How We Can Hurt and Be Hurt and Never Know It
Reprinted from Positively Aware.
WITH ADVANCES in HIV medications, the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning (in part) the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), and the expanding diversity of people living in this country, it is easy to be lulled into thinking that acceptance of difference is on the rise and the stigma that has been associated with so many of our marginalized identities has diminished. In some instances, this is true. For others, it’s more complex. Jacob’s story is a composite of many stories and experiences of people who have traumatic histories and also live with stigma and marginalization. His life highlights the entanglement of marginalization and the experience of trauma.
Born in the early 1970s in Mississippi, Jacob’s parents divorced when he was 10 years old. His mother remarried a pastor who adhered to literal interpretations of the bible and who was never fond of Jacob. When Jacob disclosed he was gay to his mother and stepfather at age 17, he was beaten, denigrated, thrown on the street, and shunned by his family and church community. Most would agree that Jacob experienced major trauma and even wonder how these early experiences impacted Jacob in adulthood.
Ironically, it is not these major traumas that have caused Jacob the most pain and confusion. Those traumas were clearer for Jacob to acknowledge and discuss with others. Trauma he experienced as a result of difference and marginalization, however, was harder to identify, and harder to separate from distinct traumatic life events.
Jacob often felt unsafe navigating life as an openly gay, African American teenager in rural Mississippi. In the late 1980s he relocated to Chicago where, unemployed and without an education, he lived on the streets, engaged in sex for survival, and was hospitalized at age 21 for his first episode of depression. What stands out most for Jacob regarding his hospitalization was his lack of visitors. Hospital staff noticed and brought this to his attention with concern, which for Jacob felt like an emphasis on his “aloneness” in the world.
Upon discharge from the hospital, he was connected with several community resources that supported him in completing his GED (high school equivalency exam) and he began working as a sales assistant for a large public relations firm.
Soon thereafter, Jacob met a man with whom he felt safe and they maintained a life together for 15 years. Jacob did not find out until five years into the relationship that he was HIV-positive and he began treatment. He was initially successful at work and the only people who knew of his HIV status were his partner and his therapist.
As the years progressed, however, he noticed he was struggling at work, feeling more depressed, and was having trouble remembering even simple instructions. After having HIV for 20 years, he was diagnosed with cognitive impairments and dementia and could no longer function at work. Eventually, he had to leave his job and file for long-term disability.
During the same 20-year period, he reconnected with his mother and some of his siblings. After a series of health crises, his family learned he was living with HIV; the only way Jacob was able to maintain any relationship with his mother was to deny being gay, exclude his partner from all family gatherings, refrain from discussing his HIV status, and keep his dementia diagnosis secret.
Along with navigating the transition to being on long-term disability, Jacob had to find ways to protect himself against the judgment and rejection he experienced from acquaintances, friends, and extended family while also managing his compromised immune system, dementia, and mounting depression.
Everyone has multiple identities
As complex beings like Jacob, each of us has multiple “identities,” or parts of who we are. Most of us begin to shape our identities at a young age with help from our families, peers, and communities. As we grow and mature, we continue to evolve and rediscover ourselves by exploring, inhabiting, and sometimes renouncing one or more of our identities. They are a central component to understanding ourselves both independently and in relationship with others.
Our identities may be visible or invisible, but regardless of visibility, they serve to characterize the ways that we experience the world. For Jacob, his visible identities include his race, gender, and age. Invisible identities are parts of ourselves that are not as easily discerned by the outside world without some form of self-disclosure, such as sexual orientation, socio-economic background, or medical conditions, such as living with HIV. For Jacob, such invisible identities include being gay, having depression, living with HIV, and having dementia. These marginalized identities, experienced together, may overlap and magnify stigma and shame. In addition, he continued to identify with some aspects of his religious upbringing, another invisible identity, but struggled with the negative messages he received from family that were so integral to their religious practices.
For Jacob and the rest of us, our multiple, complex, and ever-evolving identities play an important role in the ways that we experience ourselves, our relationships, and the world at large. Within any social group, certain identities are considered less desirable and as a result are relegated to the margins of mainstream consciousness and social life. Being marginalized often means having less or lower social status, being negatively perceived by others, and regularly experiencing exclusion, injustice, and inequality within social, cultural, political, and economic systems.
Some examples of marginalized identities in our society include people of color, women, lesbian/gay/bisexual/transgender people, the differently abled, religious minorities, the elderly, people living with HIV, and others who may hold identities that are stigmatized or devalued.
