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How unintentional but insidious bias can be the most harmful

National attention has been focused on overt racial tensions on college campuses across the country. But what about smaller, subtle, more persistent forms of racism? Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks to Derald Wing Sue of Teachers College at Columbia University about the ways that everyday “microaggressions” can affect people.

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    Tonight, we bring you another conversation in our series, Race Matters/Solutions, during a week when racial tensions on campus have led to protests and high-profile resignations.

    Special correspondent Charlayne Hunter-Gault sat down with Columbia University Teachers College Professor Derald Sue to learn more about the small slights that some say are more insidious than the overt racial tensions that can be seen and observed by all.

    Here's that conversation.


    Dr. Sue, thank you for joining us.

    So, tell me, just what exactly is microaggression?

  • DR. DERALD WING SUE, Teachers College, Columbia University:

    Well, microaggressions are varying from being conscious, deliberate, on a continuum, to being outside one's level of awareness and unintentional.

    Microaggressions really are reflections of world views of inclusion, exclusion, superiority, inferiority, and they come out in ways that are outside the level of conscious awareness of an individual.

    When I'm asked, where were you born, and I say, I was born in Portland, Oregon and they persist by saying, no, no, no, where were you really born, and I will say, Portland, Oregon? And they will say, no, what country were you born in? And I will say, the United States. They get very embarrassed.

    Now, this is an example that they are intending to make a personal connection, but the hidden communication, the true world view is that I am a perpetual alien or foreigner in my country, I am not a true American, because true Americans only look the following way. And that's what generates these behaviors that are microaggressions.


    But you describe it as unintentional, and yet we have seen at the University of Missouri very blatant examples of racism.


    You're right about that.

    Microaggressions vary from being conscious, deliberate, intentional, from old-fashioned racism and biased statements, to the unintended consequences. And our studies do indicate that it's the hidden, unintentional forms of bias that are most damaging to people of color, and that like, at the University of Missouri where you have people being called racial epithets or behaviors that are going on, it actually is only the tip of the iceberg.

    The reason why I believe students of color, faculty of color are reacting is such a major way is that they are experiencing a climate that is hostile, that is full of microaggressions. These hate incidents on campus are triggering off this discontent, pain and feeling of being silenced.


    But there are critics of your studies and the notion even of microaggression, which they say has morphed from 1970, when it was unintentional, to now everything that happens, and that people are just being overly sensitive. They say, if you coddle these students on campus, how does that prepare them to live in the real world?


    You know, the problem is that believe people microaggressions are very similar to the everyday incivility and rudeness that individuals, white Americans, experience in their day-to-day lives. They are quite different.

    Microaggressions for people of color are constant, continual and cumulative. They occur to people of color from the moment of birth to when they die. And, as a result, any one microaggression in isolation may represent the feather that breaks the camel's back.

    And people who don't see the lived experience of people of color and the daily onslaught that they experience tend not to believe that it's a major event.


    You know, there is another criticism, because this has been called — some of the things that people are called, now they say the N-word and other things like that…




    … is hate speech, and that it's protected by the First Amendment. So, isn't that OK, given that kind of reasoning?


    I think that people who say that we are preventing individuals from free speech don't realize, ironically, that it is people of color that, historically, have not been able to express themselves openly or freely without punitive actions being directed at them.

    And so there has to be this balance, but, at the same time, an understanding that there are limits to free speech when it harms and hurts people.


    Why do you think that students commit microaggressions, or adults, for that matter?


    That's a good question, and I think it goes to the heart of the matter that none of us are immune from inheriting the racial biases of our forbearers.

    We have attitudes and biases that are delivered through microaggressions.


    But when some of these microaggressions come out in the form of real hatred, is that solvable?


    We can deal with that deliberately, but the subtle forms of microaggressions are hard to prove, hard to quantify in some way, and very difficult for us to take actions against because people oftentimes don't perceive it as harmful and significant.

    You know, people oftentimes tell me that white Americans are the enemy. And I say, no, white Americans aren't the enemy. White supremacy is. It's the social conditioning of the superiority of one group over another.

    And many white Americans are equally victimized, because they have been socialized into a society that tends to imbue them with these images that they believe in, but it's no fault of their own. If you really reach white Americans, they can become valuable allies.

    One of the reasons why our research concentrates on the unintentional forms of microaggressions is very much what Maya Angelou said. It's the unintentional bias that does the greatest harm to people of color. And I oftentimes use the example that when you look the disparities and inequities we have in education, employment and health care, it is not due to the overt racists or the white supremacists.

    It is due to the well-intentioned teachers who educate our children, employers who decide who to hire, who to retain and who to promote. And it is that — those individuals who are unaware of their hidden biases that are having the major impact on our standard of living.


    Well, Professor Sue, thank you for joining us.


    Well, thank you.


    And you can find more about microaggressions, including a video made by Professor Sue explaining how they have impacted his life, on the Race Matters section of our Web site. That's PBS.org/NewsHour.

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