What has been your personal experience with microaggressions?
As a first-generation American — my parents are Colombian and immigrated here in the 1970s and ’80s, and I was born and raised in New York City — I’ve had to deal with a slew of microaggressions. It wasn’t until I was older when I realized what they were. For example, when I was in graduate school, I was one of the students who had to work while going to school. But I was told that my priorities weren’t correct and that I should quit my job even though I couldn’t afford to quit my job, because if I did, I wouldn’t have a way to eat, ride the subway, or pay for the roof over my head.
Other times, I was told that I spoke very eloquently or wrote very clearly. When people meet me for the first time, I’m often asked, “Are you from the U.S.?” or “Where were you born?” Again, there is a lot of insinuation and bias in those types of comments.
How can comments like that impact a person’s mental health?
When someone is confronted with a microaggression, whether it’s subtle, systemic, verbal, or nonverbal, essentially what they’re hearing is that they don’t belong. That something about them based on their race, gender, class, or immigration status is not accepted or “wrong.”
For young people who might not have anyone to talk to about this, it’s even more serious. These microaggressions can get internalized and impact their sense of motivation, their sense of confidence, and their overall well-being. In our child and adolescent psychiatry division at NewYork-Presbyterian Morgan Stanley Children’s Hospital, 70% of our patients identify as Latinx or Hispanic. Part of my work is helping them process these experiences and helping them understand that they’re not wrong to feel the way they feel and to validate that experience for them.
How do younger and older generations in the Latinx community respond to these microaggressions?
There is a big difference generationally. Younger Latinx and Hispanic individuals tend to be much more aware of microaggressions and are quicker to address them. They have more access to education, they understand what microaggressions are, and they are advocating for themselves and speaking up when something isn’t OK. They are more likely to have these conversations with friends, with family, and with co-workers, which is great.
The older generation sometimes struggles to see these microaggressions or to speak up when they are experiencing them. A lot of that has to do with the sociopolitical context of those generations: They were often immigrants who fled countries where they were being persecuted — facing prejudice, racism, and colonialism — and then entered a country where those things continued to exist for them. Because of this, many older people do not address these issues because they may not feel safe enough to do so. For them, that’s their survival mechanism.
To that end, how can we help and be better allies for the Latinx and Hispanic communities?
It comes down to advocacy. These communities are often overlooked and aren’t given the time and effort needed to take down these barriers and health disparities. But there are concrete steps that can build allyships and open the lines of communication to build relationships with these communities. That can mean holding town halls in certain communities and schools to address vaccination concerns, how to navigate the educational system for back-to-school season during a pandemic, and linking families with resources to address their psychosocial needs; a doctor saying, “I’m going to take an extra 20 minutes with this patient to really make sure that I’m answering all their questions and concerns”; having patient intake forms in that person’s language; turning to someone who is seeking help and asking, “How can I support you?” How can we problem-solve and make sure that this person gets the care that they need?
Yes, it’s uncomfortable to witness and acknowledge when discrimination happens. But it’s about not looking the other way when you see a microaggression taking place. That is how you can be an ally in this work.