Like Jacob, many of us hold multiple marginalized identities that intersect with one another, each contributing to our first-hand experiences and impressions of living as a member of a minority or oppressed group(s).
The experience of microaggression
When we have one or more marginalized identities, we may experience both intentional and unintentional discrimination and prejudice in daily life. Often this prejudice is expressed as a “microaggression,” as described by researcher Derald Wing Sue.
Microaggressions are everyday verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward those of us who are part of one or more marginalized groups. Microaggressions can invalidate the experiential reality of those impacted by them, demean them personally or communally, communicate that they are lesser human beings, and signify that they are different from the mainstream or majority culture.
Experiencing a microaggression can also leave someone feeling threatened, intimidated, and unsafe, both physically and emotionally.
Any group that is marginalized in society is vulnerable to microaggressions and many people with multiple marginalized identities, like Jacob, may experience microaggressions in many different aspects of their lives and experiences.
Some may hear the term microaggression and think that it’s something very small, but this could not be farther from the truth. Often people do not recognize that a microaggression can have a lasting impact because of its insidious nature—superficially it may seem harmless or trivial, but in actuality, microaggressions build and accumulate so that over time they have a strong impact on the psychological state and well-being of those affected by them.
Microaggressions carry with them meanings that often remain out of the range of consciousness for those who perpetrate them, but the societal messages they convey can have lasting negative effects on those who are targeted and reinforce the structural inequalities faced by these individuals in their everyday lives.
For Jacob, while never stated explicitly, he knew that he was not “allowed” to bring his partner to any family event. The unspoken microaggression and not so invisible message is, “Your relationship and displays of affection with another man are offensive and abnormal; therefore, you should keep them to yourself.”
Repeated often enough, victims of microaggression begin to believe these messages and being devalued becomes internalized—it becomes part of how someone like Jacob sees himself.
Although many microaggressions are committed unintentionally, it does not diminish their damaging effects. In fact, the most psychologically and emotionally harmful microaggressions are perpetrated by individuals who are well-intentioned and unaware that they have acted in an offensive manner toward a person with a marginalized identity.
Microaggressions occur daily—for example, when two white women walk across the street when they see an African American teenage boy walking toward them (possible hidden message: All black men are dangerous), or when a straight couple discusses their wedding, not considering how it might impact their two gay friends who cannot marry and are listening to the conversation (possible hidden message: We are completely unaware that others in this country do not have the rights we have, that being gay and in a long-term relationship doesn’t merit acknowledgment).
In both examples none of the “perpetrators” are particularly aware that their behavior has hurt someone, though unintentionally they may have conveyed messages of fear, shame, and privilege.
Microaggressions come in three forms: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations, again as described by Sue.
A microassault is a consciously held bias or belief that is intentionally expressed verbally or non-verbally by an individual to hurt the intended target. A microassault can be acted out overtly, such as through derogatory name-calling or discriminatory behavior, or covertly, through avoidant behaviors and subtle mistreatment of those with marginalized identities.
While never explicitly communicated, Jacob knew that he would be rejected if he tried to include his partner in family events. The absence of questions about his relationship and the lack of any demonstrated interest in his partner served as a constant reminder that his relationship was “less than” other relationships in his family.
Microassaults are often characterized as what we have historically known as prejudice and discrimination, for example, using racial slurs to refer to people of a different race. People who commit microassaults, much like Jacob’s stepfather, are conscious of the biases they hold toward a marginalized group, but feel they are justified and may express this bias publicly and directly or act it out through a number of ways, such as bullying, hate speech, and supporting unjust legislative policies.
Microassaults are explicit attacks on an individual’s personhood and are meant to be threatening and to instill a sense of inferiority. At one point, Jacob’s mother told him his HIV was God’s punishment for being gay. Despite logically knowing this to be untrue, his family experience created an internalized sense of shame so that his mother’s microassault maginified her comment; “not only is being gay wrong, but God punished this wrong with a serious illness.”
A microinsult is more likely to be committed unconsciously. Microinsults are subtle attacks on one’s personhood that are usually disguised as compliments or positive statements, but are undermined by an insulting or offensive metacommunication or hidden message. Microinsults communicate insensitivity, rudeness, or snubs that demean aspects of a person’s identity.
In many social situations, while others described their jobs, Jacob feared the inevitable question of being asked what he does for a living. An honest question, for Jacob it created the dilemma of how much to disclose. If he shared he was not working due to disability, the follow-up from many was to ask what had happened to him. The assumption that his disability was due to injury further pressured Jacob and created doubt about whether he was truly “entitled” to receive disability compensation, especially because the dementia he experienced was elusive and intangible.
