“You People Are So Inspiring!” and Other Microaggressions

Along with the definition I was sent a long list of commonly used microaggressions — it went on for a few pages. My first thought was, ‘Wow, there are a lot of ways to slight another person‘. And, my second thought was, ‘And that’s why this is an important topic to discuss.’ Bringing awareness to topics like this is part of the solution towards a more compassionate and positive social climate.

Simply sharing the long list of microaggressions with you at this time would not lead to a stimulating blog post. But, sharing a few examples will provide a necessary thought stimulus.

As you read them, pause to consider the negative slight — the derogatory language in the wording, perhaps even some hostility — it’s there:

Implicit Bias Can Translate into Microaggressions
  • Racial Microagressions
    • “Where are you from?”
    • “You speak good English”
    • “You are a credit to your race”
    • “When I look at you I don’t see colour”
  • Disability Microagressions
    • “I can’t believe you are married”
    • “Come on now, we all have some disability”
    • “You people are so inspiring”
    • “Let me do that for you”
  • Gender Microaggressions
    • “Boys will be boys”
    • “I need a few strong men to help me lift this”
    • “You’re going to have to fight the boys off with a stick”
Microaggressions Result In A Power Imbalance

You may be wondering why a couple of these statements might be listed as a microaggression — they look to be supportive: “Let me do that for you.” It’s helpful.

Or is it?

Could it actually be demeaning because your words assume their incapacity or incompetence?

Even choosing to use a person’s legal name, instead of the name they wish to refer to themselves, is a type of microaggression. It minimizes their right to be referred to as they prefer, while also asserting a position of authority over them .

One of my life lessons on this topic comes from my early teaching career. I had assumed incompetence on the part of my audience. I was in a parent-teacher interview — I was the teacher. I wrongly assumed that the parents were not familiar with educational norms and pedagogy. I was wrong — very wrong — as one of the parents was an education professor at the local university. My commentary came across as disrespectful. There was certainly no negative intent on my part — but my language was still inappropriate.

Lesson learned.

Here’s another example of becoming aware of my bias or assumptions. Again, it is a work example. The school I was teaching at was hosting a Multicultural Evening — an evening to celebrate the many cultures in our community. Students were the stars. As their teacher, I knew them only from their presence in my classroom. Those shy and reserved science students were transformed on stage — their passion filled the room. I was awestruck at their talent and passion for their craft.

Take-away: When you assume that person knows less or is less skilled than you, it limits them — in your own eyes, but also within them. There is always more to understand about a person and their abilities.

There are some things we should do to minimize our own microaggressions:

Spend Time Reflecting on Your Own Actions
  • Be AWARE of your BIASES— they can influence your words and actions. Don’t underestimate your leanings towards making assumptions.
  • Assume COMPETENCE in others — regardless of what limitations you may think exist. When you assume incompetence, you limit a person’s ability to do.
  • Be careful with your COMPLIMENTS– Don’t offer a compliment based on a group or description such as gender, race, language, economic status, age or country of origin.
  • Be HUMBLE – assume others know more than you, and that you are there to learn.

As you’re reflecting on your role in propagating microaggressions, acknowledge to yourself that you have said and done things (intentional or otherwise) that could be construed as microaggressive. We can all be better.

“We cannot become what we want by remaining what we are.”

Max Depree

Be Thoughtful

Be Reflective

Be Humble

2 thoughts on ““You People Are So Inspiring!” and Other Microaggressions

  1. Another insightful post Dave, you’re on a roll. 🙂 (Hoping that was not a micro-aggression)

    But seriously, you’ve identified a couple of things for me. First simply being self-aware is critical. I know if I’m not paying attention to my words and my audience, I’m in jeopardy of offending someone and often this comes with the good intentions of trying to connect. But that’s the second point and that of course is that intent and impact are tricky. On the one hand, our intent is often less important or not important at all because the impact can be so significant…good or bad. I’ve stopped saying “I didn’t mean to offend you” to my wife and while I’m sure she knows that, hurtful comments are still hurtful no matter the intent. That said, when we are in a position of power, this can become a powerful teaching moment when we do feel offended. Reaching out to those whose trust we’ve earned when we either recognize good intentions or indeed we have good intentions can be used to learn and grow.

    That may have been a bit convoluted but trust me, my intentions were good. 🙂 Again, Dave, I so appreciate your thoughts here. High-quality leadership in action.


    • Hi Dean,

      Your words are so kind. Thank you. I think we can get to a place in our lives where we can be more honest with ourselves and the perceptions of our actions. Your comments to me show your own personal reflections on what is important to you. It reminds me, again, of what a positive, humble and supportive person you are in this world. Thank you!


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