Micro-aggression and the Caribbean Diaspora: A Perspective – By Lear Matthews

Micro-aggression and the Caribbean Diaspora: A Perspective

By Lear Matthews

There is a dimension of the immigrant experience that has not received much attention.  Micro-aggression is a concept used by psychologists to describe a phenomenon in multi ethnic societies such as the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. According to Derald Wing Sue and colleagues, micro aggressions can be defined as, “brief and common place daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights and insults to the target person or group”.

Micro-aggression may be an expression of contempt, fear, power, self-defense, implicit bias or discrimination. It may also signify a lack of knowledge of a particular group of people. The author will examine this phenomenon as it relates to the English speaking Caribbean Diaspora, with implications for the wider immigrant community. Personal narratives are used to highlight examples and consequences of micro-aggression. An in-depth, empirical-based study on the topic is forthcoming.  

The Problem

Immigrants tend to justify their decision to emigrate by expressing the desire to seek a better life for themselves and family. Notwithstanding the fact that the transition is determined by sundry push/pull factors and encumbered by increasingly restrictive immigration laws, many anticipate the opportunities, but rarely consider the risks. The realities of adjusting family roles, occupational change and participating in unaccustomed social interactions in their adopted home are hardly considered. Migration may improve social standing, but  factors such as immigration status, age,sustained connection to the home country,and host society accommodation impact the strides they make.

Most immigrants from the Caribbean region, regardless of ethnicity or self-identity are likely to be placed within the society’s stratified sub-cultural system as ‘people of color’ or ‘black’. Consequentially marginalized, they are generally indistinguishable from other ‘minority groups’ because of their phenotype and ‘otherness’, which establish class/ethnic categories. How immigrants are perceived or the label assigned to them is also informed by a history of global transmigration and geopolitics. In their attempt to acclimate to the culture and lifestyle of the new society, Caribbean immigrants like other newcomers, have experienced a myriad of interpersonal and institutional responses. Because of their ‘minority status’ they are subjected to racial/ethnic micro-aggression often directed toward people of color.

The objective of this article is to examineits occurrence, which is pervasive, although not often recognized or openly acknowledged.  Micro-aggression is not inconsequential. The extent to which it is becoming an overt clue to ongoing discrimination and how layers of ‘subtle prejudice’ persist is a central concern here.

Patterns of micro-aggression are perpetuated at the institutional level, rendering austere changes, unflattering labels and whimsical public policy amendments affecting the well-being of immigrants. It is instructive to note the continuous use of the term ‘illegal aliens’ to describe a category of immigrants. Along with the recent removal of the phrase ‘a nation of immigrants’ from the US Citizenship and Immigration Services’ mission statement, such a label may be viewed as marginalizing immigrants.

The conflation of DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) with the refugee/asylum program by the leadership of the United States reflects misguided notions of immigration policy and latent hostility toward immigrants. So too is referring to Sanctuary Cities as a “breeding concept”. With no sense of history, touting the false rhetoric that most immigrants “come from rural areas and cannot assimilate” is to plant the seeds of prejudice.

The recent decision to re-instate ‘citizenship status’ on the U.S. Census Questionnaire may not only cause fear and anxiety among immigrants, but will result in significant undercounting of the population, as well as inadequate funding and congressional representation. These regressive institutional decisions certainly contradict the sonnet promise engraved at the base of the statue of Liberty. Invoking the “browning of America” scare tactics and poking nativist flames create an atmosphere for escalating behaviors that encourage micro-aggression. Similarly, sensationalizing of anti-immigrant stories can lead to embellishment of prejudicial attitudes and polarization. In Great Britain there is an increase in “public hostility” toward Caribbean immigrants.

The above represent cogent examples of situations that form the bedrock (setting the tone) for micro-aggression, the consequences of which may vary from mild irritation to becoming a barrier to effective intergroup collaboration. The use of language, country of origin and stereotypes as tools of dominance in multiethnic societies is well documented.  As immigrants attempt to resettle in a different society, they are not only aware of that difference, but are also made to feel different by various institutional and individual behavioral manifestations.