As mentioned earlier, well-meaning hospital staff asked why no one had come to see him. Seemingly a simple question, for Jacob it served to emphasize his isolation and his fear of judgment if he shared the reason(s) his family had not visited.
Microinvalidations are another form of microaggression. They also occur outside the level of consciousness. This type of microaggression is particularly damaging and insidious because it directly attacks, denies, or minimizes the lived realities, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs of people with marginalized identities. Microinvalidations have potential to perpetuate denial around social privileges attached to those who do not experience marginalization and stigma.
Even in the context of a relationship that Jacob otherwise perceived as safe, his partner frequently minimized the importance of his connection to his church, as well as the cultural and racial influences which exacerbated his shame. He also challenged Jacob’s dementia, often claiming he exaggerated it to avoid accomplishing household tasks.
His partner’s statements failed to fully recognize the intersection of race, religion, and physical disability in Jacob’s reality and magnify his sense of shame. An unfortunately common microinvalidation occurs when a white individual says to his African American friend, “Slavery happened hundreds of years ago. Why can’t you get past it and just move on?” The metamessage communicated may translate to something like, “Slavery wasn’t significant enough to have lasting effects.”
The terms microaggression and insidious trauma are often used interchangeably. Some suggest that insidious trauma acts as a reminder in the lives of people with multiple marginalized identities of the potential for traumatization and the absence of safety in their daily lives, as raised by researcher Laura Brown. These are traumatic in a subtle way because they serve as constant reminders of the threat of physical, emotional, and psychological violence that underlies bias. For Jacob, everyday conversation and assumptions about marriage, employment, and health were paired with anxiety, shame, and a sense of worthlessness.
Symptoms of insidious trauma are the result of cumulative microaggressions; each may not be large enough to be a traumatic stressor on its own, but as microaggressions build over time, they can foster a complex form of traumatic responses not dissimilar to post traumatic stress disorder. While Jacob never demonstrated the symptoms associated with what we typically think of as traumatic, the accumulation of microaggressions created trauma-associated responses such as avoidance, personal devaluation, perceived loss of control, isolation, and a pervasive sense of shame. For Jacob and others, these feelings and responses are often indescribable and without intentional questioning from a compassionate friend or therapist, remain unacknowledged. The lack of acknowledgment, in itself, is a microinvalidation.
Moving toward acknowledgment
As part of our diverse and ever-changing world, we cannot avoid being both victims and perpetrators of microaggressions. The insidious nature of microaggressions can make them difficult to identify when we perpetrate them, difficult to understand when they happen to us, and even more difficult to address or discuss. When we are made aware of a microaggression we have perpetrated, our guilt and immediate urge to apologize may interfere with fully listening to the impact of our behavior. The result may be additional insidious trauma and the subtle but poignant message that microaggressions are really “micro” and don’t deserve to be considered traumatic.
When we experience a microaggression, we often don’t trust our own feelings because sometimes the subtle and underlying message can be difficult to clearly articulate. Or the message has been stated so many times that it is automatically accepted as a “truth” rather than something offensive.
If we don’t know when we have perpetrated a microaggression and can’t trust ourselves in knowing when we have experienced one, what do we do? An awareness of insidious trauma is a first step. If we are aware of and understand how a simple and seemingly innocent comment can magnify stigma and shame, we can make more informed and intentional decisions in our conversations, especially with those who may hold identities different from ours that may carry with them a history of marginalization and stigma. When we commit to an awareness of our own lived experiences and those of others, we can foster more compassionate relationships. And, when we are able to be gentle with ourselves about our own propensity to hurt another we can demonstrate that same gentleness toward those we hurt.
If we believe that compassion reduces insidious trauma, then through our compassion we diminish the forces behind marginalization, stigma, and shame.
Jeff Levy is co-founder and CEO of Live Oak, Inc. He is also adjunct faculty at the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration where he teaches an advanced seminar on violence and trauma.
Amber Jones is a recent graduate of this program with a concentration in trauma-informed, culturally relevant practice. Together, Levy and Jones have developed a graduate course proposal related to insidious trauma, microagressions, and historical/intergenerational trauma.
The following books and articles have been used as resources in the development of this article:
- Brown, L. S. (2008). Cultural competence in trauma therapy: beyond the flashback. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
- Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., et al. (2007). Racial Microaggressions In Everyday Life: Implications For Clinical Practice.. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.
- Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions and marginality manifestation, dynamics, and impact. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
- Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, N.J.: Wiley.
By Jeff Levy, LCSW & Amber Jones, AM