Eleven years ago, I sat in the office of a pediatric specialist, seeking expert advice for a health problem my child was experiencing. On the examining table was one daughter – the 9-year-old patient – feeling apprehensive and overwhelmed. On my lap was my other daughter – a squirming, overtired, 8-month-old infant. My two daughters and I had languished in the waiting room for over an hour and then had spent another 20 minutes in the exam room before the doctor actually made an appearance. Finally he entered and began to explain his opinion on my elder daughter’s test results. I was trying my best to listen carefully and take notes with one hand while clutching a whimpering baby with the other. I soothed and shushed her, but the exhausted child was unconsolable. The doctor, a middle-aged white man, was clearly annoyed by the interruptions. He suddenly stopped mid-sentence. “It’s too bad you couldn’t have left her at home,” he said testily, “but I know men in your culture don’t like to babysit.”
I was so shocked by his Islamophobic statement that I just stared at him for a moment, my mouth agape. Did he really just say what I think he said? Could a pediatrician whose literal job was to treat sick, frightened, and upset children actually have so little patience with a whimpering baby?! Did this man – who knew absolutely nothing about me or my family – really make such an unfounded, negative generalization about men of “my culture?!” What, exactly, did he think “my culture” was? I was born and raised in Missouri and I am white, but clearly he was not referring to my Midwestern, white, or American culture. No, it was obvious that he was making assumptions based on my hijab. He was implying that Muslim men in general don’t take care of their children, that they are unsupportive and chauvinistic. In the doctor’s egotistical mind, the unhelpful men of “my culture” kept important men like him from speaking without interruption. I was so surprised and upset that I could hardly articulate a response.
In retrospect, I wish I had prepared myself to deal effectively with this kind of situation. Had I been more savvy, I could have said something to make that doctor realize how inappropriate, unprofessional, unfounded, and bigoted his comment was. With a well-articulated response, perhaps I could have made him question his prejudices, realize his rudeness, and make better decisions in the future. As a white woman, however, I was not used to receiving microaggressions; the privilege of my skin color had protected me from harassment for most of my life. In the years before I wore a headscarf, I never encountered bigotry based on the way I looked. So when microaggressions started coming my way, I was shocked and unprepared. In response to that doctor, I was so flustered that I merely explained that my husband was working, and that my baby was with me because she exclusively breastfed – justifications that I did not owe him, that made me look apologetic and defensive, and that only made his statement seem valid and acceptable. That incident happened over a decade ago, but it is still fresh in my memory and still triggers my anger and shame.
That is the insidiousness of microaggressions – they may seem like petty, absurd statements that are best ignored, but they often make a lasting, harmful impression.
What are microaggressions?
According to the National Equity Project, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”1
Muslims – especially ones who are “visibly Muslim” in their way of dressing – frequently experience microaggressions. Islamophobia comes in many forms, and one of the most common is negative messages meant to ostracize or demean us. Oftentimes the microaggressions are embedded in condescending questions: “Does your husband make you wear that scarf?” “Are you bald under your hijab?” “Will your daughter have to dress like that when she grows up?” “Where are you really from?”
While some people might advise us to ignore hurtful comments or to accept them as an inevitable consequence of being an outlier and a minority, microaggressions are not so easily dismissed. Experiments show they actually take a serious, measurable toll on a person’s physical and mental health.
How do microaggressions affect our health?
According to Medical News Today, “When a person experiences stress, it can lead to physiological responses, including elevated blood pressure, increased heart rate, and the secretion of certain hormones, such as cortisol. Discrimination is a social stressor and it acts on the body in the same way.”2 Those physiological responses can lead to serious health problems like hypertension and cardiovascular disease. And it’s not just our bodies that suffer.
“Among the better-understood impacts of microaggressions are those on mental health,” reports Medical News Today. “A 2015 investigation into the relationship between microaggressions and suicidal thoughts focused on 405 students from racial and ethnic minorities at a large midwestern university. Participants scored the frequency with which they encountered different types of microaggressions alongside answering questions on their mental well-being. The trend in the data showed that the more often the students experienced microaggressions, the higher the incidence of suicidal ideation for four out of their six categories of microaggressions. This corroborated the findings of a study from the previous year across a dataset of 506 adults from various racial groups, which found that higher frequencies of racial microaggressions were a significant predictor of negative mental health amongst the participants, in particular depressive symptoms, anxiety, negative view of the world, and lack of behavioral control.”3
What’s the best way to respond to microaggressions?
Knowing what I do now, how could I have handled that situation at the doctor’s office differently? When we are blindsided by an ignorant, discriminatory, or hurtful comment, here is a summary of some strategies we can use.4
- Take care of yourself. Pause, breathe deeply, and try to control your emotions. If you are not able to address the situation calmly at that moment, privately commit to doing so in the future, perhaps by writing a letter or bringing up the conversation on another day.
- Clarify what was said. Perhaps you misunderstood. “I think I heard you say . . . Is that right?”
- Focus on the person’s exact actions or words, rather than judging who they are as a person. Accusations or judgment will likely make them defensive, and defensive people usually aren’t open to learning new perspectives.
- Solicit more information. “Can you explain what you mean by
- Share the impact it had on you. “When I hear things like that, I feel
- Share your own experiences of saying or doing things that had an unintended impact. “I am saying this because I’ve had similar experiences - “I used to think / say
- When relevant, challenge any stereotype that the person used or implied. “Actually, in my experience
- Acknowledge the feelings the person may be having and express some empathy. “It seems like you’re feeling frustrated about
- When possible, appeal to their core values. “I know you are someone who cares a lot about
- Consider connecting them to people and/or resources that may shift their perspective. “Have you spoken to
Empowering ourselves to confront microaggressions can give us more confidence and reduce our stress. Although I am still usually surprised and upset by people’s insensitive comments, I now feel more prepared to address them. It is certainly a challenge to control our emotions at a time when we are facing microaggressions, but the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, offered advice to his Ummah. Sulayman Ibn Sard narrated:
“I was sitting with the Prophet and the two men were slandering one another. One of them was red in the face, and the veins of his neck were standing out. The Prophet said: ‘I know a word, if he were to say it, what he feels would go away - seek refuge with Allah from shaytaan - what he feels (anger) would go away.’”
(Al-Bukhari, Book 054, Hadith 3502)
The messenger of Allah also said:
“The strong man is not the one who can overpower others (in wrestling), rather, the strong man is the one who controls himself when he gets angry.”
Laura El Alam is a first-generation American Muslim and the author of over 100 published articles. She has written a children’s book, Made From the Same Dough, due to be released in 2023. You can visit her online at www.seaglasswritingandediting.com.