by Lakhpreet Kaur
Bullying isn’t something that starts and ends with childhood. People can face bullying, subtle oppression, and micro-aggressions throughout their lives. This explores the different types small hostilities one might encounter and how to deal with them.
Micro-Aggressions: The Invisible Bully
For about 10 years of my life, starting in 4th or 5th grade and continuing through high school, I felt like I didn’t belong; I felt excluded and out of place. School was a semi-hostile place for me. I wasn’t beat up or physically hurt. I had friends, and was well liked by my teachers, but for some reason I still felt bullied by the “cool clique.” I felt there were girls who were mean to me, but I couldn’t pin-point what they did or why I felt like that.
Up until recently, I always thought I was incorrectly reading into people’s actions as being mean, racists, or religionist. I thought it was all in my head and I perceived situations incorrectly. That was until I learned about micro-aggressions. My school experiences made a lot more sense when viewed through the lens of micro-aggressions.
Kaurs and Singhs, if you feel like someone or a group of people is being mean to you, but you can’t express specifically why or how…they might be engaging in micro-aggressions.
What are Micro-aggressions?
A micro-aggression is exactly what its name states, “micro” = small and “aggression” = hostility : small hostilities.
Micro-aggressions are demeaning implications and other, subtle insults against minorities. They could be verbal or non-verbal “put-downs.” These actions are so subtle that often times the “bully” doesn’t consciously know that they are behaving in a mean way and the “receiver” can’t exactly identify what behavior is making her uncomfortable.
Three Main Types of Micro-aggressions
Once you know the types of micro-aggressions that exist, you’ll learn to identify them and you’ll begin to notice them in your everyday life more often. Ultimately, by observing them you can also learn to stop them, and develop healthy coping mechanisms.
Micro-assults are deliberate discriminatory insults. They can be obvious, for example displaying swastikas or calling someone the “n” word. If someone calls a sardar or sardarni a “Towelhead!” or a Kaur, “Gorilla girl!” for not shaving, those are micro-assaults. They could be nonverbal too, perhaps girls glare at a Kaur in the locker room or whisper about her kesh. A micro-assault is, “An explicit….attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.”
Micro-insults are any communications that are rude or insensitive and demeaning about a person’s racial heritage or identity (being Punjabi or Sikh). For example, if a Kaur wears a Punjabi suit to school someone may rudely ask, “Do your people always dress like THAT?” or if you get into a conversation about hair, someone might say, “I think Sikhs are too obsessed with hair. It’s gross. ”
Another instance of a micro-insult is one I faced in college. I was once asked, “How did you get into this school?” implying that I may have gotten in through an affirmative action or quota system. These comments convey insensitivity about people with Punjabi ethnicity and Sikh heritage. In such instances, the “bully” places herself on a self-constructed pedestal above the “receiver.”
Micro-invalidations are communications that exclude, negate, or nullify someone’s feelings, thoughts, or experiences. For example asking you, “Where are you from? No, really! Not America, where are you REALLY from?” This conveys the message that the Sikh is a perpetual foreigner in her own land.
Making the Invisible, Visible
“Micro-aggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don’t allow the bullies to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory,” says Dr. Derald Wing Sue. “Therein lays the dilemma. The person of color is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger and an overall draining of energy.”
David Zhou spearheads the Micro-aggression Project and similar to him, I believe it is, “…important to show that both marginalization and identity consciousness do not come from thin air; they are formed from structures of power and privilege that are both very personal and hard to see. The concept of micro-aggressions makes them a lot more tangible and less abstract”.
I hope to make the invisible, visible through this article. Once micro-aggressions have a “name,” we can work to stop them. We can identify the subtle discrimination that occurs against Sikhs or South Asians, and we can address them.
Other types of Micro-aggressions
Gender micro-insults are overt sexism. For example, men refusing to wash dishes because they believe it to be “woman’s work,” or displaying nude pin ups of women at work, or making unwanted sexual advances towards another person. A small and subtle example would be calling a group of males “men,” but a group of females “girls.” Assumptions of inferiority, gender roles, sexist jokes, or denial of sexism, all fall into this category.
