For most of human history, we have had no words to describe the seemingly small statements and actions that indirectly and subtly insult people based on race or other aspects of identity. During the 1970s, Dr. Chester M. Pierce proposed the term microaggression to describe these statements and actions, but the concept failed to spread. Only in recent years has the word spread amongst the mainstream, and still, there are many who resist believing in the term’s significance for those who are perceived as minority. I, personally, have seen the term microaggression placed in quotes by those mocking the reality of racial minority individuals’ experience. I have heard others balk at the term. Nevertheless, there are very real health impacts that microaggressions have on the recipients of racial bias. In fact, scientific studies have shown a statistically significant relationship between being on the receiving end of microaggressions and biological aging. The more someone experiences microaggressions, the older their bodies become. And the more likely they are to die earlier.
In order to understand the relationship between microaggressions and biological aging, one must first understand what telomeres are. Telomeres are like special caps at the end of one’s chromosomes, the threadlike material that houses our genes. Every time our cells replicate, these telomeres get shorter. Hence, everybody’s telomeres eventually shorten. This is a normal part of the aging process. However, because telomeres protect our DNA, when telomeres prematurely get shorter, a biological aging process that exceeds our chronological aging process occurs. This creates chronic diseases such as Alzheimer’s, heart disease, diabetes, and eventually death.
Chae et. al. (2017) designed an experiment through which they recruited 92 African American men between the ages of 30 and 50 to test the relationship between the length of their telomeres and their perceived experiences with microaggressions. Various studies already suggested that African Americans had shorter telomeres than their White counterparts at older ages. For instance, Aviv et. al. (2009) had found that African Americans experienced a faster rate of telomere shortening than their White counterparts. Chase et. al. (2017) examined why.
Participants were measured for the amount of implicit bias they had internalized against their own racial group. In order to determine internalized bias, participants were asked to take Harvard’s IAT test for race, an implicit bias test that seeks to examine the internalization of the pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy upon which our society is based. The test, put simply, measures how often participants associate the Black race with good or bad characteristics and how often they associate the white race with the same characteristics. The more they rate good characteristics with a particular race, the more they are biased towards that race. Amazingly, in the general population, 50% of African Americans demonstrate an implicit bias against their own racial group. In the experiment, 35% of participants, all African Americans, demonstrated racial bias against African Americans.
Scientists also evaluated participants’ experience with microaggressions through a questionnaire they called Experiences of Discrimination (EOD). Participants answered questions about their experienes with racial discrimination in nine situations such as gaining employment, when dealing with the criminal justice system, when getting healthcare, and when seeking service at stores and/or restaurants. 93.5% of the participants reported having experienced microaggressions, the most common three situations being in dealing with the criminal justice system, in trying to get a job, and at work.
The study found that after controlling for age, socioeconomics, and health, there was a negative correlation between telomere length and the coupling of internalized bias with experiences of microaggressions. In other words, participants’ telomeres were likely to be shorter if they experienced more microaggressions and suffered from internalized bias against their own racial group.
For us as educators, this study has many implications. First, microaggressions are real and are literally cutting short the lives of minority individuals. Therefore, we must learn to and then, teach others to avoid the ten types of microaggressions. But also, we must help minority students have pride in their own identities as that pride seems to act as a shield against microaggressions since microaggressions only seemed to shorten telomeres for those who had internalized bias against their own racial group. This means that we have to work to counter the messaging sent by society to our minority students. Unfortunately, this is a tall ask and not easy, but our students’ lives are on the line.