Posted in Social Work

“You’re not black black…Ya Know?”: Social Work and Microaggressions

One thing I have experienced among my years of being a minority in various situations is the role in which Microaggressions play.

Definition for the masses,

Microaggressions are 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. – 

As social workers I think it is important that we hold each other accountable, but we must also hold ourselves. Finding yourself in a situation where someone is using microaggresions towards you can be overwhelming, stressful, and debilitating if you feel powerless. When I was first just a young chickadee freshman in undergraduate school I remember accepting a role in a play where we had to portray the seven deadly sins. I accepted the role as Lust. During the rehearsal the student director stopped the play and looked at me saying ” You’re a black man, I know that you know how to be lustful.” I also felt sick, nauseas, embarrassed, and angry. I felt like those 5 minutes turned into 120 minutes. I found the courage however to say ” I’m not sure what you mean by that comment but I want you to know that it is offensive.” Although this student director failed to acknowledge what she meant , my interpretation of it was that as a young black man she found US to be overly sexual. Standing up for myself I felt like I was alone in that room. But as I reflect  on that experience I understand that it is important that we do speak out against them. This is one of many experiences I have had.

Below you will find examples of racial microaggressions to help clarify if you’re confuse, or if you just want to educate others. As social workers we run into these situations among fellow co-workers who may reference towards yourself or another employee, or even a client.

Being competenent is  key to be ing successful.

Examples of Racial Microaggressions




 Theme                                              Microaggresion                           Message

Alien in own land

When Asian Americans and Latino Americans are assumed to be foreign-born

“Where are you from?”
“Where were you born?”
“You speak good English.”
A person asking an Asian American to teach them words in their native language.

You are not American You are a foreigner

Ascription of Intelligence

Assigning intelligence to a person of color on the basis of their race.

“You are a credit to your race.”
“You are so articulate.”
Asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem.

People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.
It is unusual for someone of your race to be intelligent.

All Asians are intelligent and good in Math / Sciences.

Color Blindness

Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to acknowledge race

“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
“America is a melting pot.”
“There is only one race, the human race.”

Denying a person of color’s racial / ethnic experiences.
Assimilate / acculturate to the dominant culture.

Denying the individual as a racial / cultural being.

Criminality – assumption of criminal status
A person of color is presumed to be dangerous, criminal, or deviant on the basis of their race.

A White man or woman clutching their purse or checking their wallet as a Black or Latino approaches or passes.
A store owner following a customer of color around the store.
A White person waits to ride the next elevator when a person of color is on it.

You are a criminal.
You are going to steal / You are poor / You do not belong / You are dangerous.

Denial of individual racism

A statement made when Whites deny their racial biases

“I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.”
“As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”

I am immune to races because I have friends of color.
Your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression. I can’t be a racist. I’m like you.

Myth of meritocracy

Statements which assert that race does not play a role in life successes

“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”

People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race. People of color are lazy and / or incompetent and need to work harder.

Pathologizing cultural values / communication styles
The notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant / White culture are ideal

Asking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud / animated? Just calm down.”
To an Asian or Latino person: Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal.” Speak up more.”

Dismissing an individual who brings up race / culture in work / school setting.

Assimilate to dominant culture. Leave your cultural baggage outside.

Adapted from:

Wing, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, Esquilin (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62, 4, 271-286


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