Micro-Aggression and the Giving Away of Trust


“Traumatic events are extraordinary, not because they occur rarely, but rather because they overwhelm the ordinary human adaption to life.”

-Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery

My Dear Readers:

What is betrayal?  When is a betrayal not a betrayal?  And why do betrayals result in traumatic impacts in our lives?

Betrayal is the result of disloyalty.  To be betrayed is to be attacked by someone with whom you have shared your vulnerability and to whom you have exposed the psychological self.  Betrayal can be intentional (treacherous) or unintentional (unconsciously or due to ignorance).  For a betrayal to occur, however,  there must be a relationship. If no relationship of any kind exists, there cannot be a betrayal.  As a result, in some cases, what feels like betrayal is not actually what it is.

Regardless of what the act is called, the end result is that someone feels betrayed.  In my piece Ten Flashes of Light in the Journey of Life, one “flash” speaks to understanding betrayal by others or in some situations, the betrayal of the self by the self.

“Respect all, love all, yet remember that trust, is earned, not given away to the undeserving.”

Below is such a story………


Dear Dr. Kane:

I am a physician, and over the years, I have learned not to take insults personally, but I was surprised at the level of anger I experienced regarding a recent incident.

I was having trouble with an old injury I sustained in college, so I sought medical treatment in the hospital I work for.  While responding to questions about my history, the attending physician asked me if I used drugs.  Thinking he was being a wise ass with the question, I said yes, once in a while I take an aspirin.   He replied, “No, I meant street drugs.” I reminded him that I was a physician, just like he was, before I told him no.

As I left his office, I wasn’t just angry, I was furious.   How dare he ask me, a fellow physician, whether I was using street drugs!  I was especially angry at the fact that he actually waited for the answer, and then, had the audacity to be surprised by my reaction!

I feel so betrayed. He is a fellow colleague, a member of the same medical fraternity I’ve sworn myself to.  When I attended medical school, I thought I would be accepted by my peers for my intellect, but I still have to deal with racism, which still lurks below the surface.  In an indirect way, they made it clear that they did not accept me.

I am currently in my residency. I have paid my dues in this profession, yet I am being treated as if I was a street thug.  Had I been white, I’m sure that he would have delivered a higher quality of care.  I feel betrayed, angry, stressed and on edge, waiting to be racially insulted again by another colleague.

This incident occurred several weeks ago, and I still can’t seem to get past it. I have had to deal with racism all of my life, but I thought that once I made it through school, life would be different.  Do you have any suggestions on how to forget this even happened so I can move with my life?

Sizzling in Spokane, WA


Dear Sizzling,

This story is an example of the micro-aggressions that African-Americans and other ethnic minority individuals may face on a daily basis.  Such actions, which constitute group rejection of the individual’s identity, can have long-term impact on the individual’s emotional state, such as trauma and severe psychological wounds.

That being said, we as individuals can benefit from these events by understanding the true nature of what has occurred and what possible role we may have in reinforcing this traumatization.

What we want to do here is to understand the perception of the attending physician, and the basis of that perception, which may be that he is viewing you, a black male, not as an individual and member of the medical profession but rather, through the lens of his own membership of a privileged group, being white and male.

I want to honor your feelings here. You obviously feel disrespected by your white colleague. Such feelings may warrant an emotional response such as anger, the action of betrayal as I have defined it previously is not indicated within this incident.

In order for you to have been betrayed, there must first be a relationship between the two of you. Other than sharing the same gender (male) and profession (medicine), there is no relationship here.  Since there is no relationship, there can be no betrayal.

However, an emotional response due to lack of respect is warranted.  The offending behavior of the white colleague can be attributed to privilege, which can be defined as a specific right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to individuals as a class due to their institutional power.

Privilege in the dominant culture is extended into two areas: male privilege and white privilege.  In male privilege, the institutional power is in relation to gender, i.e. male vs. female.  In white privilege, the institutional power is in belonging to the white racial group, and that power is used in relation to other racial groups.

Every male, regardless of race or ethnic origin, experiences privilege.  Such privilege may be different due to one’s own individual position in the social hierarchy, but every male, simply by being born male in this society, benefits from privilege.  In contrast, being members of the same profession does not automatically confer membership in the group.

