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Indignities and insults: Racial microaggressions

By Trish Olson, Extension Center for Family Development

This post first appeared in Family Matters, the newsletter of the Extension Center for Family Development.

Hot Buttons from Cultures Connecting.
Have you ever attended a conference where, when someone asks you afterward “What did you learn?” you drew a blank? Such was not the case with the Children, Youth, and Families at Risk (CYFAR) conference I attended in Washington, D.C. last week.

Conference planners, led by our own Lynne Borden, department head of Family Social Science, tapped Caprice D. Hollins, Psy.D. from Cultures Connecting to provide content training.

In Dr. Hollins’ breakout session, she cited Derald Sue’s seminal work “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life.” Dr. Sue defines racial microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

So what does a microaggression look like? Dr. Hollins asked us to wear Hot Buttons and discuss
with people in the room questions like:

  • “When you hear these words, how does it make you feel?”
  • “What do the words mean to you?”
  • “I don’t get it — why is this offensive to some people?”

This open dialogue in the room was the most important part of the session — people discussing their “hot buttons” with people who had different life experiences or cultural and ethnic backgrounds, who came from different parts of the country, and so on. One African-American woman shared she was 44 years old and never had these kinds of conversations before.

So, what did I learn at the CYFAR conference? I learned that I need more time for self-reflection on my words and actions around race and ethnicity, and that I need to continue the cultural self-study begun at the April Qualey-Skjervold conference. And, building on Mary Marczak’s May 22 column, I learned to not be afraid to ask others for their honest feedback on words I say, words I write, and how I act.

-- Trish Olson, assistant to the associate dean
of the Extension Center for Family Development

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  1. Great post highlighting importance of thinking about how our words and actions impact others! What do you think is one resource or tip people can take with them in their daily lives to remind them to be aware of their thoughts and actions?

    As and added resource, recently the Extension Children Youth and Family Consortium, we've put out a video series about microaggressions and historical trauma and the affects on families and communities. More info here:

  2. This was a timely approach as my colleagues in the UMN Division of General Pediatrics and Adolescent Health just watched the microaggression video that Sara Langworthy referred to in her comment, and I've forward this blog entry to my colleagues. Thanks for posting Trish. - Cathy Jordan

    1. Thanks for forwarding on. Forwarding on a blog discussion can be like throwing a pebble in a pond - you never know how far-reaching the discussion can go.

  3. Trish, Thanks for sharing this important learning from the conference, the full article and link to Mary’s post as well. I also recommend viewing the video she shares. I appreciate you sharing the strategy the speaker used in your workshop; it offers an important reminder about opening up focused dialogue and is perhaps something staff in youth development can use as we equip ourselves and our volunteers around issues of diversity and inclusion.

  4. Someone once shared with me that they had a young, not-too-confidence professor who lectured every minute of class - so there was no time for discussion, obviously uncomfortable or not-too-confident to handle the discussion part of class. We can often have our activities or programs end up the same way thinking... "I must share the important information in the limited time I have, " or "if I open it up for discussion, I don't know what will happen." Rather, let the discussion happen. The interaction with others will be what our participants remember and share with others when they get home or at the "water cooler" the following morning.

  5. Thanks for this post, Trish. Just thinking about the woman you mentioned who said at age 44 she'd never had these kinds of conversations. I recently had a 4th grader come and talk to me about some out-right racist comments he heard from his friends at school (so, not micro-aggressions, but I suppose you could say macro-aggressions?). I think it's vitally important to offer safe opportunities for young people to LEARN how to have these conversations. And I don't think 4th grade is too early, since obviously it's not too early for kids to begin the practice of discrimination and racism. In the case of this particular young person, I was infinitely grateful that he came to me to talk about what he had been experiencing at school, because not only could we talk about whether or not these friends were being friends, but we could also talk about racism itself--how it affects not only the victim, but also the aggressor. He was equally grateful. He's learning early how to be an ally.

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