March 19, 2016

Note: Updated Nov. 20, 2023 for improving clarity and cleaning up typos.  :)

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Kevin Nadal is a psychologist, comedian, activist and professor who has solid advice for dealing with life’s daily insults. I hope you’ll keep reading, because he has great insights and tools for creating emotionally safer spaces.  

As a versatile expert, Kevin gets people talking about microaggresions, which is a subtle form of discrimination.  These are the tiny jabs and assaults on our dignity. When we try to ignore them, the pain and stress builds up, leading to struggles with mental health, self-esteem and depression.

“Talking about things validates each other’s perspectives,” he said during our recent phone chat. The goal, he added, is to explore ways to support each other. 

Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional words and deeds, or physical environments. Taken together, microaggresions demean us by race, gender, sexual orientation and/or social class. The negative comments and behaviors also afflict other stigmatized communities such as the mentally ill, the addicted, the eating disordered and other historically powerless groups.   

These micro moments come on top of major, in-your-face hating that’s another component of daily living. Today, nearly half of all American adults say they’ve experienced major discrimination such as racial profiling by the police, losing out on promotions or mistreatment by health care providers, according to a March 2016 survey by the American Psychological Association. That’s the macro picture, the big stuff. If we add the little, teeny things that hit us,  stress levels go up even more.

Identifying microaggressions

Unlike major forms of discrimination, microaggressions might seem barely there:

  • It’s the hidden message sent by power settings. Kevin, 37, is the gay, American-born son of Filipino immigrants. As as a Columbia doctoral candidate, he spent a lot of time on the university’s fancy, internationally-famous Manhattan campus.  The grand buildings were named after dead, straight, white men, with their painted portraits hanging in the hallowed hallsways. Not exactly a homey environment.
  • It’s the thoughtless remark, the clumsy attempt to bond, like when someone says: “You’re so gay!” Or: “You don’t sound Black.” Or: “You’re not really Asian.”
  • It’s the reaction to race and appearances. Like, when we’re walking late at night and see a Black man. Studies show everyone flinches, even Blacks. Or maybe it’s the moment at the office, when a colleague’s eyes inappropriately roam across your body with unprofessional, unspoken thoughts. 

Critics dismiss the “M” word as hypersensitive political correctness. But Kevin believes anyone who denies microaggressions is “probably committing the most microaggressions,” while “denying others’ experiences and realities.”

Still, some seeming offenses are non-issues. “If you like Beyoncé and I don’t like Beyoncé, that’s not a microaggression,” Kevin explained. “We’re looking at systemic, historical and interpersonal microaggression.”

Another example: He knows of scholars who are researching on papers about vegetarians and microaggressions. But Kevin, a vegetarian-turned-pescatarian, dismissed the topic as “not on par” with discrimination endured by people of color, women, the disabled or people who are LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer).


How we react to microaggressions

In 1970, Black psychiatrist Chester Pierce coined “microaggression.” The Harvard University professor came up with the word to address insults and indignities inflicted by non-Blacks on Black folks. Over time, other marginalized communities took up the concept, too.

With the 2012 election of Pres. Barack Obama, America hit another huge benchmark. For some, the nation’s first Black commander-in-chief symbolized an end to racism. The reality is very different.

Microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes. Some are minor, more like “ouch moments,” said Kevin. Others run so deep in that we’re blind to their existence. For instance, consider the concept of “ethnic restaurants.”

Why are the foods from countries of color ethnic? Why are French restaurants never labeled ethnic? Clearly, said Kevin, calling a restaurant “ethnic” is “letting white society define what’s ethnic.” Which is why I will never use the phrase “ethnic cuisine” or “ethnic restaurant” again.

To build awareness, Kevin has run hundreds of microaggression workshops. In January, I caught one of his presentations at Asian American Federation offices in New York City. About two dozen of us showed up on a cold, windy rainy night. Most of the attendees were millennial Asian American women searching for solutions to workplace tensions and personal conflicts.

kevin nadal

Obnoxious things people say to Asian Americans

When it comes to Americans of Asian heritage, the general perception is that very little racism exists. Actually, Asians have suffered throughout the nation’s history. From 1882-1943, federal exclusion laws banned most Chinese from immigrating to the U.S. In 1930, Filipino Americans were lynched and beaten during the Watsonville Riots. During World War II (1939-1945), the feds forced Japanese Americans from their homes, seized their property and herded them into desolate internment camps.

As for today, there’s the dreaded Model Minority stereotype. It holds up Asian Americans as quiet, educated, family-oriented people of color. Portraying Asians as a model group creates conflicts with other communities of color because “you’re taught that you’re better,” Kevin said.

The stress of dealing with racial microaggresion damages our mental health, according to a 2015 study by Kevin and his colleagues (the link is at the end of this post). Asian Americans with at least a college degree are more likely to face problems in the workplace or at school. Skin color, speaking with an accent and social class compound the pressure.

