After an anticipated return to the political mainstage after weeks of maintaining a low profile, it didn’t take long for Priti Patel, the home secretary, to find herself at the centre of controversy once again. At the Downing Street news conference on Saturday, after reports of the highest daily hospital death toll in Europe, she said: “I am sorry if people feel there have been failings.” This was in response to issues regarding the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) for NHS staff, after 19 NHS workers were confirmed to have died with coronavirus.
Make no mistake, this is not an apology. Far from it. In fact, it is more akin to a microaggression, where the intended person is made to feel that it must be their fault for feeling offended, hurt or upset.
Microaggressions also make people feel that they must be imagining things, or even overreacting (similar to gaslighting, which itself is a form of microagression). It apportions responsibility to the intended. Here, Patel uses this language to transfer any accountability from the government for their failings in protecting NHS workers on the front line by providing sufficient protection and side-stepping any scrutiny over coronavirus.
Microaggressions are a commonly used strategy to demean individuals belonging to a particular community. This kind of behaviour might seem inconsequential, but such microaggressions – communicated via verbal or nonverbal messages – are targeted at people based on their membership of a marginalised group.
In this way, they demean and devalue them, “othering” them, highlighting their inferior status and marginalising them even further. The act of microaggression is intended to make the other person feel less valued – Patel’s qualified apology has the same effect.
Most of the NHS workers that have died from the virus are from the Bame community, including the first 10 doctors, as well as the fact that a third of those in intensive care are from Bame backgrounds. Such figures indicate how little the current government values minority ethnic communities.
Such lack of compassion, and what can only be kindly termed as a veiled incivility, causes confusion, stress and anxiety. Individually, this statement might seem benign, but cumulatively, I believe they act like sort of low-grade microtraumas, with their associated stress and anxiety. They make the target individual or group doubt themselves, their instincts and their understanding of the situation, feeling confused and at the same time, completely dismissed and shocked.
Those who would like to point out that Patel is herself from an Asian background would do well to remember her actions and words on racial intolerance. She defended Boris Johnson over accusations of racism, despite his comments that Muslim women in burqas looked like “letterboxes” and evidence that Islamophobia rose by 375 per cent in the week after his comments.
Her points-based stance on immigration, targeting “low-skilled” and “low-grade” workers, and her insistence on pushing the immigration agenda through even as migrants prove to be among the most significant key workers has clearly shown that she subscribes to the ideologies that tend to work in the favour of discriminatory agendas, despite her skin colour. This is also the same Patel who claimed that there was no racism in Britain when Meghan Markle faced abuse from many sectors of the media and general population.
Yes, we can choose to ignore what looks like a seemingly minor comment, but research for my book Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias shows that such statements are dangerous and have a long-term impact on the mental health, as well as the morale of a community. Such actions can consume cognitive resources and lead to an increase in stress hormones. This is equivalent to being bullied, which wouldn’t be the first time that Patel has been accused of something like that.
This weekend, she has once again shown how damaging these microaggressions can be. By sending the signal that these “failings” have been exaggerated in our minds, the needs of those who are struggling the most risk being downplayed or ignored entirely.
This is how unconscious biases work in society. Biases manifest and are reinforced through language and words. To defeat them, they have to be called out by the media, as well as the general public. It is also more crucial than ever that we as a society take a hard look at our own internalised biases, acknowledge them, and take steps to minimise them.
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