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MyView: The disease of microaggressions

February 03, 2021

By Brian Shue, D.D.S.

A person of color walks down a quiet street in a suburb. A passing car slows down to a crawl. The driver glares, shouts something unintelligible, then drives off. Was it a racial slur?

Or how about this? A person reads an article about COVID-19 in a respected journal which begins with the words: “The Chinese Coronavirus COVID-19…” Was that appropriate?

Photo of Dr. Shue
Dr. Shue
Those are true stories. Unfortunately, examples like those are becoming more common in the U.S. because of heightened racial tensions. After a white police officer killed a Black man named George Floyd, our country’s beliefs and actions have been challenged.
Yet some types of racism are subtle. As the impact of the coronavirus is felt by our country, there are increased incidences of anger blaming Americans of Asian descent for causing COVID-19.1

The World Health Organization created best practices on naming new diseases to avoid stigma and any possible negative impact to any groups or areas of society. Disease names such as swine flu or even Legionnaires’ Disease would not be permitted today.

So it is inexcusable when a news commentator or public figures refer to the COVID-19 disease as “Kung Flu.” Additionally, COVID-19 is caused by the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2, not “China virus” or “Chinese coronavirus.” That is racially insensitive. And it personally insults me.

The use of racially insensitive words is a form of “racial microaggression.”

Microaggressions have been defined as commonplace verbal indignities. They are intentional or unintentional, hostile, derogatory insults that target a person.2

Microaggressions reduce inclusion. They increase divisiveness. They reinforce bias and prejudices. They decrease empathy. And they are deceptive and insidious. Exposure to microaggressions leads to more than just feeling slighted. It has been shown to lead to exhaustion and decreased mental, emotional and physical well-being. Microaggression can be directed at any marginalized group, based on color, sex, religion or other characteristics. It’s not just about race. It’s about all of us.

Microaggressions are detrimental to providing health care. And they are pervasive. One study found microaggressions were seen or experienced by a majority of first-year medical and dental students. Picture this scenario: a female dentist walks into an operatory. The patient declares, “You’re too young to be a doctor. I want a real doctor who knows what they’re doing. I want a doctor — who can speak English.” These are examples of an intentional microaggression.

Microaggressions can affect our dental practices. A study showed patients who experienced microaggressions from their medical provider had poorer compliance, more missed appointments and poorer health outcomes.

We must do our best to send the right messages in our practices and in our professional lives to our patients. And to our peers. It is our responsibility to treat all our patients respectfully. We must communicate with our patients without judgment or our own negative personal bias. Sue, et al, states it is important to first understand one’s own racial identity in our society. Then look at one’s opinions about other racial groups. That can lead to recognizing one’s own prejudices and biases. One needs to recognize microaggressions exist. Then look at how these can impact patients. And then do what is possible to correct one’s own actions.2

Full disclosure: I am Chinese American. And the true stories mentioned above? Those involved me. I was that person walking in my neighborhood. Did I confront that driver? No. And the person that read the offensive editorial? That was also me. I contacted the writer who used the racially insensitive wording. We had an open and honest discussion. The writer said there was no intention to offend and would have removed it if the writer knew it was hurtful.

That is a signature characteristic of a microaggression. The organization immediately retracted the article from the publication. Writing about this subject even made me recall events that I have not thought about for decades.    

Microaggressions, especially noticeable during this pandemic, can have negative effects. We need to be self-aware of our personal biases. They should not be allowed to affect our ability to provide the best dental care possible to vulnerable populations. This can greatly affect our standing in our communities and the success of our practices. Understanding microaggressions and recognizing they exist in our everyday interactions is a first step.

Dr. Shue is the associate editor for the Journal of the California Dental Association and the president of the American Association of Dental Editors and Journalists.

Reprinted with permission from the California Dental Association, copyright November 2020.

1 Castaneda L. Hundreds of anti-Asian American hate incidents reported in California during pandemic. The Mercury News. July 2, 2020;
2 Sue DW, Capodilupo CM, Torino GC, et al. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. Am Psychol. 2007;62(4):271-286.