Personal narratives

One informant stated that his daughter who works in the medical field in the southern United States, told him that she was engaged in a conversation about ‘family’ with her co-workers, when one of them remarked, “so you have a father who cares”. She was surprised by the comment, but responded modestly. Other immigrants talked about encounters in the work place based on the assumption that their ‘foreign’ education and training were inferior. But even when one’s education is not ‘foreign’ there may be negative slights, as when a U.S. trained Caribbean-born nurse was told, “Oh, so you are an RN. I heard that school is really hard”, which was interpreted by the informant as a lack of confidence in her ability as a member of a particular group.

The question “Where are you from” followed by “I hear an accent” is all-too familiar to immigrants.  The stimulus for such a query is usually based on one’s speech pattern or linguistic attributes that appear to be different or ‘foreign’. Indeed it is reasonable to assume that the question emerges merely out of inquisitiveness and not any xenophobic thoughts. Yet for some immigrants it could be disarming. One interviewee stated that his response is to point out that everyone inherently has an accent peculiar to her or his place of birth. Socio-linguistic influences also account for speech patterns.

Another immigrant explained that what the questioner usually means is that the individual has a “foreign”or “non-American” accent. She also ponders the possibility that her response may be used by the inquiring individual to gauge the parameters of the encounter (professional or otherwise) that follows. Notably, Taiye Selasi (2018) suggests that the question “Where are you from” is often code for “What are you doing here”? Some respondents reported that they have been told, “You are so well spoken”, while another said that she has overheard reference to her as being “pretty for a black girl”. Sometimes an entire nation is slighted. For example, a young woman visiting her home country in the Caribbean was promptly informed by her accompanying American friend, “these people drive on the wrong side of the road”.

Indeed, this phenomenon and its ramifications are not unique to English-speaking Caribbean immigrants. A newly arrived Spanish-speaking immigrant commented on the impatience demonstrated with newcomers to North America when they are asked, “why don’t you learn or speak English”?  Speaking (perfect) English is assumed to be a sign of intelligence, a belief that may be used to victimize, exploit or denigrate immigrants. The irony is that many immigrants are multi-lingual.  A respondent stated that although he “loves America”, he is baffled when he hears the comment, “this is like a third world country” specifically referring to U.S. communities in the aftermath of a natural or man-made disaster, which deleteriously characterizes developing nations as being in a state of perpetual devastation.

One respondent stated that he has been on “both sides” of micro-aggression, which also occurs within groups. For example, a Caribbean immigrant visiting his home country presumes that locals are doing chores/business in an unsophisticated or inefficient manner may say, “this is how we do it in New York”. The underlying message: “You people are backward”.

Coping with micro-aggression

Particularly with the trends that have emerged from the recent immigration debate, awareness of these interpersonal and social invectives is important.Perhaps the first step in dealing with it effectively by both the perpetrator and victim is to acknowledge its existence and understand that it could be harmful.

Immigrants should (1) Use it as an opportunity to inform others and dispel misunderstandings. (2) Try not to perpetuate a stereotype by becoming angry at slights (3) Maintain a sense of dignity and respect (4) Not assume that all slights or awkward communication styles/moments are intentional (5)  Discuss the experience of micro-aggression with others (6) Refrain from invalidating one’s own or other cultural traditions and practices.


At a time when there is resurgence in conservative populism and media scrutiny of immigration issues and race relations, this article highlights a seldom discussed aspect of the immigrant experience.  The agency (power) of immigrants is often undervalued, underscored by subtle verbal and attitudinal biased messages. Micro-aggression is a sociolinguistic manifestation of power relationships, which include language intimidation. Immigrants are cultural ambassadors who bridge the gap between nations and bring valuable human capital. They prefer the convention of a mutually respectful and productive relationship with the host society, rather than one that makes them feel underprivileged, insecure and vulnerable. To this end, exploring the nuances inherent in the experience of micro-aggression can be instrumental in recognizing it and affirming a call to be vigilant of its cumulative effect.

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  • Rosaliene Bacchus  On 05/13/2018 at 3:32 pm

    Excellent perspective from Lear Matthews. Micro-aggression comes in all forms and from unexpected sources. With each new blow – and they keep on coming – I feel the pain, steady myself, analyze and record the lesson learned, and move forward. Stronger and wiser.

    We-humans know not that we know not.

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