After moving from India to New York City for grad school in 2018 the only aspect of American life that surprised me was how racial segregation suffused every borough. Navigating NYC as a clueless foreigner was overwhelming. A dating app connected me with an incredible Black woman who became my first friend in the city. We spoke at length about our dating experiences as non-white women. Out of curiosity, I asked her if she might consider dating a white man again after an unpleasant experience. She immediately said ‘no.’
“I just can’t put up with all the microaggressions,” she told me.
Unintentional, but Insidious
Microaggressions are daily verbal and non-verbal snubs or actions—intentional or unintentional—directed at individuals of marginalized groups. Although subtle, their effects have been described as “death by a thousand cuts.” And for good reason. Researchers say racial microaggressions can lead to trauma and depression in their targets.
As a science journalist, I researched the impacts of racial microaggressions from an academic point of view, but my friend’s answer still confused me. I only fully understood what she meant during my first interracial relationship in late 2018.
I was dating a kind and intelligent man from Austria—let’s call him Alex. We bonded over our shared interests in neuroscience and climate change. But a few months into the relationship, I realized relationships don’t exist in a vacuum. During some of our dinner dates, waitstaff would blatantly ignore me, and I could see white customers getting their orders before me, even though I had arrived and ordered ahead of them.
When I’d bring this to Alex’s attention, he would say the waiters were just busy. This would make my blood boil—not just at the waitstaff but at Alex—and for good reason.
Bearing the Brunt Alone
There are three pervasive types of racial microaggression: micro-invalidations, micro-insults, and micro-assaults. I later recognized Alex as just as much a problem.
Feelings of anger and resentment toward my now ex-boyfriend intensified as he repeatedly left me to fend for myself in hostile public spaces. In those instances, I faced the racial microaggression variant called “micro-invalidation.” Kevin Nadal, a counseling psychologist at City University of New York’s John Jay College of Criminal Justice, writes micro-invalidations are statements that tend to “deny, negate, or undermine a person of color’s racial realities.”
Shaina Singh, a psychotherapist and dating coach based in Texas, offered her own take, explaining in an email that micro aggressive acts typically force BIPOC victims to single-handedly carry the burden of “educating” the aggressor and speaking up against abuse in public settings. For some, this feels like having a spotlight suddenly click on overhead.
When I asked Alex to speak up for me, he’d say his social anxiety made him uncomfortable taking a stand. I swept the incidents under the rug because I didn’t know how to handle something so insidious. But Singh said, “White people expect BIPOC individuals to carry the burden of ‘educating’ others and speaking up on issues that directly impact them. In this case, it is speaking up against microaggressions that show up in the public setting.”
“Having social anxiety and feeling uncomfortable are excuses I often hear from others when asked why they do not speak up around racial issues," Singh explains. “Another excuse or justification I have also heard is when a white person claims they have trauma of their own and don’t have it in them to speak up. It’s critical in interracial relationships that the partner with racial privilege knows enough about racism to recognize microaggressions when they happen.”
"... he never successfully recognized his own microaggressions."
“A partnership with a secure attachment and a powerful bond will have conversations around speaking up, showing up, and being able to sit with discomfort,” Singh adds. And the partner with privilege needs to be able to acknowledge the pain they inflict when they dump the burden of self-defense on their friend.
Alex and I were in a monogamous relationship for nine months, and we had countless conversations about racism and inequalities. Yet he never successfully recognized his own microaggressions.
Deceptively Casual: Micro-assaults and Micro-insults
One evening, while we were walking in the park, I told Alex how the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) raids and arrests were becoming increasingly common in 2019. He joked I shouldn't worry myself with ICE because I “came to the U.S. legally, right?”
This type of microaggression is known as a micro-assault, and psychologists say it’s typically couched in humor. Someone makes an offensive joke or comment and then assures they’re “only joking,” as a way of denying prejudice or flaunting their privilege.
It was hard for me to cope with the anger of being at the receiving end of this. I knew Alex was a genuinely good person who cared about me, but his determined obliviousness drove a wedge between us.
A few months after we broke up, another white American man I dated insisted I meet his parents. Barely an hour after meeting his mother and discussing my work as a New York journalist, she told me—in a tone dripping with condescension—how surprised she was I could speak “good English.”
This ... is a micro-insult. It’s often disguised as a compliment, but Nadal confirms this brand of back-handed praise is discriminatory by implying the target is not well-spoken. When I told my date about it, he looked embarrassed and dismissed his mom’s behavior as harmless ignorance rather than recognizing my injury.
However, acknowledgement and validation is essential to intercepting microaggressions and repairing the damage. And It’s crucial for preserving any relationship with socioeconomic, cultural, and family differences.
Confronting the Power Imbalance
Rana Khan, a marriage and family psychotherapist based in Canada, explains that to manage conflicts arising from two people in an interracial relationship living different realities, it is essential to first establish similarities. “Establishing similarities to me is like warming up the seat, you become less guarded and you feel comfortable to tackle the larger concern - the differences,” Khan writes in an email.
Khan states that he often encourages intercultural/interracial couples to talk about what it means to have a sense of belonging. “That also includes having in-depth conversations about feeling left out and experiencing shame for who you are and how others might perceive you.”
“Validating those feelings and experiences can be as simple as saying, ‘"That sounds hard.’ The beauty of validation is that it involves listening and imagining what it must be like to be in their shoes," Khan says. “And if you cannot imagine, then be real and say, ‘I have no idea what that must be like for you.’ If two people — irrespective of their differences — can come together, it can be a very unique and connective experience.”
But persistent lack of action from the privileged party can end the relationship, and Singh says it probably should. “It is important for people in interracial relationships to pay close attention to intent and impact and assess if their partner changes after they are given feedback. If your partner refuses to grow, evolve, and continues to hurt you, then it’s time to call it what it is.”
I learned this the hard way.
Anuradha Varanasi is a freelance science journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has written for Popular Science, UnDark, Inverse, Atlas Obscura, and more.