled, the elderly or other groups that may find themselves being marginalised in an environment.

According to Derald W. Sue, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Columbia University in an article by the American Psychiatric Association the three are:

Microassaults are most akin to conventional racism, they are conscious. They are explicit racial or derogatory actions that are intended to hurt. For example, intentionally serving a white person before a person of colour or deliberating referring to an Asian person as “Oriental.”

Microinsults is an unconscious communication that demeans a person from a minority group. Examples include a teacher not calling on students of colour or a white person asking a person of colour “how did you get your job?”, implying that he/she is not qualified and got the job because of affirmative action or a quota program.

And minimizing or disregarding the thoughts, feelings or experiences of a person is referred to as microinvalidation. A white person asserting that “they don’t see colour” or that “we are all human beings” to someone who is black are examples.

Quartz's explanation using examples from movies.

Why it matters

In South Africa, some white people might not be aware of their prejudice and bias. Avoiding overt racism may still see some people saying things that are racist.

It may be that it is unconscious, but it is more likely that a person who uses microaggressions does not think what they are saying is significant enough to qualify as racist.

You could compare it to a mosquito bite; on its own and if only one, just a mild irritation. If, however, it occurs more than once and over a period of time, one more small bite can be infuriating and prevent you focussing on anything else.

If you are unaware of the kind of comments categorised as microaggressions it may be that you are likely to use them.

If you are all too well aware of microaggressions, then this may be a good piece to share with the person who used it when next it happens.

It is difficult to address when many of the perpetrators are unaware of their actions and it is also difficult to either always ignore the comments or try to explain the issue everytime it occurs.

There is some criticism of the term as it could be seen to be too broad, that may be valid, but the central issue does not relate only to the definition, but the frequency it occurs. Even then it does not settle the matter, it should be the point that justifies a more critical conversation about the environment in which it occurs.

Hopefully, this article may be a constructive way to highlight the issue for those that don't get it and save those subjected to it from having to get into a long explanation. Share this with those who would benefit from it.

If microaggressions were directed at those that use them.

MTV created this version by switching the role of the microaggressor.


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