Kaurs, have you ever been assertive and been called a “bitch,” while your male counterpart is called a “confident leader?” That’s a gender micro-aggression. The hidden message here is that women should be passive and allow men to be the decision makers.
Or have you experienced this? Dr. Kaur is wearing a stethoscope but she is mistaken for a nurse. The hidden message here is that women should occupy nurturing and not decision-making roles or that women are less capable than men.
A fairly common form of gender micro-aggressions are whistles or catcalls made by men as a woman walks down the street or telling the woman to “Smile, gorgeous!” In this case, the hidden message is women’s bodies/appearance is for the enjoyment of men: women are sex objects.
There are very few studies that focus on general religious micro-aggressions, though many have written on the topics of Islamaphobia and anti-Semitism. Some examples of religious micro-aggressions may include:
Pathology of non-Christianity: For example “You’re Sikh, you’re not Christian therefore you’re evil or immoral.” Another example, which my brother experience in middle school, “You’re not Christian so, you’re going to hell.”
Assumption of Christianity: This is the presumption of strangers that one is a Christian. It can be observed when someone tells you, “Merry Christmas!” or the fact that everyone gets Christian holidays off of school or work.
Assumptions of religious stereotypes: This is when people assume things about you based on your religion. For example telling a Sikh that, “You must know about chakras and yoga. You must be an expert on spirituality! Can you help me pick out some mala beads?” Simply because s/he wears a turban.
Other forms of micro-aggressions are racial in form: questioning the existence of racial-cultural issues, making stereotypic assumptions, and being culturally insensitive. For simplicity’s sake I’m going to throw religion into this category. Even though Sikhi is not a race, many of the characteristics of racial micro-aggressions can be applied to religious discrimination.
Here are some examples:
Colorblindness: “I don’t think of you as brown. You are just a person.” While this comment may sound since, it negates the unique experiences and possible discrimination a person may experience because of their race or how others perceive their race.
The denial of personal bias: “I’m not religionist, racist, or sexist. I even have Sikh friends, brown friends, and female friends.”
The minimization of racial-cultural issues: “Just because you (a brown Sikh) feel alone in this group of white Christians doesn’t mean that there’s a religious or race issue involved”.
Have you ever been in a classroom discussion about race or religion and everyone looks to you for answers? This used to make me uncomfortable and apparently it makes many other minority students awkward too. “Students report that they do not want to be looked to as experts on race-related topics, and that they feel hindered in discussions in which others are overly worried about being perceived as being racist,” says Dr. Sue. This, too, is a subtle type of oppression.
Here are some other forms of racial/religious micro-aggressions that you might be able to relate to:
-“Your English is really good!” One doesn’t hear a white person get asked this question because it is assumed she is American. Hidden message: Brown people are perceived as perpetual aliens in their own country and not “real Americans.”
-People cross the street or clutch their belongs, or keep their kids close when someone in a dastar walks by. Hidden message: People who wear turbans are a threat.
-A police officer stops a sardarni or sardar driver for no apparent reason but to subtly check his/her driver’s license to determine immigration status. Hidden message: Sikhs in turbans are undocumented or terrorists.
In an 8-year study at the Teachers College of Columbia University, research found that, “…these racial micro-aggressions may on the surface, appear like a compliment or seem quite innocent and harmless, but nevertheless, they contain what we call demeaning meta-communications or hidden messages.
The Bully & The Victim
Who is the Bully?
Who are the perpetrators of micro-aggressions? Who are the bullies? What is bullying?
Bullying is about the misuse of a power imbalance that occurs between two or more people, says Dr. David Rivera. The most apparent imbalance of power in our culture is found in social identity differences. For Sikhs in America, this is religion and in some cases, race.
In my situation during middle and high school, the girls who had the most social power (aka popular) were the ones who were pretty, fashionable, thin, and talkative. They subtly and unknowingly used micro-aggressions to make me feel bad. My “bullies” were likable, humorous, high achieving, athletic, and came from functional families. My bullies were what are called “charismatic bullies.” According to Dr. Rivera, Charismatic bullies, “…use subtle manipulation to exert their power over others. The charismatic bully is someone who is likely to be a leader amongst his or her peers. The charismatic bully’s charm is likely to mask any hint of anti-social behavior, thus making them difficult to identify.” Their mean actions are covert and hard to detect.
