Health Matters: ‘I’m no racist, but …’: Hidden messages in everyday conversations

By Mina Tanaka
Medical student and member of the student group, Physicians for Social Responsibility, University of Illinois College of Medicine at Rockford

I was recently seeing patients with a doctor when one of the patients asked me, “Where are you from?”

Chicago,” I answered.

No, I mean, where are you really from?” I knew that what he wanted to hear was “Japan,” because I’ve done this song and dance so many times before.

This seemingly innocent interaction is commonly experienced by many minority individuals. But this question can have a way of making people feel as if they don’t belong. The hidden messages are: “Hi, you look different to me,” or even, “Hey, you’re not a true American.”

Psychologists refer to these subtle everyday insults that alienate and offend people of different ethnicities and backgrounds — including gender, sexual orientation, religions, disability and age — as “microaggressions.”

These microaggressions are often delivered by well-meaning people who have no idea they are engaging in harmful behavior. In this way, they are different from more obvious macroaggressions, like hate crimes and racial slurs. Microaggressions could be non-verbal actions, like designating women to less physical duties around the workplace or in the home (Hidden message: women are weak and incapable of physical labor). They could even come in the form of compliments, such as the case with Vice President Joe Biden describing President Barack Obama as an ideal candidate because he is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy” (Hidden message: all other African-Americans are inarticulate and dumb).

Many of these occurrences of microaggressions can seem trivial, but research indicates they have a big impact on people’s quality of life by affecting their mental health, physical health and school/work performances.

Researchers have found that experiences of microaggressions are linked to increased risks of depression, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, colds and poor breast cancer survival because of the elevated level of stress caused by such perceived prejudices.

Other researchers have shown that women and African-American students did poorly on standardized exams when they were primed with stereotypes on gender or race. For example, if the female subjects were told that women usually did not do well on a particular test compared to men, they scored noticeably lower than women who took the exact same test without such a “warning.”

The hidden messages in microaggressions, in spirit, do the same thing: enforce stereotypes. By doing so, we are essentially setting up certain marginalized people for failure.

Some readers may think this kind of thinking is simply being hypersensitive. My goal is not to stifle free expression or make certain people angry. Rather, I am hoping to encourage more introspection and cultivate an environment for thoughtful discussion.

As an Asian American woman myself, the idea of microaggression helped make sense of some of my own experiences. Until then, I had a hard time putting my finger on why I felt disturbed when people told me I seemed very American or when someone asked me what I was trying to prove by joining the high school wrestling team. It also made me realize that certain things I said to other people may have been offensive.

In short, I would like people to think twice before making comments based on someone’s race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion or age, but I am not saying you should ignore those differences. I’m encouraging the thoughtful consideration of comments we might make before we say them and, of course, we might decide that a statement is not offensive after thinking about it. However, if you’re still not sure, discuss it with the person you’re talking to. If you are on the receiving end of a comment or question that has insulted you, speak up!

The more we talk about it and the more aware we become of the issue, the more likely we are to change our speech and behavior. After all, most microaggressions occur because the speaker is unaware that what they are saying can be hurtful or demeaning.

For more examples of microaggressions, visit The Microaggressions Project at

From the Jan. 23-29, 2013, issue

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