In this situation, your error is the assumption that being a member of the same profession means that your colleague will perceive you as being in the same group (and having the same privilege) as he does.  However, his reaction to you shows that this particular privilege cannot be assumed; it must be authorized and validated by members of the group holding the privilege.

The variable that sets the two of you apart, of course, is race.   Your privilege as a black male is limited to the boundaries of the black community;    for your white male colleague, being a member of the dominant societal group, his privilege is limitless and therefore has no boundaries.

One may argue that such questions about illegal drug use are standard during a medical examination.  If this is true, then:

  • Why are you upset at being asked such standardized questions?
  • What courtesies and assumptions do you perceive are granted to your white colleagues that you, as a black male, do not receive?

This may be where you went wrong.  Take some time to accept responsibility for allowing yourself to be emotionally and psychological vulnerable to someone who may not have deserved such openness.

  • You assumed that your colleague does not possess stereotypical assumptions, thoughts or images of black males.
  • You didn’t realize that as a member of a privileged group, the white colleague might have viewed you as a member of a group (black males) stereotypically known for involvement in the usage of street drugs.
  • You assumed that since the two of you share the same profession, that your colleague would be able to view you as an individual, and not subject you to the stereotypes he may harbor of black males as a group.

Feelings of anger, stress and hypervigilance are natural in such situations, but over time, can be emotionally destabilizing.  However, due to a misconception of your relationship with your colleague, this feels like a betrayal to you, even though it doesn’t meet the criteria for betrayal.  So, what is it?

There are two phenomena which appear to be occurring simultaneously.  These are identified as micro-aggression and insidious trauma.

Micro-aggression is a form of insidious trauma.  Micro-aggressive assaults are often described as brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative racial slights and insults towards ethnic minority people.

Insidious trauma arises when there is a culmination of negative experiences affecting members of stigmatized group of actions that are directly traumatic.  Racism operates as a form of insidious trauma by constantly denigrating the value of the lives and intelligence/skills capacities of people of African-American descent and other ethnic and racial backgrounds.

From all appearances, you believe that the actions of your colleague were intentional.  However, even if it was unintentional, does this mitigate or lessen the impact of insidious trauma?

The response is no.  A micro-aggressive assault, regardless of its intent, remains assaultive and the wound it creates is imprinted permanently upon the psyche of the individual who suffered the assault.   It remains the responsibility of the aggressor to step outside of his group privilege to educate himself, especially as he continues to encounter black males.


Concluding Words

This incident occurred several weeks ago and I can’t seem to get past it. 

When we are impacted by psychological attacks, we seek to move past the experience as quickly as possible.  Although this may be a normal human reaction, the actual psychological response will be to store the incident in our memories, and draw on that pain and suffering from time to time.

I have had to deal with racism all of my life. 

In your letter, you shared how you learned not to take insults personally in the healthcare profession and was surprised at how angry you were about this incident.  In this situation, however, you are not the healthcare provider, so the anger that surprises you is actually about your vulnerability as a patient, not in your capacity as a healthcare professional.

I had thought that once I made it through school, life would be different. 

By now, you already realize the error you made—believing that your status as a physician would be your protection and thus, elevate you from the racism you have endured all of your life.  The intense anger you feel about the experience may just as much be an acknowledgement of your own error as it is about what you can expect in the future.

Do you have any suggestions on how to forget this even happened so I can move with my life?

Despite your accomplishments and status as a physician, you cannot control or alter the ways in which others view you.   Although you have the ability to hide behind your career, you are still in severe psychological and emotional pain and now you want to “forget” and go on as if nothing happened.

I believe that specific events happen to us in order to wake us up to reality. In seeking to forget, you are seeking to run away from the traumatic experience, but it will be there forever as a permanent imprint within the psychological self. At this point, what you want to do is to find balance—to know that the trauma is potentially out there, but to live your life with that knowledge and prepare for it, instead of ignoring it and hoping that it will go away.

The body holds onto and remembers what the mind struggles to forget.

Until the next crossroad…the journey continues.

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