When you see someone ask a well-spoken person of color, “Where are you from?” What do you do?
Do you respond in some way or do you stand silent?
A question like “Where are you from” is a microaggression, said Columbia University psychology professor Derald Wing Sue.
“Our studies indicate that when a racist comment or action occurs, most of the people around remain silent,” said Sue, whose studies also show about 80 percent of the victims do nothing.
“And what they don’t understand is by virtually remaining silent, they are colluding with the person to continue the bias treatment and behaviors going on.” he added.
Sue spoke to about 140 people Saturday at Episcopal Community Services‘ annual Forum on Justice and Opportunity, which was held at WHYY, 150 N. 6th St. in Philadelphia.
ECS works to “challenge and reduce intergenerational poverty,” according to a press release. It held the forum to give attendees “important tools to engage with the intermingling issues inherent in poverty and initiate practical efforts to improve policy and practice.”
During Sue’s talk, he defined microaggressions and suggested practicing microinterventions as a way to stop them.
“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership,” he said.
Examples of microaggressions Sue cited include:
Verbal — if a Euro-American woman asks an African-American woman if she can touch her hair.
Non-verbal — if a person of color steps onto an elevator and a Euro-American woman clutches her purse closer to her body out of fear.
Environmental — a university or business seeks to hire and accept more people of color to appear more welcoming.
“That person that commits microaggression is not a mean person,” Sue said. “They are just a reflections of a world view.”
He said individuals should respond to those types of comments and behaviors by interrupting them, bringing attention to them and educating the offender about why they’re inappropriate because the person might be ignorant about what he or she really said.
If necessary, Sue said, a victim of a microaggression should seek external support so there’s no confusion in the future about what statements or actions are offensive.
Sue suggested one example of microintervention could involve reversing the narrative so the offender could gain another perspective and possibly realize the offensiveness of his or her comments.
For example, he said, if you see an American being critical of an immigrant who doesn’t speak English well, you could say to the American, “It is not easy. Have you ever tried to learn a second language?”
Or if someone says, “You speak excellent English,” Sue said, you could respond by saying, “Thank you. I hope so. I was born here.”
The response thanks the person for their conscious communication, the “I hope so” closes them down and “I was born here” undermines their meta-communication, the psychology professor said.
He pieced it all together by stressing the importance of eliminating ignorance with microaggression and adding that bystanders need to gain a voice when addressing such behavior.