“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions because it’s scary to them,” Sue told the American Psychological Association. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”
The perpetrator and even the recipient of the microaggression may try to brush off these comments as if they’re no big deal, but the cumulative effect of these interactions can be damaging to Black, Indigenous and people of color’s mental and physical health. The stress of being exposed to these incidents over time is linked to depression, psychological trauma, anxiety and high blood pressure, among other negative health outcomes.
Below, Black people share the microaggressions they’ve personally had to deal with and why they’re offensive:
1. When an airport gate agent questions why you’re in line for business class.
“I travel a lot as a wedding photographer and because of my airline frequent flyer status, I’m upgraded most of the time and get to fly in business class. Ticketing and gate agents always ask me if I’m in the correct line. They want to make me aware that I’m in a line of privilege. I’m usually singled out and asked if I’m flying business. At first, I used to say yes, but I started noticing that I was the only one asked most times, especially if I was the only Black person in the business line. Now, I audibly question why they single me out.”
— Joshua Dwain, wedding photographer
2. When someone tells you you’re so pretty that they ‘don’t even think of you as Black.’
“Although the insult here should be obvious, the several well-intentioned people that paid me this ‘compliment’ seemed to have no idea how insulting and hurtful this is. The idea that one cannot be both Black and pretty runs deep in this country. While growing up, every single example of beauty in the media and in my beloved books were white girls or women. Black people, particularly with hair like mine, were often relegated to the role of the dowdy best friend — if they appeared in the show, film or book at all. Nothing I read or saw growing up told me that Black was pretty.”
3. When people assume you got into a college because of an athletic scholarship.
“As an alumni of a private university, when someone asks if I played basketball in college, it implies that I was accepted on a sports-related scholarship instead of an academic basis. This is an assumption that all African Americans are athletic and mainly attend college through sports scholarships. I have never been a part of a sports team and I attended my university on a partial academic scholarship.”
― C.D., nurse
4. When a retail employee follows you around the store because they assume you’re going to shoplift.
“When I’m shopping in a store, like at the mall, and the store clerk follows me around the store constantly asking, ‘Do you need help finding anything?’ Asking once is fine, as I understand the need for good customer service. However, being constantly watched with the intent of criminality is another microaggression experienced by Black people. It assumes that we are stealing or don’t have the money to buy the clothes in the store. Anytime I notice this behavior, I decide not to spend my money there. “
― Erlanger Turner, psychology professor
5. Or when a retail worker immediately directs you to the sales rack.
“A few years ago, I went to Macy’s on 34th St. I walked into the Louis Vuitton section to find a gift for my mother. As soon as I walked in, the sales associate greeted me and, without any prompt, proceeded to direct me to the sales rack. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t understand, only to realize I was the only Black customer who had walked into the store and the only one who wasn’t dressed in designer brands. I left the store right then and there. I didn’t even want to get a gift for my mother after that. I just looked around window shopping then eventually went home. I spoke to my husband and some friends about it but never truly addressed how it bothered me.”
― Jan-Kristòf Louis-Mansano, school counselor
6. When people ask to touch your hair — or just do it without your permission.
“I was at a party where a white woman, who I had met several times before, asked if she could touch my hair (even though she had never asked before). Then, before I could respond, she had both hands on my Afro.
It was done to draw attention to me and embarrass me. This woman grew up in the 70s and has probably seen more Afros than me, but she acted like Afros were a brand new concept. Secondly, she violated my personal space and touched me without my permission because she felt she had the right. That entitlement and violation is racism.”
― Valencia Morton, blogger at Millionairess Mama
7. When they make you feel invisible.
“White people have the amazing ability to ignore what is different than their norm. My presence has been ignored in plenty of white spaces for no other reason than the color of my skin. In work settings, this is demoralizing and causes racial trauma.”
— Renée Cherez, travel writer
8. When they say you have good hair because it’s ‘not nappy.’
“This statement implies that to have good hair is to have hair resembling Eurocentric features. ‘Kinky’ or ‘nappy’ hair isn’t seen as beautiful in the eyes of society and wouldn’t be referred to as ‘good hair.’”
9. Or when they tell you your hair isn’t ‘professional.’
“Years ago, when I was working in a very corporate banking environment, I decided to chop off all my hair. I wanted to start over and embrace my natural texture instead of beating it into submission every month with relaxers. I remember when my supervisor caught wind of my plan to chop my hair off that weekend, she made a point to stop by my desk and lean in before saying, ‘I know you want to be an individual and everyone loves your energy. But I don’t think cutting off all your hair is going to fly here. It’s not very professional.’ She was telling me that showing up as my authentic self — and my most healthy self — would not be accepted and possibly not even tolerated. I chopped my hair off that weekend and quit a few months later.”
— Ashley Simpo, writer and content strategist
10. When people marvel at how ‘well-spoken’ you are.
“This statement implies that it’s shocking that a person of color is able to not only articulate their thoughts but hold an intellectual conversation. This is an assumption that people of color are less educated than their counterparts.”
11. When a white person tells you they ‘don’t see color.’
“If you can look at me and not see color, then you are denying my racial experiences and my existence. As a Black woman, my race and my womanhood are interwoven. I am both at the same time, all the time. To be colorblind is to disregard my or any Black person’s humanity.”
12. When they expect you to be a spokesperson for your entire race.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was being discussed in a space of mostly white people and I was the only Black man. I was essentially tokenized by another member of the group, equating all of my personal experiences to those of all Black people. The crazy part is that I didn’t even realize it until two other group members pointed it out post-meeting. This is a problem where we have become used to being ‘the other’ that we don’t realize when we are being targeted anymore.”
― Kellan Mansano, social worker
13. When they address your white partner instead of you.
“‘Let me show you around, sir.’ I can’t tell you how many times this statement was directed only to my white boyfriend while the two of us were house hunting a little over three years ago. Never mind that the down payment was coming from me — those realtors never failed to shake his hand first and look to him for answers during the showing. Even when he would say, ‘Actually, you better talk to her about the length of escrow or inspections etc.,’ they would still end up addressing him instead of me.
Sure, there was definitely some sexism in play, but many of my white, straight couple-friend-homeowners were also shocked to hear how far it went. These realtors were clearly not ready for a Black female decision-maker.”
― Cathcart Robbins
Should You Respond To A Microaggression?