Beware of Microaggressions Through Microinvalidations
Backhanded compliments are just as damaging as more overt forms of bias
Recently on LinkedIn, I stumbled upon a post that praised Prince Joel and Princess Ariana Makonnen of Ethiopia. Prince Joel is an HBCU graduate, attorney, and businessman (and he speaks five languages!), and Princess Ariana is a Harvard-educated writer and philanthropist — true representations of Black excellence. It was empowering to see their successes highlighted, especially at a time when many stories about the Black community are decidedly less hopeful.
But this moment of uplift didn’t last long.
“Let’s hope they do something for the population of Ethiopia who suffers recurrent famine and dies of starvation and needs help from the rest of the world,” wrote Laura Varela, an AP Biology teacher and adjunct professor.
Her comment was disheartening but not surprising. I’d seen this exact scenario play out so many times before. A Black person is heralded for an achievement, and a non-Black person swoops in to minimize them, often under the guise of advocating for an important cause, just like Ms. Varela.
This isn’t to say that she’s not entitled to express her concerns about the welfare of the Ethiopian people. But is this celebratory post the appropriate venue to air them? And would she take the same action if, instead of Prince Joel and Princess Ariana, this were a photo of Prince William and Kate Middleton? Would she feel compelled to point out that they preside over a nation where more than 4.5 million people live in deep poverty?
Most likely not.
That’s because comments like these aren’t altruistic in the least bit. They’re microaggressions through microinvalidations.
What are microaggressions through microinvalidations?
On their own, microinvalidations are any piece of communication that excludes or discounts the BIPOC community’s lived experience (e.g., their feelings, identity, mistreatment in the workplace, etc.). But microaggressions via microinvalidations are more targeted and used specifically to undermine accomplishments.
For example, a young Black man saves a child from being kidnapped, but detractors point out that he’s on probation for a past crime. Or, a rapper like Jay-Z becomes a billionaire and revered businessman, but conservative pundits continuously point to his drug-dealing past.
Microaggressions through microinvalidations serve as yet another way to “other” people of color, to negate our successes and disqualify us rather than give us our due respect. They’re a weapon wielded to fight against diversity and inclusion, and they reinforce harmful biases around the success of minorities. They suggest that no matter how many times we prove ourselves, we will never be good enough.
Furthermore, they’re a way for people of privilege to cling to their power a little bit longer. If they undercut a person of color’s progress, they can maintain the status quo and keep the systems of oppression firmly in place.
But sadly, people within BIPOC communities use microaggressions through microinvalidations on each other, too.
This happens mainly through “compare and contrast” analyses, which are meant to elevate certain figures but do so at the expense of others. Take for instance an op-ed from Urbane Education Alterations. Author Paul Miller pits Cicely Tyson against Megan Thee Stallion, arguing that we need more of Cicely’s regal, upstanding Black femininity and less of Megan’s brash sexuality.
This is the ultimate backhanded compliment.
At first glance, it seems like a tribute of sorts to Cicely Tyson. However, why must Cicely’s achievements be viewed as honorable in comparison to Megan’s, when they’re amazing in their own right? And why must Megan — now a Grammy-winning, chart-topping artist — conform to win anyone’s approval?
Pitting one Black person against another gets us nowhere and sends a message that there’s limited room at the top. Like the non-Black people who use microaggressions through microinvalidations to guard their societal positioning, these Black people are reinforcing the systems of oppression, while believing their work is necessary to “lift up” Black communities.
No one wins with this approach, and we all end up invalidated.
The right way to raise “concerns”
In the end, microaggressions via microinvalidations accomplish one goal and one goal only — they broadcast the offender’s insecurities. Their inability to recognize another person’s achievement reveals their full bias, regardless of how subtle their comments may be.
The best way to share these “concerns” — about the state of a people, a hero’s criminal background, a billionaire’s past mistakes — is to open the discussion somewhere else, not in the comments section of a celebratory post. Write a new thread, ask questions, encourage open dialogue, and do so from a place of curiosity and humility.
Or better yet, #SitThisOneOut