‘Death By A Thousand Cuts’: A look into microaggressions

A name tag sticker. Microaggression can come in many forms, a common form is mispronouncing people’s names.

I have only been to Chick-fil-A once in my life for a multitude of reasons; however, I will never forget the time I went. I ordered, hesitating before I said my name, wondering if I should shorten it but not thinking quickly enough for a shortened version. So I stuck with my name. I saw someone bring out my order but instead of calling my name the worker walked over to the person at the register who had taken my order and pointed to the receipt.  

“How do you pronounce this?” I heard him say. I didn’t hear the response but when the person with my order came over he called my name, and pronounced it correctly. I was so shocked I didn’t walk up to get my food. I was so used to responding to variations of my name that hearing my actual name threw me off guard.  

I had always loved my name and chose not to shorten it. I devised a strategy for how to help people pronounce my name. It was a solution many of my friends and family had mimicked. And yet, there were always those who didn’t pronounce it correctly and more importantly, were not interested in fixing it. And this is the problem.   

The word ‘microaggression’ was coined by a Harvard psychiatrist, though its modern usage can be accredited to Professor Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University. Small slights that cut deeper and deeper as they are repeated; subtle actions or comments, intentional or unintentional, that are generated from bias. It is a reality many marginalized groups face. Despite the fact that the word includes the prefix ‘micro,’ its effects cannot be defined as such. An article published in the Center for Health Journalism discusses how such examples of racism can translate to physical symptoms such as heart disease, stress, trauma and depression. The effects of microaggressions, plainly visible through this extensive list, are here, and something that must garner attention. Now we get to the main question: what can we do?  

It is important to note that within the definition itself, microaggressions can sometimes be unintentional. A comment based in ignorance or an inquiry that harms instead of questions — from that view it seems best to brush it off. View it as a simple mistake, believe in the good of people and move on. But the fact of the matter is that the existence of this bias, this wounding bias, points to a significant problem within the United States, a society that perpetuates bias. A society with problems so deep it will take generations of education to reform.  

However, these are some ways we can create change in the now, minorities and majorities alike. One, it is important to realize that humans make mistakes. If you inadvertently make a comment that hurts someone that does not make you an awful person. Instead of reacting defensively — or worse, deciding the individual is hurt ‘for no reason’ — be willing to listen. Be willing to empathize and apologize when necessary. If we, as a society, employ techniques in such situations that stimulate growth and understanding, we can create a culture that is more friendly. A society where marginalized groups don’t need to have ‘thicker skin.’ 

For those faced with microaggressions, it can be hard to choose which ones to respond to and which ones to forgo in hopes of not losing hours of time to fruitless debate. Professor Sue discusses various tactics and how the first step is often to “dissect what message it may be sending.” Asking questions, even as simple as “What do you mean,” can jumpstart reflection and sometimes end in the person realizing that, in the end, it is the individual’s choice whether or not or how much to engage; but in most cases, if someone’s comment affected you negatively, you have the right to speak for yourself and hold others accountable.  

The United States is a diverse country with various cultures and people. People that make this country a vibrant and beautiful place. People whose differences should never be the reason they are put on the stand to endure ‘death by a thousand paper cuts.’ I will never put down a person for asking how to correctly pronounce my name. It may seem small but it shows that they care. My name is important to me, as it is to many individuals, and I will always, always, prefer you to ask again, “How do you pronounce your name?” 

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