Microaggressions and Sex Education: Race, Gender, and Sexuality


An exerpt of gray text on a black background with examples of microaggressions (ex "what's your real name" and "you don't even have an accent").  "Microaggression" is written in white to stand out.

Racial Microaggressions in Society

True or false: Ever since water fountains, bathrooms, schools, and other public spaces became racially integrated, race based violence has declined. Answer: False. Tempting as it may be to point to the current President of the United States stating that we live in a post-racial society, it is only overt forms of racially motivated discrimination and violence that have become seemingly undetectable. The “whites only” signs have been traded in for subtle clues that only “qualified” applicants need apply, or it’s not “that type” of neighborhood, and these messages are scribed in a language understood by anyone facing social injustice.

Cartoon depicting a Native individual on the left.  On the right is an obese man wearing an "Indian headdress" with facepaint and body paint that says "go savages!"  He is saying "But I'm HONORING you, dude!" to the Native individual.

These subtle slights are called microaggressions which are described as every day, commonplace acts of discrimination meant to target a specific person or group of people. D.W. Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation and Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact, stated that one of the hallmarks of microaggressions is that the perpetrator is usually very well intentioned. People who are the targets of racial microaggressions tend to hear compliments like “you speak so well for a Black person” or “you don’t seem like a [insert cultural stereotype].” Racial microaggressions are not all black and white, literally. They are committed on a daily basis by anyone with a culture. That means everyone. For more examples of racial microaggressions check out this list.

micrographic

The “micro” in microaggressions is not an indicator that these infractions are small; instead, “micro” refers to the phenomenon that discrimination happens on a clandestine, individual basis making it much more difficult to prove. D.W. Sue’s research findings specified that the impact of microaggressions over time can lead to psychological effects such as depression, anxiety, and increased substance use.

Gender Microaggressions in Society

Now that you have a working knowledge of microaggressions as they apply to race and ethnicity, let’s talk gender. D.W. Sue created a typology of microaggressions to describe the various levels in which these transgressions occur. In other words, not all microaggressions are created the same. There are microassaults which tend to be deliberate, aggressive, and shady; microinsults which are rude, disparaging, and also shady; and microinvalidations which are characterized by behavior that is exclusionary towards someone. So much shade. What do these forms of microaggressions look and sound like when applied to gender? Here are some examples.

Blue background with a drawing of a white girl in a white dress facing away.  Text says "you throw like a girl."

There are 2 words that capture the essence of gender microassaults: Rape culture. Not sure what rape culture is? Stop reading this immediately and examine these 25 examples. All set? Now let’s move on to microinsults which are so embedded in our language and behavior that they virtually go unchecked. An example of a gender microinsult would be stating it must be “that time of the month” when your lady friend is in a bad mood as if she is not equally entitled to her anger and frustration at all times of the month, like all genders.

Before you bring up the example of how men are stereotyped as hyper-masculine making it socially dangerous for anyone who identifies as a man to show tender emotions or signs of vulnerability, there is a key component to microaggressions that’s important to note – microaggresssions affect communities who have been marginalized. Although the social construction of gender roles is problematic, men are not victims of gender microaggressions because they are in a position of power and privilege in society when evaluated according to gender. If men are members of another marginalized group, for instance, men of color, then they can be susceptible to microaggressions. It is a microinsult to expect your doctor to be a man and, when a woman enters the room, be genuinely surprised; it is not a microinsult to expect your nurse to be a woman and be genuinely surprised when a man enters the room. This is not to say that the latter should not be addressed, but it is a separate issue that falls outside the framework of microaggressions. It’s still an important battle and I urge you to #bethatguy who acts as a catalyst for change. If you’re still interested in disarming microaggressions then there’s one more form we need to cover.

