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Research shows small insults have large impact

headshot of Brea Banks

Brea Banks

The term “micro” means extremely small. Microchemistry deals with compounds less than a milligram. Microbiology drives down to a cellular level. Microaggressions are small insults. The impact of continued exposure to microaggressions, however, can be anything but small.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Brea Banks researches the impact of microaggressions on an individual’s ability to learn. “There is a toll on cognition, or the ability to process thoughts and ideas,” said Banks, who noted microaggressions are dangerous, because of their subtlety.

“Microaggressions are things that individuals do and say–environmental cues—expressing to people that they are not valued, or that their opinion does not count,” said Banks. “The speaking or acting individual usually doesn’t think anything of it. They can be trying to strike up a conversation, or even trying to give a compliment. But for the person receiving it, it doesn’t land so well.”

Comments included phrases like, “You’re pretty for a black girl.” It almost sounds like a compliment, but it comes across as black people do not possess the white standard of beauty. — Brea Banks

Banks studies racial microaggressions. In a recent laboratory study, she enlisted white, female graduate students to engage black, female students in conversations, some of which were laced with microaggressions.

“Comments included phrases like, ‘You’re pretty for a black girl,’” said Banks. “It almost sounds like a compliment, but it comes across as black people do not possess the white standard of beauty. This person, however, actually meets those Western standards, so therefore, she is pretty because she does not have those traditional, black qualities.”

Another phrase peppered into the conversation included, “You girls do so many crazy things with your hair. I can only wear mine straight.” Banks noted phrases like this activate the racial stereotype that straight hair is normal and professional, but that black women’s natural hair is different, exotic, or crazy. “They also asked questions like, ‘Are you from Chicago?’” said Banks. “It’s a simple question, very conversational, but it makes an assumption because she is black, she is from the inner city of Chicago.”

Banks earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and philosophy, and a Ph.D. in school psychology at Illinois State University. She spent time at Colorado State University as a staff psychologist and worked with the university’s diversity offices. It was there she worked directly with many students struggling to dismiss repeated exposure to microaggressions. “Students would express that people told them to toughen up, and not take it personally,” said Banks. “And students may be tough, but that does not mean they are not being impacted in a negative way because of these interpersonal insults.”

For her research, Banks had students take a Stroop Test before and after the conversations. The simple test demands subjects say the color of a word. If the word is red, but written in blue, the correct response is blue. Each time students took part in conversations with microaggressions, their test score slipped, while students in the conversation without microaggressions remained the same or improved. “We should be worried about how repeated exposure to microaggressions impacts how students perform cognitively,” said Banks. “If you punch someone in the same spot so many times, eventually, there’s going to be a negative effect. It may bruise initially, but the consequences would be more severe after repeated abuse.”

Banks hopes the studies will assist teachers and faculty to offer more support in the classroom. “The initial reaction can be to minimize,” she said, noting instructors might try to de-escalate tensions by saying the microaggression was “not meant that way” or unintentional. Students, however, come away feeling their voice or opinions are not important, or unworthy of discussion.

For the next phase in the study, Banks hopes to explore the intersectional nature of microaggressions and the impacts on children and adolescents.

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