Charismatic bullies sometimes engage in tactics such as hushing someone up or quieting an opposing voice. My bullies would definitely quiet my voice. If I answered in class, they would cut me off and answer louder, or purposely leave me out conversations. I would try to join a group of girls in conversation and ask, “Hey guys! What are you talking about?” They would respond, “Oh nothing,” and the group would disband. Or during group projects, they would make decisions without me and tell me what the plan was (instead of working on it collaboratively).
As much as I disliked these girls and as much as I felt they were deliberately mean to me, it turns out their communications were unconscious. “While people of color may feel insulted, they are often uncertain why, and perpetrators are unaware that anything has happened and are not aware they have been offensive,” says Dr. Sue. This is probably the reason why I was unable clearly articulate to my parents why I didn’t like school.
Dr. Sue continues, “Many well-intentioned [white people] consciously believe in and profess equality, but unconsciously act in a racist manner, particularly in ambiguous situations.” If a bully denies that she said anything mean, it’s usually not because she is lying. Its because she honestly believe she has done no wrong.
Bullying in Adulthood
Bullies aren’t exclusive to childhood. They persist into adulthood, too. These are the people who are rude, bossy, and condescending, and who misuse their influence and power to manipulate others into following their lead. In a work setting, they can be those who silence “opposing voices by purposely leaving them out of key discussions. Or, by ensuring that their viewpoints prevail by not mentoring and nurturing the talent of those who come from diverse backgrounds, thus maintaining a mono-cultural organizational climate,” says Dr. Rivera. “These types of micro-aggressive behaviors help to maintain an imbalanced power structure in the vast majority of American institutions…they use micro-aggressive behaviors to both maintain their power in society and in turn, maintain an imbalanced power structure amongst groups of people largely based on socio-cultural demographics”.
Effect on the Receiver
Acts of micro-aggressions seem subtle and small. Some might say they seem very insignificant. But micro-aggressions occur everyday, says Dr. Sue. Studies show that minorities frequently experience micro-aggressions, “…it is a continuing reality in their day-to-day interactions with friends, neighbors, co-workers, teachers, and employers in academic, social and public settings”. Minorities face micro-aggressions constantly and can lead to feelings of powerlessness, invisibility, pressure to comply, loss of integrity, and pressure to represent one’s group.
Here are some examples:
Powerlessness: “There is nothing I can do, they’ll never accept me”.
Invisibility: “I’m never picked to be in a group or a team,” or “No one ever invites me to their parties”.
Pressure to Comply: “I want to be liked, so I’m going to shave and cut my hair”.
Pressure to represent one’s group: “I’m the only Sikh in school, I have to act ‘right’ all the time otherwise all Sikhs will look bad”.
Studies reveal that racial micro-aggressions have powerful and detrimental consequences to people of color. Micro-aggressions have been found to:
-Hurt the mental health of recipients
-Create a hostile and invalidating school or work environment
-Create physical health problems
-Fill society with ideas that devalue minorities
-Lower work or school productivity and problem solving abilities
-Partially responsible for creating inequities in education employment and health care.
Through micro-aggressions, minorities are often made to feel excluded, untrustworthy, second-class citizens, and abnormal. For example, when shopping with my sardar brother, I would have a terrible feeling of being watched suspiciously in stores, and that any slip-up we make would negatively impact every Sikh. Sometimes, Sikhs feel pressured to represent the panth in positive ways, and we may feel trapped in a stereotype. “The burden of constant vigilance drains and saps psychological and spiritual energies of targets and contributes to chronic fatigue and a feeling of racial frustration and anger,” says Dr. Sue. No wonder I hated going to school. Not only did I feel bullied, but I was drained of energy trying to act “right” on behalf of Sikhs.
