Dignity in Language for Population Health

Microaggressions are subtle, insidious, and often nearly constant in the experience of individuals belonging to marginalized identity groups.

Diagram of microaggressive speech

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Microaggressions are subtle, insidious, and often nearly constant in the experience of individuals belonging to marginalized identity groups. According to one major conceptualization, 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.”

That explanation comes from Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, who built on the work of Chester M. Pierce from the 1970s and developed techniques for effective clinical practice to counter microaggressions. Recent research highlights the trauma resulting from repeated microaggressions experienced by people in marginalized populations, including sexual and gender minorities, as well as drawing out the specific experiences of black or African American individuals, and Asian American and Latino individuals.

Microaggressions are specific actions not general attitudes and can have identifiable physical and mental health impacts. For example, using a derogatory term like “illegal aliens” precisely targets the legally risky and culturally ostracized position undocumented immigrants occupy. The stress of experiencing such microaggressions routinely can cause physical symptoms like disrupted sleep and heightened blood pressure and emotional symptoms like anxiety and depression.

Language sensitivity can be challenging to agree on, but countering microaggressions isn’t about political correctness, it’s about recognizing the specific harm and indignity of some language. Often debates about political correctness can be resolved if labels like “microaggression” are defined with precision, applied to specific actions, and not over-used to describe general patterns.

People with mental illness also experience microaggressions, and recent research has demonstrated the similarity of those experiences to other marginalized identity groups’ experience of microaggressions. Among other consequences, experiencing microaggressions is associated with increased levels of stress and lower rates of engagement in therapeutic treatment, both of which could be particularly harmful for those experiencing mental illness.

Today’s databyte shows examples of microaggressions and pushes back on their use, emphasizing specific individuals who are harmed by each expression. The University of Maryland’s Inclusive Language Campaign, from which this image was adapted, also identifies alternative options for conveying the colloquial meanings of some microaggressions without perpetuating the harmful language.

Databyte via University of Maryland’s Inclusive Language Campaign