Thus far, we have discussed women and men, so that’s everyone, right? Nope! We have arrived upon the biggest microinvalidation of them all – excluding other genders from the discussion or, when talking or teaching about gender, doing so in binary terms. Gender microinvalidations ensue when concepts like cisgender are not used in workshops, trainings, lesson plans, and curricula even when the topic is about transgender identities. Some educators don’t even think to use genderqueer or genderfluid which excludes a lot of people from the conversation.

A group of four images.  Each image has a colorful "namecard" with a pronoun on it and is surrounded by gold chain.  The pronouns depicted are "he," "she," "they," and "zie."

Microaggressions stem from unconscious cultural conditioning developed over time through life experiences. We all have a unique combination of various influences such as:

  • Growing up in a rural, suburban, or urban setting
  • Being the oldest, middle, youngest, or only child
  • Living in a community where everyone is like you, no one is like you, or a combination of the two
  • Messages you received from your family, friends, or community about your race and ethnicity
  • Messages you received from your family, friends, or community about money
  • Spiritual beliefs and practices

Environmental, interpersonal, and intrapersonal experiences all shape how we see ourselves and other people in the world. Our beliefs are neither correct nor incorrect, but that does not prevent offense nor insult when we discover that our cultural sources may have given us a limited view.

Teaching About Microaggressions in Sex Education

Because we all have a culture and we all have conscious and unconscious cultural beliefs, we need to teach about microaggressions. Exactly where in sex education we need to discuss microaggressions is up to the educator, but there are plenty of examples to choose from. So far you have read about racial and gender microaggressions, but there are quite a few that surface when examining language and behavior around sexuality. K. Nadal, author of That’s So Gay!: Microaggressions and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Community, put an entire book out last year on the subject, but here are 19 examples if you don’t have time for a book.

A white woman wearing a black t-shirt with three gender options listed on it:  gay, straight, and "wibbly-wobbly sexy-wexy."  "Wibbly-wobbly sexy-wexy" is checked off.

If you’re not sure where to start, here is a lesson plan for racial microaggressions. This is a great way to begin a dialogue around the framework as it applies to race and ethnicity and it can be adapted to encompass gender and sexuality. In my experience, it is critical to create awareness and understanding about microaggressions in general – who they affect, what their impact is, and how to respond and recover both as a perpetrator and a target. We especially need to incorporate more dialogue about microaggressions in sex education since several components of our identities can interact when teaching and talking about sexuality.

References

Capodilupo, C., Nadal, K., Corman, L., Hamit., S., Lyons, O., Weinberg, A. (2010). The manifestation of gender microaggressions. In Sue D.W. (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics and impact (pp. 193-216). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Nadal, K., Rivera, D., Corpus, M.J.H. (2010). Sexual orientation and transgender microaggressions: Implications for mental health and counseling. In Sue D.W. (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics and impact (pp. 217-240). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender and sexual orientation. (Hoboken,NJ): John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction. In Sue D.W. (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics and impact (pp. 3-22). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, Inc.

5 responses to “Microaggressions and Sex Education: Race, Gender, and Sexuality

  1. What a great post! Thank you for outlining microaggressions and how we, as educators, can incorporate this topic in the classroom. I look forward to learning more from the sources you provided and intertwining awareness of mircroaggressions throughout my curriculum. – SSR

  2. You are an awesome blog author Jaymie! It was such an easy post to read and kept me intrigued until the end. I’m really glad you gave examples of all the microaggressions you were talking about because as you said, the hallmark of a microagression is being well-intentioned. So if the reader commits this un-intentioned faux pas, most likely, they will have no idea they are doing it, so they need examples! Also, thanks for the lesson plan link, that was extremely helpful and I’m excited I now have a good resource for my tool belt.

  3. Jaymie, this was an awesome read. To hear you discuss it in more depth during class made it that more interesting. I agree with you that this is a problem,it just sucks that not everyone see it as such.
    Your blog was well written. Your examples were on point which helped make your point that much stronger. Just from this one blog post, I am interested in reading what ever you write. Keep it coming.

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