Microaggressions and Black Women

As people around the world awaken (seemingly and also—WTF?) to the insidious nature of systemic racism, this is as good a time as any to discuss microaggressions against Black women. Again…

At face value, “microaggression” might sound like another corporate buzzword that can be adapted and utilized by well-meaning HR departments to address racism in the workplace (much like the overused “Diversity”). The opposite, however, is true. Over decades, scientists and researchers have conclusively proven that subliminal racial stress is profoundly mentally, emotionally and physically damaging and calcifies institutional prejudice.

What Is a Microaggression?

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a scholar and author, defines microaggressions as “everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults” directed at members of marginalized groups by people who are “often unaware that they have engaged in an offensive or demeaning way.”

Many people are blind to biases they’ve internalized, but studies reveal that unpacking and acknowledging internalized prejudices goes a long way in eradicating them. As such, people who genuinely don’t want to be racists must strap on their personal-responsibility boots and start unearthing their hidden prejudices.

Three Common Microaggressions Leveled at Black Women

Black women field dozens of microaggressions daily: more if we live/work in a gentrified/corporate environment. To that end, we’ve compiled a list of three of the most common microaggressions.

“You’re Very “Angry”, “Aggressive” or “Strong”

In many ways, both explicit and implicit, society frames Black women as “strong”. At first blush, this may sound complementary—and in some cases, it is. But in most situations, automatically labeling Black women as “strong” is dangerously wrong. For one thing, it feeds into the myth that Black women are more “pushy” — which isn’t a valued attribute in personal or professional spheres. In truth, Black women are no more or less “aggressive” than our non-black counterparts; we’re just perceived as such thanks to social conditioning.

On a physical scale, this insidious stereotype can lead to actual death. For example, Black women are more likely to be brutalized by law enforcement officers who perceive us as unreasonably dangerous and threatening. Or, we may not receive proper medical treatment because medical workers subconsciously believe we’re “stronger” and have a higher pain threshold.

“You’re So Articulate!” (Honorable Mention: “You’re so well-spoken!”)

Tendentious pop psychologists and alt-right propagandists may broadcast otherwise, but one’s racial DNA has zero to do with natural intelligence. Although it has been repeatedly debunked, there’s a pervasive cultural myth that permeates both Western and Eastern zeitgeists, that Black people in general aren’t as “smart” as white, Asian, and Latinx folks.

In the professional landscape, this stereotype passively-aggressively rears its head as the “you’re so articulate” microaggression. Think for a second: why would you assume that a Black woman wouldn’t know how to speak? By commenting, “you’re so articulate,” you’re subversively saying, “I see black people as intellectually inferior.”

“You’re Arrogant.”

Show me a Black woman, and I’ll show you a person who, at some point in her life, has been accused of being “uppity,” “arrogant,” or “conceited” for the unforgivable act of —gasp— having the confidence of her white peers.

This microaggression and stereotype are rooted in the belief that Black women should “know their place.” Most people insist they “see everyone the same” and were taught “to treat everyone equally.” But what people say and what people do are often polar opposites.

Studies provide ample evidence that even well-meaning individuals harbor race-based superiority complexes, and these biases are typically projected onto Black women. Through the distorted lens of implicit bias, dynamic, confident, and smart Black women and girls are unfairly ridiculed for being “uppity,” “arrogant,” and “conceited.” This negatively impacts mental health and can hamstring social and professional opportunities.

Racism goes beyond slurs, cross burnings, and police brutality. It’s not a matter of intention, but impact. Being anti-racist involves more than an overhauling of vocabulary, it’s also about excising sub-conscience stereotypes—the ones that fuel microaggressions—from the worldview.

Tiffany Alvoid is an attorney. She earned a JD from UCLA School of Law with a concentration in Critical Race Theory. Tiffany created a training about addressing microaggressions in the workplace in an effort to create awareness about how destructive they can be in the workplace. In this Talk Tiffany, lays out how this behavior manifests itself, the role you play, and what you can do to avoid perpetuating its continued existence in society.

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