All these subtle things built up and ultimately, by the end of high school I was left feeling insecure. I felt like I didn’t belong in my high school community. I didn’t have any physical bully to blame, so I thought it was my fault. I thought, “They must not like me because I’m lame, or no fun.” I had internalized their oppression.
If I had known about micro-aggressions when I was 16, I might not have felt so alone and would have better understood my environment.
Dealing with Bullying
How can you deal with micro-aggressions? How can you create a more positive environment for yourself?
Damned if you do, Damned if you don’t
The problem with bringing up color, race, or religion as being a source of contention is that the receiver will be accused of being “oversensitive” or “overreacting” and the bully will deny it, become defensive, or refuse to talk about it any further. Dr. Sue explains that this puts the receiver in a bind; if they do bring it up, they’re dismissed but, if they don’t bring it up, micro-aggressions continue to be a problem,.
Research suggests that micro-insults and micro-invalidations are potentially more harmful because of their invisibility. If you can’t clearly see it and can’t clearly pinpoint what’s bothering you, how can you fix it?
In middle school I often thought to myself, “I wish these girls would just say something mean to my face and then I could yell back!” Interestingly, most minorities feel the same way. Some research shows that “… people of color indicate they are better able to handle overt, conscious and deliberate acts of racism than the unconscious, subtle and less obvious forms. That is because there is no guesswork involved in overt forms of racism.
If my bullies had just come up to me and said, “We think it’s gross that you don’t shave and still go swimming. Your religion is weird; we aren’t going to talk to you and will call you names behind your back.” Instead of glaring at me, whispering about me, and then laughing, I could have confronted them. When I asked, “What are you whispering about?” they answered, “Oh, nothing!” and giggled. Overt forms of oppression can be easier to address.
Dealing with it
Unfortunately, there is no way to eliminate all micro-aggressions from your life. But there are ways you can deal with micro-aggressions so they don’t hurt you as much. Become aware of them and learn what they are. This way you can identify them, learn how to confront micro-aggressions when they transpire, and practice ways of initiating uncomfortable conversations. Try using the ACT model of responding.
A -> Acknowledge the impact of the statements: The instance someone says something derogatory or does something to make you feel excluded, identify what the action was and recognize how it makes you feel.
C -> Clarify intention behind words/actions: Make sure you understand what happened before you respond. Come from a place of curiosity and ask, “What do you mean by that?” “Could you clarify?” “What made you ask me that question?”
T -> Teach by responding to situations: At a minimum share with the owner of the comment or action the impact it had on you. “That comment you made, made me upset, because I don’t feel like it’s true”. Then explain your point of view.
Let’s look at an example of how the ACT model could work. Here’s a situation:
-Person A: What’s your nationality? Where are you from?
-Sikh: I’m American. I’m from New York.
-Person A: No, where are you really from?
A – Acknowledge: You realize that this questions doesn’t sit well with you. You are offended that this person does not view you as a fellow American and does not accept your answer of “New York.” Realize it’s time to use “ACT.”
C – Clarify: Find out what this person is really asking. Most of the time, this person is just curious, does not intend to be rude, and is lacking the appropriate vocabulary (and sometimes social decorum). Most of the time, people confuse the concept of nationality (what country you live in or vote in) with ethnicity (your cultural or racial roots).
-Sikh: What do you mean, where am I really from?
-Person A: Like, where are your parents from?
-Sikh: New York
-Person A: Come on! You know what I mean!
-Sikh: Are you asking about my ethnicity? Like, where my cultural heritage is from?
-Person A: Yes!
T – Teach:Use this as a teaching moment to clarify terms.
-Sikh: Well, I was born in America, so that makes my nationality American, but my family comes from Punjab, India. So my ethnicity is Punjabi.
If you don’t have the courage or nerve to address the situation in the moment (which is the best time), you can get back to the person later. “Hey, yesterday you said/did something that bothered me and I wanted to talk to you about it.” If you feel like the situation will get out of hand, recruit a close friend to be with you, or a teacher to facilitate. These conversations take a lot of courage and can be scary. But, it will build internal strength, may create respect in the other person’s mind, and may prevent it from happening again.
