Character  &  Context

Is Diversity the Best Defense Against Microaggressions?

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Recent movements such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter have helped to highlight discrimination against minority groups, however one way in which prejudice may be covertly perpetuated is through microaggressions. Microaggressions are often defined as subtle and unconscious verbal or nonverbal behaviors that invalidate or insult minority group members. While some may feel that microaggressions are more innocent and innocuous, past research has found that experiencing microaggressions may lead to similar negative psychological outcomes as experiencing more explicit discrimination. Given these findings, it becomes important for us to understand who experiences microaggressions and where do they occur most frequently?

“What are you?” and “Where are you from?” are common microaggressions that People of Color may face in their day-to-day interactions. While the experiences of racial microaggressions have been well documented for People of Color, we were also interested in Multiracial individuals’ experiences. As the U.S. becomes increasingly racially and ethnically diverse, and a growing Multiracial population emerges, understanding how their experiences with racial discrimination and microaggression becomes imperative. Another product of increasing racial diversity in the U.S. is a shift in racial environment. Previous research suggests that White individuals find information about the projected rise in racial minority population threatening to their dominant status. In fact, Whites perceived increase discriminatory treatment towards their group when their dominant status was threatened. Despite this finding, we still know little about how different racial environments may impact the experience of racial discrimination and microaggressions.

In our study, we examined the experience of racial discrimination and microaggressions for monoracial People of Color, Multiracials, and White individuals who resided in either a racially homogenous (majority-White states) and racially diverse environment (a majority-minority state). Specifically, we expected People of Color in more diverse environments would perceive and experience less racial discrimination and microaggressions than their peers in racially homogenous environments. Furthermore, we were interested to see if being in a racially diverse environment would indeed expose White individuals to racial discrimination and microaggressions or if White racial identity (or White privilege) immunizes White individuals from these experiences of discrimination.

As anticipated People of Color and Multiracial individuals reported experiencing less microaggressions in a racially diverse environment vs. racially homogenous environments. These findings bolster past work that argues that racial diversity may provide positive benefits for the people living in them. It may be that continuous interactions with racially diverse individuals might attenuate the perpetuation of racial microaggressions. For People of Color and multiracial, being in a context that is “majority-minority” may serve as a cue of safety, and make their racial identity stand out less as compared to others. This may also help to reduce the “sting” of microaggressions. We found that monoracial People of Color and Multiracial individuals perceived microaggressions to be less offensive when they resided in racially diverse environments. These results support our overall findings, such that racially diverse contexts may have profound benefits for all groups, regardless of their racial background.

Importantly, White individuals did not experience significantly more racial discrimination, microaggressions, or perceive microaggressions to be more offensive when residing in a racially diverse environment as compared to a racially homogenous environment. Given past research demonstrating Whites’ increased feelings of threat when anticipating society’s growing racial diversity, these findings provide evidence for the lack of ramifications for Whites living in a racially diverse environment. In fact, Whites (regardless of where they resided) reported the lowest levels of racial discrimination, microaggressions and offensiveness as compared to monoracial People of Color and Multiracial individuals.

We hope the findings from this study give some insight into the potential benefits of our increasingly diverse nation. Furthermore, investigating Multiracials’ experience with racial discrimination and microaggressions are just as imperative, given that they report experiencing a similar level of these transgressions as monoracial People of Color. Overall, our findings suggest that all groups benefit from living in a racially diverse environment, and future research should attempt to address what factors might help to reduce instances of racial discrimination and microaggressions in these environments.  


Chanel Meyers is a graduate student in the Intergroup Social Perception Lab at the University of Hawaii.

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