Microaggressions in Immigrants’ Lives

black man's face on black background

“Where are you from?”, “Where were you born?”, “You speak good English.” The subtle messages of microaggression are not always easy to recognize, but they can leave lasting impressions.

The term microaggression, was coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s, who described it as a form of “subtle racism.”

What is Microaggression?

Psychologist Derald W. Sue, who’s written books on microaggressions, defines it as: “The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

Types of microaggressions

Microaggressions appear in three forms: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation.

  • Microassault: Explicit denigrations, primarily characterized by verbal or nonverbal attacks. These attacks mean to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, and other purposeful, discriminatory behavior.
  • Microinsult: Verbal and nonverbal communications subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.
  • Microinvalidation: When a person’s comment invalidates the experiences of a group of people. A classic example is when be a white person tells a black person that “racism does not exist in today’s society.”

Mental Health in Different Communities

It is crucial to think about how a community is experiencing racism to best design services and interventions. In the US, racial and ethnic communities experience racism differently because of history, time, specific policies and practices, and other contextual factors.

Read more about this subject in my blog post from: Racism and Mental Health.

Racial microaggressions can also create ruptures and impasses in the counseling/therapy relationship.

Microaggressions in therapy

If racial microaggressions occur in everyday life, they certainly can also happen in nearly all helping relationships. When thinking about microagressions in therapy, it is important to remember that:

  1. Therapy sessions are likely to represent a microcosm of race relations in our larger society.
  2. Mental health professionals often inherit the biases of their predecessors.
  3. The clinical process represents a European American definition of normality and abnormality that clashes with diverse worldviews and life experiences.

Challenging Microaggression in Mental Health Practice

One of the most significant challenges facing mental health practitioners is how to become culturally competent in delivering relevant services to people of color, women, LGBTs, and other marginalized groups such as those with disabilities, religious minorities, and immigrants/refugees.

Traditional training such as taking courses, workshops, and reading the professional literature on diverse groups in our society may be helpful. Still, they seem to have minimal effect on implicit biases.

In other words, multicultural training may help in acquiring expertise (knowledge and skills). However, we must go further and be aware and make a conscious choice to change our unconscious and unintentional biases.

Cecilia Racine: Immigration Evaluation Therapist

I’m Cecilia Racine, and I teach therapists how to help immigrants through my online courses. As a bilingual immigrant myself, I know the unique perspective that these clients are experiencing. I’ve conducted over 500 evaluations and work with dozens of lawyers in various states. Immigrants are my passion, I believe they add to the fabric of our country.

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