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Why words matter: The negative impacts of racial microaggressions

Iloradanon Efimoff, Ph.D. Candidate of Social and Personality Psychology at University of Manitoba, discusses the impact of racial microaggressions on Indigenous and other racialized people. 

“Don’t you go to school for free?”, “You don’t pay taxes!”, “Do you live in a teepee?” are things Indigenous students have heard.

In some cases, there is widespread agreement on what racism is. For example, most people would agree that restricting a racial group’s right to vote in a federal election is racist. (Indigenous people were the last to gain full voting rights in Canada in 1960.)

But in other cases, the agreement is scant — the quotes at the top of this page represent some of those cases. They are examples of racial microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are often considered “minor.”

What are racial microaggressions?

Racial microaggressions are incessant, subtle forms of racism that can be verbal, behavioural or environmental. Racial microaggressions have been described as “racial indignities.”

As a mixed-race Haida woman, I’ve been routinely told I “don’t look Indigenous” or I’m “not like other Indigenous people” because I was born with my mother’s skin tone instead of my father’s. This is an example of a racial microaggression.

Microaggressions may seem small or “micro,” but as incessant forms of racism, they can have big impacts on mental health, physical health and social life.

One study of university students found that non-Indigenous university students regularly asked Indigenous university students if they lived in teepees. Another study found that Indigenous students were stereotyped by others as drunks, addicts or on welfare.

Daily hassles

One way of looking at the impact of racial microaggressions could be to look at daily hassles. Daily hassles are defined as “relatively minor, everyday problems such as commuting problems, family arguments or household repairs.”

The cumulative impact of daily hassles is linked to chronic health conditions like digestive problems, mental health conditions like depression and anxiety and even death. Some researchers have even found that daily hassles have a larger impact on health than major life events given their relentless nature.

The concept of daily hassles show that small things can have big impacts.

Racial microagressions and health

Researchers have shown that racial microaggressions are associated with depression in Latino community members, in university students of Asian descent and create PTSD symptoms in Black participants. Microaggressions are also related to physical health outcomes. Experiencing racial microaggressions during the COVID-19 pandemic was related to physical health issues and sleep troubles for Asians and Asian Americans.

They’re also associated with a whole host of other negative outcomes like substance use, anxiety, stress and even suicidal thoughts in many racialized groups.

Although there is little quantitative research on the impacts of microaggressions on Indigenous people, qualitative research has indicated that Indigenous people feel disrespected, degraded, uncomfortable or like they have to hide their Indigenous identity after experiencing microaggressions.

Microaggressions aren’t just based on race

Microaggressions can be based on many factors. Researchers have identified microaggressions based on gender, LGBTQ identity and ability.

Experiencing microaggressions based on these other factors can have similar effects as racial microaggressions: for example, experiences of disability-related microaggressions were related to higher levels of anxiety in Canadian university students.

Photo by Monstera from Pexels

A person can experience multiple types of microaggressions, due to the intersectionality of their identities.

For example, an Indigenous woman who identifies as bisexual might experience race, gender and sexual orientation-related microaggressions all in one day. Based on research on the impact of microaggressions and daily hassles, it is likely these combined experiences have negative impacts.

What to do about them?

What can people do about microaggressions? Freelance writer Hahna Yoon wrote a piece in the New York Times on how the targets of microaggressions might respond. These discussions are important because microaggressions exist and targets of them must have coping mechanisms. For example, people who experience microaggressions might share their experiences with others who have common experiences as a way to cope.

However, focusing on the target’s response misplaces the burden. A more equitable approach would be to put the onus of addressing microaggressions onto the perpetrators of the microaggressions. But there is relatively little research on this.

One study found that white participants said they were less likely to engage in microaggressions after a day-long workshop on race, racism and racial microaggressions. The study provides hope to those who do this work, but more information is needed.

Microaggressions cause harm. More research needs to be done to understand how best to prevent them. Thinking about how words matter might be a good place to start.The Conversation

Iloradanon Efimoff, Ph.D. Candidate, Social and Personality Psychology, University of Manitoba


This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Natalie Diaz, Pulitzer Prize

Pulitzer Prize winner Natalie Diaz weaves together Latina and Indigenous identity in poetry collection 

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Natalie Diaz weaves together her Latina and Indigenous identity in a collection of tender, heart-wrenching and defiant poems that are an anthem against erasure of people like herself.

Natalie Diaz, Pulitzer Prize

Winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, Natalie Diaz’s latest collection is a celebration of Latina and Indigenous identity. (Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

Her Pulitzer Prize winning collection, Postcolonial Love Poem, is described by Natalie herself as “a constellation.” Speaking to The Arizona Republic, Natalie continued, describing how like a constellation, her book is “able to pool a lot of different communities together. I, of course, have an Indigenous lens, but yet I think that Indigenous lens is extremely important to non-Indigenous peoples. We’re all fighting for our water. We’re all fighting for this Earth, for one another against injustice.”  

Postcolonial Love Poem is a timely piece that explores various aspects of identity and life as a Latina and Indigenous woman in America today and what it means to love and be loved in an America troubled by conflict and racial injustice.

A defiant act against erasure

Born in the Fort Mojave Indian Village in Needles, California, Natalie now lives in Mohave Valley, Arizona, where she is a professor at Arizona State University. She is also actively involved in the preservation of the Mojave language, working with the few remaining elder speakers of the language in an effort to revitalize the language and prevent its erasure. 

Historically, Native and Indigenous cultures, histories, and languages have been erased, silenced, ignored, and rewritten. Natalie’s work aims to shine a light on that erasure and the violence inflicted on Native people. In Postcolonial Love Poem, every body carried in its pages demands to be seen and to “be touched and held as beloveds.” 

Latina and Indigenous identity, Postcolonial Love Poem, Pulitzer Prize, Natalie Diaz

Postcolonial Love Poem explores the nuances of what it means to be a Latina and Mojave Native woman in America today. (Image source: Gray Wolf Press)

“In this new lyrical landscape, the bodies of indigenous, Latinx, black, and brown women are simultaneously the body politic and the body ecstatic. In claiming this autonomy of desire, language is pushed to its dark edges, the astonishing dunefields and forests where pleasure and love are both grief and joy, violence and sensuality,” her publisher describes. 

Her poetry is a defiant act against the erasure of bodies like hers. She writes, “I am doing my best to not become a museum / of myself. I am doing my best to breathe in and out. // I am begging: Let me be lonely but not invisible.

You might be interested: 10 Books by Latinx authors to read summer 2021 

Portrait of Natalie Diaz in her studio in Phoenix, AZ on September 14, 2018. (Photo by John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

“I think one of the most rewarding things about poetry is poetry has this incredible capacity to hold what is at once painful and also what is joyful,” Natalie says. “It can hold tensions. It can let you not know things. It can let you question things. It can let you even have no language … to express the ways we feel or the ways we’re imagining things.”

Postcolonial Love Poem presents a complex and nuanced perspective on identity, joy, love, and grief while unraveling notions of American goodness, creating something more powerful than hope. A future is built and in these poems, Natalie chooses love. 

Natalie Diaz is also the author of When My Brother Was an Aztec, winner of an American Book Award. She has received many honors, including a MacArthur Fellowship, a USA fellowship, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and a Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artist Fellowship. She is Mojave and an enrolled member of the Gila River Indian Tribe. She also holds the Maxine and Jonathan Marshall Chair in Modern and Contemporary Poetry at Arizona State University.