The Connection Between Microagressions and Mental Health for PoC

How students and (some) institutions are combating microaggressive behavior on campus, which can lead to anxiety and depression for students of color.

By Chelsea Candelario 

Illustration by Grace Molteni

When my professor and I sat across from each other to go through my work from my first semester of graduate school, he asked why I wasn’t participating in class. The question didn’t throw me off at first. Teachers have asked me this for my entire educational life.

My professor then created a theory. He believed my upbringing prevented me from participating.

“You must have been through some hardships growing up.”

After that I felt paralyzed. What did he mean? Was he implying my life was hard because I was a woman of color living in an urban environment? Was I overanalyzing the situation? I asked a few of my peers—most of whom are PoC—how their meetings with this professor went. Many of them had had similar interactions to mine.

The term “microaggression” was used by Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue who borrowed the term from psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe remarks he witnessed directed toward African-Americans. According to Sue, microaggressions are “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.”

The day-to-day nature of microaggressions can take a toll on a person’s mental health. According to a study from the Harvard Voices of Diversity project, verbal abuse can lead to self-questioning, lower self-confidence and fear of the incident happening again. People of color may feel insulted but don’t often realize the deeper implications until it’s too late to speak up. The study describes how a person experiencing microaggressions can begin to self-blame and feel ashamed of the remarks.

After realizing the bias behind my professor’s subtle comment, I kept replaying the scenario in my head, wondering what impression I gave him. I began to second-guess myself, and yet I felt responsible for not speaking up sooner.

The gravity of microaggressions becomes heavier when the perpetrator is unaware of the implications of their behavior and why microaggressions are offensive. Most of the time, the perpetrator has superiority over the victim. Although microagressions can come from anyone, most of the time it stems from people in high positions of power. Privilege can play a big role in the everyday microinsults people of color endure at school, the workplace, among friends or family.

“What is more debilitating is the idea that some of the most perverse aggressors are often the very same individuals who claim themselves allies,” says Brian Rentas, graduate student studying branding and integrated communications at City College of New York. It can be difficult to call someone out for their offensive remarks, especially a professor or boss. On top of that, folks in high positions of power are expected to be educated on matters of equality and inclusion in schools or the workplace.

There’s a pressure put on people of color to act a certain way in professional settings. Issa Rae’s Insecure has been applauded for depicting black women’s experiences in the workplace with its realistic frustrating, awkward, racist encounters. (In Season 1, Molly, a lawyer, is singled out to talk to an intern—the only other black woman in the office—about her office behavior, which is portrayed as falling under the “sassy black woman” trope. When Molly’s boss, a white woman, asks her to confront the intern, the viewer is forced to encounter an assumptive microaggression many black woman face daily in the professional sphere.)

For many individuals like Rentas, dictating microaggressive behavior can lead a person’s mental health on an unpredictable rollercoaster. For PoC, the amount of time and energy analyzing what others say can be exhausting. It can become draining to be responsible for telling people what they should and shouldn’t say. It leaves us questioning every moment and wondering whether someone is telling a joke or insulting us—or both.

Ebony McGee, assistant professor of diversity and urban schooling at Vanderbilt University conducted a study called Reimagining Critical Race Theory in Education: Mental Health, Healing, and the Pathway to Liberatory Praxis in 2015 on black students and their mental health. Reflecting on the study, she told the Atlantic  that there are “documented alarming occurrences of anxiety, stress, depression and thoughts of suicide, as well as a host of physical ailments like hair loss, diabetes and heart disease” among black students.

Despite the alarming effects, most universities are not taking the initiative to combat these issues. This has led students to demand racial bias training to develop safe spaces on campuses for PoC In her study, McGee found that, “For minority students, surviving and thriving academically despite multiple encounters with racism or stereotyping may require a different type of resolve than do typical college-student struggles like balancing work and class, or overcoming difficult assignments.”

Many students of color have to constantly engage in these moments of microaggressions by working twice as hard as their peers. Without a safe space, students are left unsure where to report these situations. According to Harvard’s Voices of Diversity project“Students often do not want to call people out for microaggressions for fear of losing friends or creating more hostile environments.” The project surveyed more than 200 students from four institutions in different parts of the country (the South, Midwest, and Northeast) and found that while campuses are more diverse than ever, microaggressions make a student of color’s experience more stressful than their white counterparts. One Latino student reported being mistaken for a custodian while hanging posters in his dorm. Another student was asked if she was carrying a bomb in her backpack; she identifies as South Asian-American.

As a result, some students are creating their own platform to voice these concerns and educate people on the matter. The Microagressions Project was created in 2010 and later featured in the New York Times and Buzzfeed. The Project is not “about showing how ignorant people can be in order to simply dismiss their ignorance. Instead, it is about showing how these comments create and enforce uncomfortable, violent, and unsafe realities.” Contributors are encouraged to submit experiences, and discussion boards list definitions of related terms (such as “microinvalidations”) and suggestions on how to deal with ignorance.

Despite backlash from political leaders and university adminstration who are hesitant to fund diversity training, some institutions like University of Wisconsin–Madison have implemented ways for faculty, staff and students to learn how biased encounters can make an impact in someone’s life and how to call it out when they see it. The University of Wisconsin–Madison created a Bias Response Team to provide training, resources and workshops.

Archie Ervin, president of the National Association of Diversity officers in Higher Education (NADOHE) told the New York Times last year that 75 chief diversity officers have been hired by colleges and universities. NADOHE strives to lead higher education toward inclusive excellence by providing research practices and professional development for current and aspiring diversity officers.

While training can be beneficial for schools and workplaces and help to provide safe spaces, PoC are generally expected to take charge in educating perpetrators about their behavior and why it is harmful.

“I would not say it’s our job, but folks out here are super ignorant,” says Kretel Krah, recent graduate of SUNY Albany and social justice activist. “But if [some]one is comfortable, by all means call it out, boo! Call it out! It creates room for dialogue and understanding, but also it’s never our job to teach the oppressor about being oppressed.”

However, just as one community should not be pigeonholed as sharing singular beliefs, many PoC disagree when it comes to calling out racist remarks and behaviors—no matter how subtle.

“I think society puts the ‘burden’ on PoC to call out microaggresssions because we’ve become a society of shifting blame on people, usually the victims,” says Sable Gravesandy, a former student who now works as a sales advisor for H&M. “This, of course, is not right, but I think PoC should take the initiative to educate those who discriminate against them. The oppressed shouldn’t expect the oppressor to change their ways on their own.”

Despite an individual’s belief, access to safe spaces and communities who also experience microaggressive behavior from white peers, professors, and bosses is key. That’s why platforms like The Microaggression Project and research-driven initiatives like McGee’s are so important. If a PoC isn’t comfortable or doesn’t feel it is her role to call something out, the research and the online dialogue does it on a macro level.

“It’s tough, and people are ignorant, but you do not have to do it alone,” Krah says. “Please find support and love in those who offer it. Do not suppress your feelings, but do what works for you to express that experience.”

Chelsea Candelario is a graduate student studying Branding + Integrated Communications at City College. She’s also a full-time blogger/creator of The Social Rundown. Follow her on Twitter @thewriterchels.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.