Words that weigh heavily

How mircoaggressions divide and alienate people

Harbir Kaur, a young Sikh-Canadian woman, proudly wears a dastar – headwear in Sikhi, an article of faith representing honour, self-respect, courage, spirituality, and piety. Commonly worn by the Khalsa Sikh men and women that decide to keep the Five Ks – Kesh (uncut hair), Kangha (hair comb), Kara (a bracelet that is traditionally made from iron or steel), Kachera (undergarment), Kirpan (small curved sword) – wear the turban partly to cover their long, uncut hair (kesh). 

Kaur is not a stranger to answering questions about her decision to wear a dastar, which she is happy to answer, but finds it difficult to keep her composure when a thinly veiled insult is at the cusp of the question. 

“I’ve literally had someone say to me. ‘Oh, I feel like you’d look better without it.’”

Microaggression, although subtle, profoundly affects how certain groups view themselves. Some individuals are quick to bounce back from this behaviour with quick jabs of their own, while others reclaim the phrase and remove the wicked power behind the words as a whole. 

Microaggressions are comments, actions or verbal interactions that disparage members of marginalized groups, sometimes unintentional, other times with the intent to demean. 

“Microaggressions, when they’re enacted on an individual there is always an agenda to minimize that individual’s status, whether or not to make sure that they’re demeaned or to make sure they’re not a part of a conversation,” says writer Teresa Maillie an expert on the history of gender and sexuality in Canadian society. “It’s exclusionary practice, can be anything from an individual to an individual or even an organization to an individual.” 

Microaggression phrases are present in daily life for anyone who comes from a marginalized or equity-deserving group. Its effects are far-reaching, targeting people such as racialized minorities, LGBTQ+ communities, females, senior citizens and any other group that experiences discrimination and exclusion. 


Dr. Sylvie Roi is the Associate Dean of Research at Werklund School of Education at the University of Calgary who specializes in language and literacy.

Roi believes numerous individuals have been shaped unknowingly by the movies they watch. She believes that because the representation of people of colour (POC) in Hollywood or western films is so limited that watchers can confuse it with reality. Roi points to the TV series, Grey’s Anatomy, as an example of how perceptions are affected.

University of Calgary professor, Sylvie Roi. Photo suppiled

“The thing about Grey’s Anatomy, is everybody’s pretty. The other day I was looking at [my] doctor… How come our doctors are not pretty like them?” 

Consequently, situations like this can influence expectations and cultural norms that can often lead to backhanded compliments like, ‘You’re so pretty for…” then making reference to a particular race which, in turn, suggests that the people referenced to are not perceived as attractive. External influences, like a glamourized TV series, can strongly shape perceptions that become deeply embedded in society which can make microaggressions common in certain cultures. 

 “That’s so gay?” is a common phrase spoken among the younger group, that’s used to describe something negatively. However, as suggested by Roi, different cultures also have different views on things. Roi is originally from Quebec and is fluent in French. She says the word “gay” in French [and English] is also lingo for “happy.” 

“I went to Spain and my colleague teaches French to the Spanish speakers, and she told them I am gay because it means I am happy,” says Roi. “I was thinking, ‘Oh, that’s interesting.  Because if she teaches this here in Canada, I am gay will be different.’”

This word, like many others, can have different meanings, depending on the time and place you are. It’s important to understand the possible history a word can carry. Maillie takes us back to the 1990s and Calgary’s not so vibrant past when “Ooh, that’s really gay” as a negative connotation really took off.

“We had a huge backlash, especially in Calgary, against the changes and development of queer rights in this city and in this province. We [the LGBTQ+ community] had a lot of negative press, a lot of pushback, lateral violence and a lot of actual violence going on in the city. And I didn’t hear that term until the 1990s, I’m sure it existed before that,” says Maillie.

When the phrase started to gain traction in the 1990s it was to imply negativity towards boys. 

“It’s a diminishing of male homosexuality, of male gayness, and that’s when I usually heard it being used. It’s to affirm that somebody is very effeminate or that somebody is not masculine,” says Maillie. 

“The word gay has a lot of connotation, a lot of history, a lot of other things connected to it that hurt people,” says Roi. Despite the timeline of pain that word carries, it is still frequently uttered amongst certain groups of people. 

Roi believes this is due to the fact that “gay” has become standardized. “In social linguistics, when something like that happens, it is because someone who had a kind of power started it. And people gravitate around that power and decide to use it too,” says Roi.

“That’s so gay,” along with “queer” and “fag” are a few of the many microaggression phrases that are being reclaimed by the LGTBQ+ community. 

“You need a community to reclaim a word,” says Roi. 

To reclaim a word, you are taking the power back for yourself by reframing it in a different context. 

“People are now turning to each other and going, ‘Yep, I am. I’m so gay. I am flaming. I am absolutely just so queer and gay and that’s just what you’re gonna have to live with.’ It’s taking the sting out of microaggression,” says Maillie.

Photo: Harsimran Chahal

Maillie strongly believes that the first step to reclaiming a microaggression phrase is being okay with yourself.

“Once you start feeling safe in your own skin, then other people will also follow suit, because they realize that they can’t diminish you by a microaggression,” says Maillie.

However, reclaiming a phrase does not mean you are not affected. Even a simple question like, “What’s your name?” can cause anxiety amongst individuals with unique or non-western names due to the countless experiences with racism, microaggression and conflict that arise because they are othered due to their name. 

“It’s hard for me to say your name, you should go by a nickname,” is a familiar phrase Kaur hears.   

Roi describes names as a representation of who people are. “It’s part of identity, and you want to stay yourself, you don’t want others to decide to change your name. Imagine someone comes and says, ‘I will change your name because I cannot pronounce it.’ No, that’s not your choice. It’s my identity, my way of doing my things.”

Roi urges individuals faced with this choice to oppose it and say, “No, that’s my name. Learn it.”

Like many other POC, Kaur finds it difficult to feel truly accepted when she is constantly reminded that because of her ethnicity she will be alienated with questions like, “Where are you actually from?” When she replies that it’s Calgary, her sense of belonging is always challenged. 

“You have no accent that helps me understand you,” says Kaur explaining how people are confused about her ethnic background. “Every other day, people are always asking me where I’m from. If I say I’m from Canada, they get kind of shocked.” 

Kaur struggles to not feel different, these phrases are a constant reminder that others don’t perceive her as the same.

“I kind of just internally carry that feeling around of like, I’m not the same as my other colleagues.”

People may say things that hurt people, or individuals may not even be conscious of it. But, as a sociolinguistic, Roi understands the power of reflection and intercultural communication — the verbal and nonverbal interaction between people from different cultural backgrounds. It is a symbolic, interpretive, transactional, contextual process in which people from different cultures create shared meanings.

Roi says that at times individuals can say things to people from different cultures in which they don’t understand the weight of their words and the possible hurt and exclusion the words can carry. Roi says when this happens “just [focus] on their reaction… maybe that wasn’t appropriate” and ask yourself, “What should I do next?”

Once people who commit microaggressions are willing to internally acknowledge that your words or actions are harmful, Roi then says the first step to correcting your own mistakes is to understand why it is wrong and how they can ask the right way. 

This also applies to those on whom the microaggression phrases are enacted. Don’t be afraid to say: “The way you asked the question hurt me. What about if you ask me the question this way, instead?”

Addressing the use of microaggression phrases is not about being “politically correct,” rather it is about respecting the boundaries, acknowledging and biases of others, and educating ourselves and knowing when we are wrong.