Microaggresions: subtle and shameful

Informal, unprofessional and messy are a few words people have used to describe sophomore Brookte Smith’s natural, afro-textured hair. While Smith has always found these comments upsetting, she recently recognized them as microaggressions.

“They would say, ‘You need to straighten or put your hair back to make it formal,’ and that was something that I always learned to just roll with,” said Smith. “But then I realized that I should be able to wear my hair naturally and not be told that it is messy or unpresentable.”

Microaggressions are statements, actions or incidents that may seem harmless on the surface, but are often rooted in harmful stereotypes and can have damaging consequences for those affected by them. 

Microaggressions can be viewed as “death by a thousand papercuts,” said Dr. Shazeen Suleman, assistant professor at University of Toronto’s Department of Pediatrics.

“They might be small remarks that stem from an unconscious bias, they might be unintentional, but when you add them up, they can lead to a lot of harm,” Suleman said.

Microaggressions are tied to power structures, Suleman said.

“In a school environment, power shifts moment to moment,” said Suleman. “That means anybody can receive a microaggression and anybody can perpetuate it.”

Smith has found it more difficult to stand up to microaggressions when they are being perpetrated by adults. 

Microaggressions erode self-esteem, as harmful comments are internalized and those insecurities can be carried on as a teenager grows up, Suleman said.

“Overtime, we know that [microaggressions] can contribute to mental health concerns, like depression and anxiety, because microaggressions and cumulative-load microaggressions are a form of trauma,” Suleman said. 

Although Smith has been a victim of microaggressions for several years, she was not able to identify them until she brought up the topic with her mom in eighth grade.

“I didn’t want to think that it was all in my head or that I’m going crazy,” said Smith. “But I asked my mom, ‘Is it rude if such-and-such happens?’ And she was like, ‘Oh, that’s a microaggression.’”

According to Suleman, the best way to prevent microaggressions is to educate others on what they are and why they are harmful, and this education should happen in safe and collaborative spaces.

“You have to be able to name the problem,” said Suleman. “So I think if people are not aware of structural racism and discrimination … it’s going to be really hard for people to even name what they’re feeling.”

Smith feels optimistic about efforts for diversity and inclusion, as spreading awareness about microaggressions will prepare students for how to handle harmful comments.

“I have younger siblings, and now that they are getting the education of what a microaggression is, I can see there’s a load that I had on my shoulders that isn’t necessarily on theirs,” Smith said.