What Is a Microaggression? Everyday Insults with Harmful Effects

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A microaggression is a subtle behavior – verbal or non-verbal, conscious or unconscious – directed at a member of a marginalized group that has a derogatory, harmful effect. Chester Pierce, a psychiatrist at Harvard University, first introduced the term microaggression in the 1970s. 

Unlike some other forms of prejudice and discrimination, the perpetrator of a microaggression may not even be aware that their behavior is hurtful.

While microaggressions are sometimes conscious and intentional, on many occasions microaggressions may reflect the perpetrator’s implicit biases about marginalized group members. Whether intentional or not, however, researchers have found that even these subtle acts can have effects on their recipients.

Categories of Microaggressions

Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues have organized microaggressions into three categories: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.

  • Microassaults. Microassaults are the most overt microaggressions. With microassaults, the person committing the microaggression acted intentionally and knew their behavior might be hurtful. For example, using a derogatory term to refer to a person of color would be a microassault.
  • Microinsults. Microinsults are more subtle than microassaults, but nevertheless have harmful effects on marginalized group members. For example, Sue and his colleagues write, a microinsult could involve a comment implying that a woman or person of color received their job due to affirmative action.
  • Microinvalidations. Microinvalidations are comments and behaviors that deny the experiences of marginalized group members. One common microaggression involves insisting that prejudice is no longer a problem in society: Sue and his colleagues write that a microinvalidation could involve telling a person of color that they are being “oversensitive” to a racist comment that was made.

    In addition to microaggressions perpetrated by a specific person, people can also experience environmental microaggressions. Environmental microaggressions occur when something in the physical or social context communicates a negative message to members of marginalized groups. For example, Sue writes, representations of people of color in film and media (or a lack of representation) can constitute a microaggression; for example, if a television show only includes white characters, this would be an environmental microaggression.

    Examples of Microaggressions

    To document the types of microaggressions that people of color experience, Kiyun Kim completed a photography series in which people held up signs with examples of microaggressions they have heard. One participant held up a sign saying that someone had asked her, "No, where are you really from?" Another person reported that he'd been questioned about his racial and ethnic background: "So, like, what are you?" he wrote on his sign.

    While microaggressions have often been studied in the context of race and ethnicity, microaggressions can occur towards any marginalized group. Sue points out that microaggressions can be directed towards any member of a marginalized group; for example, microaggressions can be directed towards women, people with disabilities, and the LGBTQ community.

    Sue explains that women may receive a variety of microaggressions based on gender. He points out that a woman might be criticized for being too assertive, while a man might be praised for the same behavior. He also gives the example that a woman working in a hospital might be assumed to be a nurse, when in actuality she is a doctor (something that has indeed happened to female doctors).

    To document microaggressions against the LGBTQ community, Kevin Nadal (a psychologist at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice at the City University of New York) took pictures of people holding signs with microaggressions they have heard. One participant in the project reported experiencing a microinvalidation, writing that he had been told, “I’m not being homophobic, you’re just being too sensitive.” Other participants in the project reported being asked inappropriately personal questions or having people simply assume that they were in a heterosexual relationship.

    Effects of Microaggressions on Mental Health

    Although microaggressions may appear more subtle than other types of discrimination, researchers believe that microaggressions can have a cumulative effect over time, which impacts mental health. The ambiguous and subtle nature of microaggressions makes them especially frustrating for victims, since they may be unsure how to respond. Researchers have also suggested that experiencing microaggressions can lead to frustration, self-doubt, and lower mental health.

    In one study, Nadal and his colleagues looked at the relationship between experiencing microaggressions and mental health. The researchers asked 506 participants to indicate whether they had experienced different microaggressions in the past six months. Additionally, participants completed a survey assessing mental health. The researchers found that participants who had experienced more microaggressions reported higher levels of depression and lower levels of positive emotions.

    Importantly, Sue and his colleagues write that microaggressions may make psychotherapy more complex for members of marginalized groups. Therapists may inadvertently commit microaggressions during sessions with clients who are members of marginalized groups, which can weaken the therapeutic relationship between therapist and client. Consequently, Sue and his colleagues explain, it’s important for therapists to examine their own biases in order to avoid committing microaggressions during therapy.

    Microaggressions in Education

    Microaggressions can contribute to a campus climate where individuals who are members of marginalized groups may feel unwelcome or doubt their place at the institution.

    In one paper, Daniel Solórzano at the University of California, Los Angeles interviewed Chicano and Chicana scholars about their experiences in academia. Solórzano found that participants in the study often reported “feeling out of place,” as one study participant put it. He found that the participants reported experiencing microaggressions and feeling ignored or devalued by their peers and professors.

    Simba Runyowa, writing for The Atlantic, reported a similar experience. He explained that microaggressions can make students of color feel that they don’t belong at universities. Runyowa suggested that experiencing microaggressions can also lead to feelings of imposter syndrome, in which students worry that they are not qualified or talented enough.

    Addressing Microaggressions

    Sue explained that people are often reluctant to admit that their actions may be microaggressions: because we like to think of ourselves as good people who treat others fairly, realizing that we have said or done something insensitive can be threatening to our sense of self.

    Writing for the American Psychological Association, Nadal explained that it is crucial to say something when we see someone else committing a microaggression. If we don’t speak out, Nadal explains, we may end up sending a message to the perpetrator and victim of the microaggression that we think that what happened was acceptable. As Sue explained, it’s important to become aware of microaggressions so that we can begin “to make the invisible visible.”

    Key Takeaways

    • Microaggressions are everyday actions and behaviors that have harmful effects on marginalized groups.
    • Unlike other forms of discrimination, the perpetrator of a microaggression may or may not be aware of the harmful effects of their behavior.
    • Experiencing higher levels of microaggressions is linked to lower mental health.

    Sources and Further Reading