Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses

How racial microaggressions do a number on people of color

Oprah Winfrey has experienced the racial microaggression known as
Oprah Winfrey has experienced the racial microaggression known as "shopping while black.". Greg Hernandez/Flickr.com

When some people hear the word "racism," the subtle forms of bigotry known as racial microaggressions don't come to mind. Instead, they imagine a man in a white hood or a burning cross on a lawn.

In reality, most people of color will never encounter a Klansman or be casualties of a lynch mob. They won't even be killed by police, although blacks and Latinos are common targets of police violence.

Members of racial minority groups are much more likely to be the victims of subtle racism, also known as everyday racism, covert racism or racial microaggressions.

This sort of racism has a pernicious effect on its targets, many of whom struggle to see it for what it is.

So just what is subtle racism?

Defining Everyday Racism

A study conducted by San Francisco State University Professor Alvin Alvarez identified everyday racism as "subtle, commonplace forms of discrimination, such as being ignored, ridiculed or treated differently." Explains Alvarez, a counseling professor, "These are incidents that may seem innocent and small, but cumulatively they can have a powerful impact on an individual's mental health."

Annie Barnes further illuminates the matter in her book "Everyday Racism: A Book for All Americans." She identifies such racism as a "virus" of sorts exhibited in the body language, speech and isolating attitude of racists, among other behaviors. Due to the covertness of such behaviors, victims of this form of racism may struggle to determine for certain if bigotry is at play.

Examples of Racial Microaggressions

In "Everyday Racism," Barnes tells the story of Daniel, a black college student whose apartment building manager asked him not to listen to music on his earphones while strolling the premises. Supposedly other residents found it distracting. The problem? "Daniel observed that a white youth in his complex had a similar radio with earphones and that the supervisor never complained about him."

Based on their own fears or stereotypes of black men, Daniel's neighbors found the image of him listening to earphones off-putting but made no objections to his white counterpart doing the same thing. This gave Daniel the message that someone with his skin color must adhere to a different set of standards, a revelation that made him uneasy.

While Daniel acknowledged that racial discrimination was to blame for why the manager treated him differently, some victims of everyday racism fail to make this connection. These people only invoke the word "racism" when someone blatantly commits a racist act such as using a slur. But they may want to rethink their reluctance to identify something as racist. Although the notion that talking about racism too much makes matters worse is widespread, the SFSU study found the opposite to be true.

"Trying to ignore these insidious incidents could become taxing and debilitating over time, chipping away at a person's spirit," Alvarez explained.

Ignoring Certain Racial Groups

Ignoring people of certain races is another example of subtle racism. Say a Mexican American woman enters a store waiting to be served but the employees behave as if she's not there, continuing to rifle through store shelves or sort through papers.

Soon afterward, a white woman enters the store, and the employees immediately wait on her. They help the Mexican American woman only after they wait on her white counterpart. The covert message sent to the Mexican-American customer? You're not as worthy of attention and customer service as a white person is.

Sometimes people of color are ignored in a strictly social sense. Say a Chinese American man visits a mostly white church for a few weeks but each Sunday no one talks to him. Moreover, few people even bother to greet him. Meanwhile, a white visitor to the church is invited out to lunch during his very first visit. Churchgoers not only talk to him but supply him with their phone numbers and email addresses. In a matter of weeks, he's fully enmeshed in the church's social network.

The church members may be surprised to learn that the Chinese American man believes he was the victim of racial exclusion.

After all, they simply felt a connection with the white visitor that they lacked with the Chinese American man. Later, when the topic of increasing diversity at the church comes up, everyone shrugs when asked how to attract more parishioners of color. They fail to connect how their coldness to the people of color who do occasionally visit makes their religious institution unwelcoming to them.

Ridiculing Based on Race

Subtle racism not only takes the form of ignoring people of color or treating them differently but of ridiculing them. But how can ridicule on the basis of race be covert? Gossip writer Kitty Kelley's unauthorized biography "Oprah" is a case in point. In the book, the talk show queen's looks are excoriated--but in a particularly racialized way.

Kelley quotes a source who says, "Oprah without hair and makeup is a pretty scary sight. But once her prep people do their magic, she becomes super glam. They narrow her nose and thin her lips with three different liners…and her hair. Well, I can't even begin to describe the wonders they perform with her hair."

Why does this description reek of subtle racism? Well, the source isn't just saying she finds Oprah unattractive without the help of a hair and makeup team but criticizing the "blackness" of Oprah's features. Her nose is too wide, her lips are too big, and her hair is unmanageable, the source asserts. Such features are all commonly associated with African Americans. In short, the source suggests that Oprah is mainly unattractive because she's black.

How else are people subtly ridiculed based on race or national origin? Say an immigrant speaks English fluently but has a slight accent. The immigrant may encounter Americans who constantly ask that he repeat himself, speak to him loudly or interrupt him when he tries to engage them in discussion. These are racial microaggressions that send a message to the immigrant that he's unworthy of their conversation. Before long, the immigrant may develop a complex about his accent, despite the fact that he speaks fluent English, and withdraw from conversations before he's rejected.

How to Cope With Subtle Racism

If you have proof or a strong hunch that you're being treated differently, ignored or ridiculed based on race, make it an issue. According to Alvarez' study, which appears in the April 2010 issue of the Journal of Counseling Psychology, men who reported incidents of subtle racism or confronted those responsible, lowered amounts of personal distress while boosting self-esteem. On the other hand, the study found that women who disregarded incidents of subtle racism developed increased levels of stress. In short, speak out about racism in all its forms for your own mental health.

The Cost of Disregarding Everyday Racism

When we think of racism only in extremes we allow subtle racism to continue wreaking havoc in people's lives. In an essay called "Everyday Racism, White Liberals and the Limits of Tolerance," antiracist activist Tim Wise explains, "Since hardly anyone will admit to racial prejudice of any type, focusing on bigotry, hatred, and acts of intolerance only solidifies the belief that racism is something 'out there,' a problem for others, 'but not me,' or anyone I know." 

Wise argues that because everyday racism is much more prevalent than extreme racism, the former actually reaches more people's lives and does more lasting damage. That's why it's important to make an issue out of racial microaggressions.

More than racial extremists, "I'm more concerned about the 44 percent (of Americans) who still believe it's all right for white homeowners to discriminate against black renters or buyers, or the fact that less than half of all whites think the government should have any laws to ensure equal opportunity in employment, than I am about guys running around in the woods with guns, or lighting birthday cakes to Hitler every April 20th," Wise says.

While racial extremists are no doubt dangerous, they are largely isolated from most of society. Why not focus on tackling the pernicious forms of racism that affect Americans regularly? If awareness about subtle racism is raised, more people will recognize how they contribute to the problem and work to change. The result? Race relations will improve for the better.

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Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses." ThoughtCo, Jun. 11, 2016, thoughtco.com/examples-of-subtle-racism-2834960. Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2016, June 11). Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/examples-of-subtle-racism-2834960 Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Examples of Subtle Racism and the Problems It Poses." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/examples-of-subtle-racism-2834960 (accessed November 20, 2017).