Making matters worse are the microinvalidations. In other words, people brushing off your experiences instead of validating them. You’re making something out of nothing. It’s not a big deal. Get over it. You’re too sensitive.

For typical microaggressions, consider the following statements and what they mean:

  • “You’re so exotic! So different!”  If you’re Asian and a non-Asian hits you with this pick-up line, run in the other direction. The message is that you’re a trophy. And, the person talking to you has the power to acquire you. This is a microinsult, based on a stereotype.
  • “Where are you from?”  The question marks you as a foreigner. An outsider. The perpetual other.
  • “You speak such good English!” Another variation on the foreigner theme.
  • You’re not Asian enough.”  Yet another on the outsider theme, but often perpetrated by your “own people.”
  • Someone refers to you as their “Asian friend”  instead of just by your name. Congrats — you’ve been made a token.
  • I’m not a racist because my wife is Asian.”  This is a microassault from a racist.

How to deal with microaggressions

In Kevin’s classrooms, those that are outnumbered stick together. He’ll watch how the three Asians hang out together, or the few Black students become friends. It’s a familiar scene in my classroom as well as at schools, workplaces and social gatherings everywhere.

“People of color feel safer in an environment with more people of color, and might feel more guarded in a group with majority white people,” said Kevin, who is an associate professor in psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

On the other hand, safety with “your own people” is fraught with conflict due to “intergroup” microaggression. Translation: The things we say and do to family, friends community members can be very, very nasty.

All too often, immigration status (American-born versus newcomers) becomes a harsh dividing line. There’s judgement over how Asian you are, maybe to the point of being unappealingly “fobby” — as in FOB (fresh off the boat). Or maybe you’re “not Asian enough” because you don’t speak the language. Colorism, which is about hating on skin color (darker versus lighter) is a sad pattern too.

In the microaggressive moment, Kevin says we instantly tornado through several stages of emotion and thought:

  1. Whoa, did that really just happen?
  2. Yeah, it did. But was it about race? Gender? Sexual orientation? Or something else?
  3. Okay, now what? Should I react or not? If I react, what are the consequences?
  4. If I don’t react, what is the price? Will I internalize it and obsess, replaying the scene over and over in my head? Will I regret or make myself crazy, wishing I said this or that?

From here, we have decisions to make. Kevin suggests various ways to address microaggressions:

  • Microaggressors can be clueless about their choice of words and actions. So if you speak up, consider doing it immediately.
  • Always have strategies in your hip pocket. You can be sarcastic or funny or attempt to educate.
  • Role-play scenarios with people you trust. Practice. Test out possible comebacks.
  • You don’t have to take on every battle.
  • If you have allies, enlist them.
  • Decide what makes you feel safe.
  • You might be more assertive in some situations, but gentler with your boss. Dealing with bosses is hard.
  • Speak in the first person “I.” For instance, if someone tells you you’re not Asian enough, share your feelings. I don’t appreciate that; it’s kind of rude.
  • Use humor! Tell Kevin he’s not Filipino enough and he’ll reply, “What, are you gonna take away my membership card?”
  • Set boundaries. If a client gets too personal, Kevin might redirect the conversation: “We’re here to talk about you.”


Ooops. What if I commit a microaggression?

After reading three informative studies co-authored by Kevin, I was mortified by my past behavior. But everyone microaggresses. Sharing about it helps lessen the guilt, said Kevin.

“Admitting when you commit a microaggression is really freeing,” he added. “It makes you human as well.”

The links below take you to summaries of his reports, as well as ways to buy the PDF or rent it for a few bucks:

  • Since 2010, researchers have published 35 papers on LGBTQ microaggressions. The summary enlightened me on areas in which I need improvement. I am now aware insulting language used to describe transgender people. Another transgression: Never again will I ask a lesbian couple, “Who is the man in the relationship?” For more, go to “Microaggresions Toward Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Genderqueer People: A Review of the Literature.” It’s in the 2016 edition of The Journal of Sex Research. Authors are Kevin L. Nadal, Chassitty N. Whitman, Lindsey S. Davis, Tanya Erazo, Kristin C. Davidoff, all of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
  • Very little research exists on microaggressions against multiracial individuals, who identify with two or more races/ethnicities. But they are under constant assault: What are you? You’re so exotic. You don’t sound Black. You’re not really Asian. They often feel forced to choose between their heritages. As my daughter experienced as a little girl growing up in a white community, people always want to touch your  hair. The February 2013 issue of Family Relations presents an overview of the issues in “Microaggressions Within Families: Experiences of Multiracial People.” The article was written by Kevin L. Nadal, Julie Sriken, Kristin C. Davidoff, Yinglee Wong, Kathryn McLean, all of John Jay College of Criminal Justice.


How about you? Are microaggressions causing stress in your life? Any solutions?