Mind Matters — Macro or Micro: Aggressions Are Real

Perusing a most recent American Psychological Association Journal, I wondered which article would be a springboard for my next Mind Matters column. So many topics seemed relevant to today’s news, it was hard to choose.

One article discussed how the APA supports that Native Americans at Standing Rock who are protesting construction of an oil pipeline that would cut across their land and possibly contaminate their water supply. In a letter to President Obama, the APA asserted that “As psychologists, we are particularly troubled by the potential for adverse neurological effects of oil-contaminated water. … We are disturbed that the pipeline was considered too risky to route close to Bismarck, North Dakota, but not to the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation.”

Furthermore, the APA letter included reference to historical and intergenerational trauma that Native Americans have suffered for centuries and how this mistreatment has been demonstrated again by the violence that has been inflicted upon the protestors at Standing Rock.

Why did the APA take a stance in this dispute? Because the APA has chosen to bring light to injustices inflicted upon marginalized groups. It has been stated that the “APA’s mission is ‘to advance the creation, communication, and application of psychological knowledge to benefit society and improve people’s lives.’ This mission underscores the need to speak out when the health and well-being of any group are threatened.”

Another marginalized group of people addressed by the APA were refugees. We may not want to face it, but the refugee situation is the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II. The war in Syria compounded what was already of massive proportions—In 2015, 65.3 million people “had been forced from their homes because of persecution, human rights violations, conflict, and other violence.”

The refugees are not terrorists, but the terrorized. Many refugees have been severely traumatized, whether having experienced violence to themselves and their families, or having witnessed horrific brutality. Psychologists trained in trauma have worked with such refugees. Others work with the family systems, looking to re-establish resilience and healing. Given the numbers of refugees, this is a daunting task.

Another article in this APA publication took on an issue perhaps far less daunting than the refugee crisis but nonetheless still about marginalization, and that is the issue of micro-aggression.

While refugees and Native Americans face macro-aggressions, micro-aggressions are those subtle verbal violences that demean a person in almost imperceptible ways. I remember plenty of micro-aggressions from childhood: “If you lost a few pounds, you’d be better.” Or “You didn’t look that great in high school, I didn’t expect you’d look good now.” Or “That’s so gay.” Or “Ooh, what does your hair feel like, can I touch it?”

Micro-aggressions are short “statements or behaviors, that, intentionally or not, communicate a negative message about a non-dominant group.”

“Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” goes the child’s verse. Balderdash, retorts the science. Words do affect us and micro-aggressions are harmful. If a little bit of arsenic on a daily basis can kill, mini-violences of words can take their toll too.

We are coming into an era where we all the more need to be cognizant of what it takes to be adults who care about the human condition on both the macro and micro levels and who don’t side with violence in any form.