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Sports Psychology

What Are Microaggressions and Why Are They Harmful?

ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, What Are Microaggressions and Why Are They Harmful?

Reading Time: 4 minutes 42 seconds

When I was growing up, I frequently heard comments such as “you’re so articulate” or “you’re not like other Black people”. I remember hearing these phrases and feeling slightly uncomfortable with them but also not having the framework or language to decipher what didn’t feel good about these interactions. 

However, as I grew older, I came to realize there was a name for these interactions. They are called microaggressions, a term coined by Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans. By definition, microaggressions is a term for the daily, casual, and often unintentionally harmful and hurtful comments that marginalized people experience from people in positions of privilege.

Understanding Microaggressions

If this is the first time you are becoming familiar with the term microaggressions and how they might show up, here is a list of common microaggressions:

  • “I don’t see color.”
  • “You’re so articulate.”
  • “Can I touch your hair?”
  • “You don’t sound Black.”
  • “What are you?”
  • “I’m not racist. I have a ______ friend.”
  • You’re not like other gay people.”
  • Overall use of terms such as “I got gyped”, “that’s so gay”, “that’s so lame”, or “Indian giver”, just to name a few examples.

While your initial response to reading some of the microaggressions listed above may be perhaps people are being too sensitive, the reality is that all the comments are rooted in stereotypes that are quite harmful to people. Although they may seem harmless in nature or perhaps even funny at times, as shown in the video below, they are very sinister in nature and are really a form of insult. 

Although you likely have a good understanding of the harmful nature of microaggressions at this point, let’s break down one of most common microaggressions: “I don’t see color.”

What you think you are saying: “I treat everyone the same regardless of their race or ethnicity. I see the inherent dignity and worth of all people.”

What you are actually saying: I don’t see your unique race or ethnicity. In fact, I’m erasing your identity in order to make us all the same. Because if we are all the same, I can’t treat you differently based on your race.

What to say instead: I recognize that we are all different. There’s a myriad of races and ethnicities. I see that we may be different and I treat you with the same dignity and respect as everyone else, especially those who are the most like myself. 

In this example, the person making the statement likely has good intentions, but in reality, they are failing to acknowledge a very important part of a person’s identity. It is dismissive and it fails to understand or see their unique experience in the world. Going beyond that, denying race also downplays the need to discuss racism in the U.S. and globally because if we fail to acknowledge that we are all different, then we may not see the need to discuss how to be anti-racist in our lives. 

Although these may not seem to be terrible offenses, casual microaggressions are a form of racism and, when faced with these daily, can be quite mentally and emotionally taxing. Oftentimes, when on the receiving end of such comments, individuals choose not to bring up or correct the offense because it doesn’t feel safe or simply because when it occurs quite frequently. It can be overwhelming and a damper on their mental health to continually explain why something is offensive.

However, as it pertains to creating safe and inclusive spaces, we must be mindful of casual microaggressions just as much as more overt forms of racism. Both can cause harm to people.

Addressing Microaggressions

Here are three tips to address microaggressions and situations that may arise as a result of microaggressions:

1. Unlearn Our Own Implicit Biases

Most often, microaggressions, whether intentional or unconscious, are a result of our implicit bias. Implicit bias, also referred to as unconscious bias, in its most simple definition, is when we aren’t conscious of the stereotypes and assumptions we are keeping about race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and more. Implicit bias doesn’t make us good or bad people. It simply makes us human.

However, the reality is that we all hold unchecked stereotypes and assumptions about people different from ourselves. When we don’t take the time to unlearn those things and recognize how we might be making broad judgements about entire groups of people, we can easily fall into the trap of engaging in microaggressions and unintentionally causing harm to people.

If you haven’t even begun to consider what implicit biases you may be working through, the Harvard Implicit Bias tests are a great place to start the process. 

2. Interrupt and Educate 

Once you begin to understand the harmful nature of microaggressions and the myriad of ways they show up—in a fitness space, on social media, in everyday life, etc.—it becomes the responsibility of us all to interrupt when we witness microaggressions occurring. Depending on the situation, it may not always be possible to interrupt in the moment. However, it’s imperative that we take initiative to educate those we witness engaging in microaggressions.

If our goal is to create fitness spaces that feel safe and welcoming for everyone, it’s the responsibility of us all to ensure that individuals are not caused harm or made uncomfortable in our spaces. That requires having potentially difficult conversations with our clients or peers when we witness them dishing out microaggressions. We can do this with kindness and compassion, recognizing that there may not be any ill intent. However, the conversation still needs to be had. Education for those around us is a huge part of making the fitness industry more welcoming and accessible to all bodies

3. Don’t Get Defensive

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of feedback regarding microaggressions, the best possible thing you can do is listen and learn. Although getting negative feedback can be challenging, it’s best not to get defensive. Remember, someone letting you know that you caused harm to them, whether it was intentional or not, doesn’t mean you are a bad person. It simply means that you have some learning to do, and it’s an opportunity for you to educate yourself and correct your behavior going forward. 

We all make mistakes. It’s part of the process. However, people most often remember how we respond to making mistakes, not the mistake itself. If we choose to avoid getting defensive and taking the role of victim and instead opt to listen, apologize, and commit to doing better in the future, we create an environment for mutual growth and understanding.


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Chrissy King

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