The term microaggressions refers to “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership” (Derald Wing Sue). Taken in isolation they may not seem like a big deal, but over time microaggressions have measurable negative impacts on the health, happiness, and professional productivity of those who are continually being slighted. It is important to be aware of what a microaggression IS so that we can strive to make Astronomy a welcoming and inclusive professional environment.

There are a number of different groups that every person identifies with. These include (but are not limited to): race, ethnicity, color/skin-tone, national origin, language or accent, age, religion, veteran status, socio-economic status, education level, employment/student status, sexual orientation, sex, gender identity/expression, physical disability status, mental disability status, weight, marital status, parental status, and genetic information. You may unconsciously make insensitive statements towards other groups that you do not identify with. These statements are often not intended to be derogatory and come with very well-intentioned meaning, but they are damaging. Some examples of these statements are:

“Smile! Come on. You’re too pretty for me to see you not smiling.”

“But you don’t look Jewish.”

“Where are you from?” “No, I mean originally.”

“I don’t even think of you as black/hispanic/gay.”

“You’re so lucky to be black, it’s so easy to get into college.”

“What are you?”

“You’re basically white.”

“Your English is so good!”

“I don’t see color.”

Such statements can be damaging and insulting because the microaggressor is implying that the victim does not belong in the current group, should feel like an outsider, did not experience the cultural/racial history that is typical of their group, or that they don’t really belong to their own cultural/racial group either. It is more inclusive to acknowledge that we are all people first and have different backgrounds. Do not assume to know anyone’s personal history based on their appearance.

Perhaps you have even experienced some microaggressions yourself. It is important to realize that we are ALL susceptible to unwittingly perpetrating microaggressions. In general people have an easier time relating to other people with shared groups and characteristics. Recognizing that sometimes we are not perfect and that we may inadvertently make a comment that could marginalize someone from another group is an important first step. This does not make us bad people! So what can we do? We can start by recognizing that we all have some (unconscious) biases. Do not dismiss or negate them, and do not become defensive if someone tells you that have done this. Armed with the understanding of what a microaggression is, it will be easier to recognize microaggressions and make an effort to reduce that way of thinking. Finally, it is important to realize that microaggressions create disparities in society and contribute to stress and distress for marginalized groups. Anyone can become an ally by speaking out against microaggressions you hear in your everyday life, educating those around on the potential harm of their statements or actions, and accepting advice about your own statements and actions to make everyone feel more included and welcome.