Microaggression and Bullying
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Hear the word “bully” or “bullying”, and what images come to mind for you? Someone who is being mean or nasty? We think of bullying when it is person to person as physical. An adolescent boy or girl who is more mature physically uses their perceived power against someone seen as weaker. When bullying is in the online space, we think of it as harassment.
Whether in person or cyberbullying, all bullying operates on a misuse of the power imbalance between two people. But what about bullying that isn’t based on physical strength or overt attempts to exert power and intimidate another person?
Behaviour that is bullying can be covert and often challenging to identify. Microaggression is one example where bullying behaviour is covert. It usually goes unnoticed because the small aggressions are passed off as a joke or “harmless”. If the recipient of the microaggression stands up against it, they are perceived as “too sensitive” or “taking things the wrong way”.
What are microaggressions?
They are the verbal, behavioural or environmental humiliations that communicate hostile, derogatory or otherwise negative slights and insults towards any individual or group. These insults and slights can be intentional or unintentional. People who are marginalised, such as women, people of colour, sexual minorities, people with disabilities, culturally and linguistically diverse peoples and First Nation people, experience microaggressions in their daily lives. When people stand up against these microaggressions, their perceptions are invalidated by those perpetrating the microaggression.
What do microaggressions with adolescents, particularly in the school environment?
Studies have shown the following four points:
(1) Many types of microaggressions communicate marginalisation, stereotypes, and lack of acceptance.
(2) Experiences of microaggressions negatively affect mental health and school engagement.
(3) Many young people stay silent in the face of microaggressions, but some stand up to aggressors; and
(4) School and teacher responses to microaggressions are perceived mostly as non-existent or ineffective.
Because microaggressions are not understood as a subset of bullying behaviour, there is no proactive intervention for students who experience microaggressions daily. Often students are so used to living with and dealing with these microaggressions they do not perceive them as bullying behaviour.
Yet, microaggressions are still part of bullying behaviour because they misuse power to humiliate, slight, and insult another person based on a perceived difference.