By: Kelly Nguyen
In this op-ed, Kelly Nguyen explains her experiences with microinvalidations, psychologically damaging things said to non-white people in daily conversation.
Have you ever felt offended or insulted by something someone said, but didn’t feel as though your dismay was justified? Were you ever concerned you were over analyzing how you felt, and your feelings were dismissed by, not only yourself, but someone else as well?
As an Asian-American, I’ve experienced these sentiments of confusion on a nearly daily basis. I distinctly remember my English teacher, during my freshman year of high school, enamored by my occasional sprinkling of an SAT-worthy vocab word in my angsty poems exclaiming, “Can you believe her English is so good?” in front of my class. The encouraging look on her face revealed that she thought what she had said was normal, and even a compliment. I was left offended and confused.
Was that offensive? Am I being oversensitive? Was she being racist? Am I allowed to get offended, even if she meant well? These are the types of situations — and subsequent questions — people of color continually face when interacting with white people. Incidents like these have become so commonplace, POC see them as an emotionally exhausting routine that seems to never stop. This is part of the “invisible plague” of microinvalidation, and is inflicted on millions of people of color by negating their experiences through everyday language.
In order to better understand microinvalidation, recognize it, and move forward, here’s some information to help.
What is microinvalidation?
If you’ve never heard of the term before, “microinvalidation” is a hyponym of microaggression, the normalized behavior that demonstrates hostility and negative stereotypes of marginalized racial groups. Coined by Dr. Derald W. Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, microinvalidation communicates that the racism and offensive remarks catapulted towards people of color is unjustified due to a supposed "race-free" world.
What are the types of microinvalidation?
Dr. Derald W. Sue concluded that there are four main types of microinvalidation. A common form of microinvalidation is the “implication of being an alien in your own country.” Questions like, “Where are you from?”, “How do you speak English so well?” or “Can you teach me a few words in your native tongue?” imply that someone’s racial identity negates their status as a U.S. citizen. These questions are offensive because they perpetuate the idea that a non-white person will always be considered a foreigner, never a true American, even if they’ve lived in the country for their entire lives.
Microinvalidation also rests on the belief that POCs aren’t justified to experience racism because we supposedly live in a race free world. This form is “color blindness,” wherein people claim they “can’t see color,” that the one race is “the human race,” or that “America is a melting pot,” basically negating the racism people know they face. This suggests that the person’s history and experiences based upon their race are unimportant and irrelevant.
Another form is classified as “denial of individual racism/sexism/heterosexism,”where people employ logic that suggests they are allowed to be racist just because they have friends who struggled, and thus understand the struggle by association. Saying things like, “I can’t be racist! My best friend is black,” is an example of this form in practice.
The most prevalent microinvalidation in school and the workplace according to Dr. Sue is labelled as the “myth of meritocracy.” “Men and women are paid the same, they just choose the one is the most qualified,” or “You can succeed in America as long as you work hard,” blantly assumes that the only thing holding back marginalized groups is their capability, dismissing recognition that they are not privy to the same privilege as groups like straight, white men.
Microinvalidation can actually damage your health, too.
According to the American Psychological Association, after experiencing these type of degrading comments for an extended period of time, POCs can begin to believe that their feelings are illegitimate and question their feelings and experiences. As a result, a person can begin to experience depression, anxiety, fear of social interaction, and self-esteem and confidence issues.
Dr. Sue has pointed out that microinvalidation is one of the most harmful forms of microaggressions because victims are shamed and made to think that they are being paranoid or oversensitive. In order to solve this problem, we must challenge ourselves and pay closer attention to the various microinvalidations as they occur around us, even if not the target.
Microinvalidation aims to make people feel invisible. Increasing awareness begins with standing up to casual racism or sexism by being willing to acknowledge the problem, and educate others when they make such comments. Changing a system already implemented as normal is difficult, but not impossible. Opening people’s eyes and opening the door for further conversation is a responsibility, in order to rid ourselves of implicit racism, and demand for change, instead of questioning it.