- An African American client stops attending intensive outpatient groups. He explains, “I was the only Black person there-I wasn’t comfortable.” He asks for individual therapy instead but is told “No, group is always best for the intensive treatment people need early in the program. Besides, there is only one race-the human race.”
- A young Latina who is affiliated with a gang is not referred to treatment court, while a young white woman who is also gang affiliated is referred and admitted, “because she’s not as hard core.”
- A transgender client tells her counselor about violence she has faced. The counselor says: “I understand. As a woman, I experience discrimination too.”
Decades of research in cognitive and social sciences show that categorizing, stereotyping, and even discrimination is part and parcel of being a human being. All of us process information and aim to make judgments as quickly and efficiently as possible. We’ve needed to, in order to survive as a species. But a byproduct of this process is that we form implicit biases. Automatic and unintentional, implicit biases are “mistakes” that can lead us to discriminate against others and cause lasting harm.
Microaggressions flow from implicit biases. In the article Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice, psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to (marginalized) people,” (Sue et al., 2007; p. 279). The person committing the microaggression can usually “explain it away” by seemingly nonbiased and valid reasons.
Sue and colleagues would consider the first scenario above as an example of colorblindness, or denying a person of color’s racial or ethnic experiences. The message is “You are not a racial/cultural being. You must assimilate/acculturate to the dominant culture.” The second example represents assumption of criminality, when a person of color is presumed to be more deviant on the basis of their race. The third scenario seems well intentioned but reflects a denial of biases. The therapist implies, “Your oppression is no different than mine. I can’t be biased. I’m just like you.” While the therapist is unaware of their mistake, the client feels diminished and misunderstood, adding to their suffering.
Recognizing and confronting implicit biases and microaggressions in ourselves takes courage and humility. Sue and colleagues (2007) offer a model that invites us to be more aware and intentional in each of our personal and professional actions.