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Microaggressions: What to Do When They Happen to You


That store is sooo gay.

Are you sure you don’t like guys? Have you ever, like, had sex with one?

“Are you a man or a woman?”

But you don’t look like you like girls…

Do these phrases hit a little too close to home? We feel you—it can be super frustrating dealing with people who spew insensitive comments, especially if they’re people you see every day on campus. Feeling accepted at school for you who are is an amazing feeling, especially if you’re not out at home. That being said, even if your campus is pretty accepting, dealing with the little insensitive comments that run rampant there can be a whole new ordeal. 

The great thing is there are ways to defend yourself from the hurtful and thoughtless things people say. But first, let’s look into what exactly a microaggression is and what it might look like for you on campus.

What is a microaggression—and why should you care?

Microaggressions, according to Columbia University counseling psychology professor Derald Sue, are “the everyday encounters of subtle discrimination that people of various marginalized groups experience throughout their lives.” Basically, if someone says something offensive that they didn’t actually mean to be offensive, it still doesn’t change the fact that it is indeed offensive.

Because microaggressions are deeply embedded in the way society thinks and behaves, it can be harder to explain to people why what they said was offensive. Just think of how annoyingly common casual homophobia, gender roles and other problematic assumptions are in our everyday lives. According to Dr. Sharon Horne, a professor of counseling psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston and a researcher of both LGBTQ+ and college student mental health concerns, the most important thing to remember about microaggressions is that they are harmful and can contribute to stigmas and the inescapable feeling of marginality.

“[Microaggressions] come in three forms,” Dr. Horne says. “Microassaults (everyday, recognizable aggressions such as calling someone a dyke or saying, ‘that’s so gay’), microinvalidations (innocuous-seeming comments that serve to remind LGBTQ+ students that they aren’t in the norm—'You’re so lucky to be a lesbian since you don’t have to deal with men') or microinsults (reinforcing stereotypes about LGBTQ+ identities—‘Well, you have to date one of each since you’re bi, right?’).”

Don't think that microaggressions are a micro problem. Microaggressions can contribute to minority stress, Dr. Horne says.

“Minority stress is chronic and powerful form of stress that goes beyond everyday stress," she says. "It is experienced by people who have minority identities, such as racial and LGBTQ+ individuals, due to the stigma, prejudice and discrimination and internalizing social attitudes towards one’s minority status. Most concerning, minority stress has been found to contribute to both physical and mental health problems for LGBTQ+ college students.”

How microaggressions and casual homophobia play out on campus

Chances are you run into microaggressions all the time. Casual homophobia can take the form of people asking you who the guy is in your relationship with another girl or if you’ve ever had sex with a guy—or even when people just assume you're straight in the first place. If you’re a gender nonconforming person or a trans woman, this might look like someone asking you if you’re a man or a woman. Even something as mainstream as gendered phrases telling someone to “man up” or to “stop being a pussy” can be considered microaggressions.

The more subtle forms of casual homophobia are a lack of campus resources for LGBTQ+ students. This can look like the absence of an LGBTQ+ resource center, gender-neutral bathrooms or even inclusive courses on LGBTQ+ topics. If these don’t exist on your college campus, it means that your school’s administration might not be prioritizing (or even thinking about) how these potentially amazing assets could directly affect their LGBTQ+ student population’s campus experience. This could be particularly harmful if your campus isn’t in an LGBTQ+-friendly city.

How to deal

1. Address one instance at a time

Maybe you overheard one of your friends use an insensitive word or say something that wasn’t cool, or she said something offensive directly to you. If you feel comfortable, you can pull her aside and explain to her how it made you feel and why it made you feel that way, and politely ask her not to say things like that anymore. Not only does it create a dialogue where she knows that she’s with a friend who genuinely knows you mean well and you’re not trying to attack her, but she’ll learn from the experience.

The situation can become different when you’re talking about it with someone you barely know in class as opposed to a friend. Your friends might be a little bit more understanding because they love and care about you, while a peer who barely knows you might not really care.

“The most important thing to consider when it’s someone who is not a friend or acquaintance is safety,” Dr. Horne says. “It may be that gathering support from the campus group or allies is what is called for in these situations.”

In either situation, it’s also possible that the person will get offended by you calling them out. The whole “chill out, it was just a joke” thing is all too common in these types of situations. However, it’s super important to stress to the person that even if they “didn’t mean it that way,” it doesn’t make what they said any less offensive or change the way that it makes you feel.

If the person saying something offensive isn’t someone you know very well and you don’t feel comfortable having that kind of conversation, you can talk it out with another friend who might understand. While it won’t directly alleviate the situation, it might help you feel better to talk to someone about it and create awareness that these types of negative things are happening on your campus.

2. Talk to a campus professional about it

If you’ve personally experienced or witnessed any cases of microaggressions, sometimes talking to someone who’s on staff at your school can help. It can be someone as high up as the dean of students or as relatable as an RA.

If you’ve experienced microaggressions in your dorm, your RA might be able to host a program with the other residents to explain what microaggressions are and how they affect people. If it’s a bigger, campus-wide issue that you’re seeing, setting up a meeting with a dean or the chancellor can help so that they know that this problem exists at the school and it deserves their attention.

3. Spark a campus-wide conversation about it

If you are part of an LGBTQ+ student organization, host an event! By having an event, whether it’s as big as an educational workshop with a speaker or as small as a discussion, you’re fostering a safe space for everyone to come together and talk about these issues that are happening on your campus.

If you aren’t part of a student organization, no worries! There are plenty of things you can do on your own that might be incredibly helpful. Kevin Nadal, an associate professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, created a photo project made of students and faculty in the LGBTQ+ community holding signs addressing the microaggressions that they experience on a daily basis. Projects like these aren’t just easy to create, but they are often incredibly impactful, giving a face and a name to the discrimination many people face.

4. Seek out the support of allies

Allies can be the people over at your campus’s LGBTQ+ resource center, your professors in the gender studies program or even just self-professed allies of the LGBTQ+ community whom you know have your back.

You probably (hopefully) know many allies on campus. Let them know that these types of things are going on and ask for their support in these instances. For some, it can be more powerful to hear an ally check someone on a microaggression, because while the microaggression doesn’t affect them directly, he or she still recognized it as offensive and stood up for what was right.

Having people like these in your corner can be helpful in instances when you need emotional support or people to back you up when you take your case to the higher-ups on campus.

The most important thing you can do to make change on your campus is creating conversation and awareness. Language (and the way people use it) can be very powerful, so it’s important to let people know when they’re using it in a harmful way.

You should never be afraid to make your campus a more welcoming place for you and your peers, so make your voice heard when you see or hear anything that could be potentially harmful!

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