It has been found that people who focus on coping strategies to deal with micro-aggressions have less depression, less anxiety and an enhanced physical and psychological well-being.
Though, it should be said, that some People of Color do not feel like it is our responsibility to educate white people on the subject of race and racism. This is a completely valid point; People of Color have a lot of weight and burden to carry already.
If you’re feeling hurt or worn down by the micro-aggressions you’ve been facing, here are a few coping strategies you can try out to feel better.
–Planning: Think about how you’re going to react to micro-aggressions. Have a plan of action or a rehearsed conversation ready in your mind.
-Positive reappraisal: Seek out experiences or people who reinforce your worth, value, and quality.
-Putting into perspective: Understand that the bully might not intend harm and their actions are part of a larger social problem.
-Lean on your support network: This is a network of people and entities who demonstrate concern, love, acceptance, care, and can offer you resources. They could be friends, family, school clubs, sangat, gurbani, kirtan, or websites of inspiration. Through this network, you can share ideas to establish adaptive defenses against stress. “Social support has been correlated with an optimistic outlook and optimistic people with satisfactory social support report fewer feelings of isolation and higher comfort in diverse social environments. In addition, people with optimistic dispositions may attract more social alliances, consequently further enhancing their social support networks, which in turn leads to better psychological and physical health.”
-Pick your battles: Make deliberate decisions about when and how to address the micro-aggressions. For example, you might not want to confront someone rolling their eyes at you but you might want to confront someone making fun of your kesh or dastar. Save your energy for the important fights.
Seek multidimensional support
There are three types of support networks that can help you deal with micro-aggressions:
-Intragroup support: Includes support from other Sikhs or Punjabis
-Intergroup support: Includes support from others outside of the Sikh or Punjabi community
-Environmental and institutional support: Includes culturally inclusive curriculums, counseling centers, multicultural clubs or offices, and policies that protect individuals from discrimination
These three networks can provide you with confidants, peers, and experts. When one network isn’t there or can’t provide you with what you need, go to your other networks.
What won’t work
Several studies show that if you avoid dealing with micro-aggressions, distract yourself, deny that they are happing, feel like there is nothing you can do, or withdraw from society, you can become distressed and the problems will get worse of times. Venting, substance abuse, fatalism (“It’s all over! I’ll always be a loser!”), intellectualizing (“It has to be my fault, it’s the only answer!”), active forgetting or denial are all associated with poorer physical and psychological stress outcomes.
But are they real?
Having said all of that, there is a different point of view: that “microaggression” is not the best way to think about subtle prejudice.
“Subtle prejudice and unconscious bias are real and consequential,” says Professor Nick Haslam. “However, ‘microaggressions’ is not the best way to think about subtle prejudice. Its definition is amorphous and elastic. It fails to appreciate the ambiguity of social interaction, relies too exclusively on subjective perceptions, and too readily ascribes hostile intent. By doing so, the idea of microaggression contributes to a punitive and accusatory environment that is more likely to create backlash than social progress.
Scott Linfield, a writer for Scientific America, questions if the micro-aggression concept grounded in solid science, and is it helpful. “It is certainly possible micro-aggressions can in some cases be harmful, especially when people are exposed to them repeatedly for years, and we need to study this phenomenon better so that we can encourage difficult conversations, not squelch them. Nevertheless, given the provisional state of the literature, it is all but impossible to determine the degree to which people’s reactions to microaggressions are attributable to these stimuli themselves as opposed to people’s subjective reactions to them.”
The concept of microagressions, whether real, imagined, or undetermined, has brought the prevalence and importance of subtle prejudice to wider public attention.
If you’re facing hostilites, talk to a friend about it and figure out ways you can deal with it, whether that means talking to the perpetrator or building up your internal reserves of strength.
If you’re in a position of power at work, or run a Sikh camp, be mindful of ways others may be excluded or hurt. Work to create a Guru-inspired environment that embraces and supports everyone.
Lastly, be aware of your own privileges and biases and be more conscious in the way you interact with others. You don’t want to be the bully.