explainer

Microaggression is another word for casual racism. Here are 10 you've probably heard or said.

I speak English beautifully, and do you know how I know this? Because I have been told many times.

Even though my accent is unmistakably Australian, and should clearly indicate that I was born here, too many people have judged my identity on the fact that I’m brown, and assumed that I am a foreigner. Why else would they comment on my ability to speak English well without knowing anything else about me?

Telling me I speak good English on this basis is casual racism – where the intention isn’t exactly to offend, but it’s based on erroneous, subconscious prejudices.

WATCH: The problem with just saying 'I'm not racist.' Post continues below.


Video via BBC


In the last few weeks, in the era of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor and the ensuing conversations about racial bias, the term ‘microaggressions’ has been repeatedly used. 

In essence, a racial microggression is what we know as casual racism. The term was first used in the 1970s by Harvard's Chester M. Pierce, and can refer to prejudice based on a person’s race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or disability.

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It's not a crime to say one. It's not even deemed sufficiently serious to constitute abuse. But a racial microaggression, albeit usually said well-intentionally, hurts, and is difficult for the recipient to forget. The words are deeply othering, and the cumulative effect over years of hearing similar things can result in a lack of confidence and struggle with identity.

Microaggressions also reinforce racial stereotypes, and although usually delivered casually, indicate a certain ignorance by the deliverer, and result in offence by the recipient.

For example, Oprah Winfrey once spoke about being told, "You’re not really black”, by one of her wealthy neighbours, who was trying to make her feel good about being a minority in her neighbourhood. 

This was a microggression, and Winfrey recognised it immediately. On the other hand, the worst microaggression I ever experienced was covered by the person delivering it – one of my closest friends – so I didn’t recognise it for what it was for years.

I spoke out about it this week: about being told I needed to cover up my genetic dark eye pigmentation, because I "look like I've been punched in the face".






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Buckle up, kiddos: I’ve got to take responsibility for something, and sharing it with you will take some words, but I hope it makes you think. We’ve all been talking recently about silence in the face of racism amounting to complicity. The thing is, I’ve been complicit, too. I’ve witnessed racism too many times, and never said a word, even though it’s been directed at me. I know me being silent is hard to imagine, but that’s what experiencing racism can do to a person. Too many times I’ve witnessed and experienced personal prejudice, and never spoken up for myself, because I’m paralysed, and somehow mortified, in that moment. Being the only one in a queue getting her bag searched. Being told to pay for things up front, when others don’t have to. The last time that happened, I wanted to tell the clerk that my handbag cost more than his monthly wage so I didn’t need to steal anything from the store, just as a snarky comeback to his racial profiling, but I didn’t. I just opened my bag silently, internally seething. I was also silent when a decade ago, a friend dragged me to a make up shop to buy under eye concealer because “you look like you’ve been punched in the face” and she couldn’t “stand it anymore.” Until recently, because of that incident, I’ve spent so much time and money trying to hide the pigmentation I was born with, the dark circles I’ve lived with all my life, that are just me as an Indian woman. All of a sudden I was told ‘me’ wasn’t good enough, and I believed it. I didn’t meet that standard of beauty I should care very much about. I now realise how wrong that situation was, in so many ways. But it was also wrong - complicit - of me to be silent. And so, this photo is a proud WOC, me, with my ‘circles’. I hope it makes you think about judging a person’s skin; but more importantly, questioning your own silence.✌🏾#woc #blm

A post shared by  Nama Winston (@namawinston) on

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It was said to me by my friend (admittedly a decade ago) who was trying to help me ‘look better’ after my divorce. Her intention was good – but it didn’t feel good to hear it. I eventually realised that her microaggression was based on an ingrained belief about darkness not being as beautiful as lightness; which traditionally has been one of the main premises of the beauty industry.

Here are some other examples of microaggressions:

1. “Can I touch your hair?”

My friend Kee, with her ‘unusual’ locks, experiences this constantly. She wrote about it for Mamamia, explaining the problem perfectly:

“For years, black women have been judged for their natural tresses, made to feel that their hair was 'wild', begged for a relaxer to fit in, have been expelled for dreadlocks or forced to wear weaves in order to feel professional or polished in a work environment.

“I’m not here to entertain you nor do I care to be touched.

“Please keep your hands to yourself and try getting to know me as a person before asking about my family tree.”

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2. “You speak English so well.”

My Indian-born mother has been told this by people who would never know that she was literally educated in school and medical school in English. White people do not have ownership of the language.

3. “You’re Asian and you can’t do maths?”

Sorry to disappoint your incredibly biased expectations based on Hollywood stereotypes.

4. “I don’t think of you as ‘different’. I don’t see colour.”

The saying of these words indicates that a difference is noted. You wouldn’t say this to a person you didn’t think was different.

5. “I have a lot of black friends.”

Ok, sure, but you don’t have a lot – or any – experience of living their lives. So you cannot claim an understanding by osmosis.

6. “I don’t believe in tokenism based on race.”

You’re right, it shouldn’t have to happen. But we are not all born equal, and all lives matter, but historically and statistically, the lives of non-whites have mattered less. That’s what’s led us to the problems today.

7. “We check everyone’s bag.”

No, you don’t. You didn’t do it to the three people in front of me.

Also, while we’re at it, you also don’t ask for everyone to pay upfront. So, don’t ask it of me at the service station, dry cleaner, or locksmith. (Yep, I’ve experienced all three.)

8. “Where are you really from?”

Just ask “what’s your heritage?” if you really need an explainer on why I have a different skin colour to yours. And if I tell you the truth – Adelaide, South Australia – please just accept it.

9. “You must be Greek/Aboriginal/Italian.”

Assuming someone’s background is one of the most offensive things you can do; not because I’d be offended to be any of those people, but because making someone explain or defend their identity is incredibly rude. And tedious.

10. “You’re not really Asian.”

My parents are Indian. India is in south-east Asia. I grew up believing my identity was Asian. My parents identify as Asian.

Please don’t argue my identity with me based on cultural stereotypes and poor geography. I wouldn’t do that to you.

Nama Winston has had a decade-long legal career (paid), and a decade-plus parenting career (unpaid). You can follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

Feature Image: Instagram/@namawinston

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