Instances of racism and other forms of discrimination are not always as obvious as they once were. People may communicate racist thoughts in more subtle, or even subconscious ways, that experts now call racial microaggressions.
Racial microaggressions are not only verbal actions. Environmental and behavioral actions may also communicate racist ideas towards targeted populations. These behaviors are sometimes unintentional but may still be harmful to others.
In this article, we define racial microaggressions and discuss how to respond to them skillfully.
Racial microaggressions are brief actions that communicate hostile, disrespectful, or negative racial insults towards targeted groups.
These actions may be intentional or unintentional, and people may communicate them in subtle ways.
Some examples of racial microaggressions include:
- assuming people of color are ‘dangerous’ or ‘deviant’
- treating people of color as tokens or objects
- assuming people of color are less intelligent or capable than white people
- criticizing the cultural values of people of color, such as communication, behavior, and dress styles
Experts define three types of microaggressions:
Microassaults occur when people behave in a discriminatory manner but are not explicitly intending to offend someone.
The person may believe that others do not notice their actions or that their actions are not harmful because they did not intend to be racist.
Some examples of microassaults are:
- referring to someone as colored
- using racial descriptors
- discouraging interracial interactions
- serving a white person before someone of color
- telling a racist joke and ending with “I was just joking.”
- wearing clothing or showing a Confederate flag
Microinsults are another form of subtle microaggression in which people unintentionally communicate discriminatory messages to members of targeted groups.
In comparison to microassaults, microinsults are much less obvious but just as harmful.
These verbal and behavioral microinsults are harmful because people mean them to be complimentary.
An example of a racial microinsult that a Black person may experience is someone telling them that they are ‘so articulate.’
Making racialized compliments on social media or online dating applications are other examples.
People may say things that appear to be compliments, but they convey the idea in conjunction with negative racial stereotypes. For example:
- Telling someone that they are beautiful for a (insert race/ethnicity of nonwhite minority here).
- Being overly, even if pleasantly surprised at someone’s ability, such as telling an Asian person, ‘Wow! You are really good at driving!’
- Telling someone, ‘Wow! You speak English really well!’ as if expecting them not to be able to.
Microvalidations deny the realities of what members of targeted populations experience.
A white person telling a Black person that they are blind to skin color or that racism does not exist, invalidates racial realities.
Invalidating the reality of the discrimination that targeted groups experience is harmful.
A 2017 survey found that about 25% of Black people report experiencing daily perceived discrimination.
Several studies demonstrate the negative impact of these racial microaggressions on mental and physical health:
- A 2020 survey found that 84% of African American respondents in the United States said they face ‘a lot or a great deal’ of racial discrimination. Also, 62% of all respondents said Black people face ‘a lot or a great deal’ of racism.
- In 2017, a survey found that 45% of African Americans experienced racial discrimination when trying to rent an apartment or buy a home.
- A 2014 study of 506 participants showed that racial microaggressions negatively predicted mental health. It also associated microaggressions with symptoms of depression.
- An older 2012 study demonstrated that college students experiencing microaggressions might binge drink or develop other alcohol-related issues.
- Another study shows that Black females in jobs with a ‘higher occupational prestige’ may experience trauma from microaggressions. A common instance of racial microaggression was that of ‘invisibility,’ whereby, colleagues would not acknowledge them at all.
Racial trauma is another effect of racial microaggressions that results in hidden trauma wounds.
Experts describe hidden trauma wounds as:
- internalized devaluation
- devaluing sense of self
- internalized voicelessness
These effects may lead to physiological, psychological, and emotional damage.
People who are victims or witnesses of racial microaggressions may have difficulty knowing how to respond.
Firstly, the person may need to reflect on whether the action was a microaggression.
Secondly, the person must decide whether to act. Choosing to act may cause arguments, defensiveness, denials, or additional microaggressions.
If the person decides not to act, they may feel regret, resentment, and sadness.
One researcher looking at the effects of microaggressions suggests a three-step process to respond to racial microaggressions. The process involves answering three questions, as follows:
1. Did this microaggression occur?
Some racist behaviors and actions may not appear obvious, and a person may find themselves questioning whether a microaggression has occurred.
If another person witnesses the behavior or action, it may be helpful to verify and validate whether the microaggression did happen.
If the microaggression occurred privately, the victim might look to the support of loved ones or social media groups.
2. Should I respond to this microaggression?
If the victim believes a microaggression occurred, they must weigh the risks and consequences of responding or not. Some factors to consider include:
- Is there a risk of danger to physical safety?
- Will the person become defensive and argue?
- How will the confrontation affect their relationship with this person?
- Will there be regret if the person chooses not to respond?
- Does not responding convey that the microaggression is acceptable?
- Is the relationship of enough value to be worth a response?
3. How should I respond to this microaggression?
If the victim decides to respond to the microaggression, they must reflect on the best way. People may respond in different ways:
A passive-aggressive response
This could involve making a joke or sarcastic remark to communicate their annoyance and anger towards the perpetrator. However, this form of response could cause further conflict.
A proactive response
A person who experiences regular microaggressions may respond by yelling at the aggressor. For some, this type of response is therapeutic as it can release pent up feelings of stress and agitation. However, again, it could cause further conflict.
An assertive response
A person may also react assertively by calmly addressing the perpetrator about how their actions and behaviors made them feel. Assertive responses may educate.
Being clear, factual, and assertive in a response to a microaggression is important. Even so, in some cases, the perpetrator may become defensive, which can cause additional microaggressions.
A communicative response
A person could respond to the perpetrator by stating that their actions are racist, but without labeling the person as racist.
The victim of the microaggression should state that they are aware that, perhaps, the microaggression was unintended, but that it is still racist and hurtful, and explain why.
This may promote effective communication without being defensive.
A skillful response to racial microaggressions can help educate people on their actions. The aggressor may realize how they are communicating racial microaggressions.
Skillful responses can help people recognize the struggles that exist and avoid denying that microaggressions are harmful.
That said, it should not fall to Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) to educate white people on racist behaviors. This could be a burden and a cost to this target group to feel like they need to be the ones to affect change.
Responding skillfully may ease anger, anxiety, and depression that people associate with racist microaggressions.
When people respond to microaggressions, they avoid internalizing their feelings of being undervalued. They find their voice.
On the flip side, responding to a microaggression may also leave the BIPOC person feeling bad and having to acknowledge what they face in society.
Skillful responses and educating people may affect change when everyone shares the burden, BIPOC, and white people, alike.
When responding to a racial microaggression, it may help not to attack the perpetrator.
This approach may prevent further microaggressions, which can be a consequence of meeting a microaggression with a more aggressive and less understanding response.
After responding to a racial microaggression, people may need support.
For example, after responding to a workplace microaggression, a person may confront the person and file a complaint. Loved ones or people experiencing similar discrimination may also offer support.
Processing one’s emotions about racial microaggressions can help people manage the mental health issues that may arise.
Talking to the right mental health professional may prevent the buildup of negative and harmful feelings and mental health issues.
Racial microaggressions are racist behaviors that experts categorize as microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Although microaggressions may be more subtle racist behaviors than overt ones, they are still harmful to the victims.
Victims of microaggressions are at risk of anxiety, depression, and other mental effects.
If a person decides to respond to a microaggression, experts suggest thinking about how best to do so. People should also be cautious and be sure that it is safe to respond before taking any form of action.