Language and communication, Race, ethnicity and culture

Microaggressions: ‘A constant and unwelcome companion’

‘Making sense of microaggressions’ is a graphic and written book with words by Susan Cousins and design by Barry Diamond. It is published by Open Voices. Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne hears from Susan, Barry, and Peter from Open Voices.

29 November 2021

Your book highlights 25 common microaggressions that people of colour experience. Seeing them all brought together emphasises that although they may each be ‘micro’, experiencing many of them regularly must have a huge psychological impact.

Susan: The psychological impact is significant because microaggressions are so firmly fixed in our culture. They show up, day in and day out, like a constant and unwelcome companion. How we experience the psychological impact is unique and depends on the individual’s development of vulnerability due to past and present levels of exposure, and protective factors such as existing strengths, particularly in access to relevant, meaningful and informed emotional support.

The dominant culture exerts a physical and psychological pressure on the mind and body that reveals itself in symptoms of anxiety, depression, agoraphobia and obsessive-compulsive disorders. This amounts to an almost invisible force, often experienced over a lifetime where we are left to try and fit into uncomfortable and invalidating spaces. I’m certain my school life was dominated by trying to grapple with overt and covert forms of racism which without doubt diverted my energy and resources away from learning and living up to anything near the potential within me. I think that being unable to trust what we know and experience does the most psychological harm. This book is all about validating that experience.

You start with an introduction to the term microaggression, which was coined in the 1970s by Chester Middlebrook Pierce, a Professor at Harvard. He described microaggressions as ‘subtle, stunning and often automatic non-verbal exchanges which are put-downs’. Has much changed since then? 

Susan: I think the idea of where we position change and how we measure it is interesting. My observation is that things feel somehow worse when in fact they are the same. Overt and hostile racism has existed throughout my lifetime, but it appears that many white people are recently discovering what black, brown and people of colour have known and lived over hundreds of years. 

Legislation against racial discrimination and harassment has had a direct impact on many people’s lives. For me, it represents the single most important factor in creating an anti-racist society, and it empowers the lives of people who were previously unprotected by the law. Microaggressions are difficult to challenge. They are the passive aggressive side of racism. They are sly and underhand, and this is why they cause so much harm. I don’t think the types of microaggression have changed, I think they are mutated forms of overt racism. You may not be able to directly harass me in work without losing your job, but you will be able to talk over me, hold me to higher standards, micro-manage me and exclude me without consequence.

The topic is heavy but you’ve created an accessible and fun book, helped by the vibrant graphic design. Why did you decide to take this approach? And what was the collaboration like?

Barry: From the moment we first talked about the idea, we made a conscious decision to try to make the book appeal to as wide an audience as possible. I know from my own experience that many readers would love to read and benefit from information on microaggressions (and many other subjects) but would be put off by page after page of grey text. We wanted the book to be a visual and accessible journey through a very serious and difficult subject.

Using type and colour to illustrate each microaggression allowed the words to shout, whisper, sneer, cry for help, try to sneak off the page – we wanted to express emotion through the typography. The cover was the first piece of artwork to test the thought process. Microaggressions come in all shapes and sizes – sometimes bold and obvious, sometimes hidden with a smile or an attempt at humour. Creating a unique ‘character’ for each letter of the word, and expanding or shrinking the size of each letter, attempts to visualise the tones of the aggressions and the different personalities expressing them. 

I am aware that it might take a moment for the viewer to work out what is being spelled out. This was a deliberate part of the design. It mimics that ‘penny-drop’ moment of realisation – with the ‘Oh, that’s what it says’ thought imitating ‘Did they really just say that!?’. The cover sets the tone for the inside pages.

We also wanted to try to visualise the moment that a microaggression is dealt – conveying the surprise/shock/anger/hurt. We decided to work on one microaggression at a time. Susan would send me the copy for one microaggression. We’d have a chat about its character and impact, and I would immediately work on it to ensure the energy and impact Susan had described was fresh. The process really helped me not shy away from being bold and free with the designs.

I should mention too that collaborating with Susan has been so refreshing. She said right from our first conversations that she knew what I was capable of and that I should let myself go with the design process. Working with such a talented writer and generous soul, I feel privileged.

Peter: Open Voices has been a longstanding idea, but we were waiting for the right book to come along before we brought it to life. Our aim as a hybrid-publisher is to cultivate a group of authors whose work stands out from the crowd for its originality and its ability to challenge the status quo. When we heard of Susan and Barry’s book we were so determined to have it as our first publication.

Collaborating has been such a joyous experience. To collaborate with an author requires a strong and trusting relationship built over time. Because we truly believed in this book and its mission, we were confident that it would be a success. It has been a privilege to witness Susan and Barry collaborate! We have admired their innovation and tenacity in delivering something truly original, which is no easy task in this day and age.

You provide solutions – some practical (‘Never leave the shop without a receipt’, ‘Make a complaint’), and some psychological, focusing on self-care (‘Break the circle of stress and tension, and make a conscious decision not to complain this time’). What other solutions would you like to see, that don’t focus on the individual on the receiving end?

Susan: This is an important question, although most of my work comes from my concern for the individual experience of racism and how to empower the reader. Unless we stand up to racism when we witness it, to interrupt the flow of harassment and discrimination, however uncomfortable and challenging that may be, it will continue to find spaces and places where it will go unchecked and unchallenged. When people stop saying they didn’t notice, they didn’t hear, they were doing something else when ‘that happened’, we will see more change. This amounts to institutional and societal denial that acts as an enabler.

My observation is that unconscious bias training, for example, is not a solution. It is a non-event that barely touches the surface in terms of its impact. I do, however, realise that for some people it was an important part of their journey towards a better understanding. 

Anti-racism requires sustained challenge. It will take years of hard work to undo the legacy of colonialism and slavery that is the cause of what is so deeply entrenched in our psyches. And it cannot be undone with a few ‘key takeaways and tools’. Our education, from school to lifelong learning and all that is in between, needs to reflect the whole truth and not the partial truth that runs so very deep within every aspect our culture – including psychology.

Some psychologists have published research and opinion pieces questioning the very concept of microaggressions, in terms of definition, scope, utility etc. How do you respond to them?

Susan: There are challenges to the term microaggression which I have defined as 'subtle, stunning and often automatic non-verbal exchanges which are put-downs', originally defined by Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, and Willis in 1978 (p.66). I think that it's possible to question the concept of microaggressions but not the existence of covert and aversive forms of racism that exist alongside the more overt forms of racism. The term is useful, the term is empowering and the term names and defines what has previously gone unnamed. Naming an oppressive form of communication disempowers the innuendo and allows the target to process and move on from the resulting impact.

‘Making sense of microaggressions’ by Susan Cousins and Barry Diamond (Open Voices) is out now.