Microaggressions are subtle but harmful actions directed at targeted groups. Microaggressions may be verbal, behavioral, or environmental. Those targeted include people of color, females, those with disabilities, religious minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Although blatant racism is still present in society, microaggressions may be more challenging to recognize.

People who communicate microaggressions may not believe their actions are racist. Sometimes, microaggressions are unintentional, and people are unaware they may be harming others.

In this article, we discuss microaggressions in the workplace and at school, and how to respond.

A woman is the recipient of microaggressions in the workplace during a meeting.Share on Pinterest
While microaggressions can be more subtle than blatant discrimination or racism, the effects can be mentally and physically harmful.

Microaggressions are statements, actions, or incidences of discrimination against a targeted group.

Experts often describe microaggressions as subtle and indirect. Some critics suggest they are negligible. However, microaggressions may affect the mental and physical health of the victim.

Experts have described three forms of microaggressions:

  • microassaults
  • microinsults
  • microinvalidations

Microassaults

These are commonly described as “old-fashioned racism” because the person behaves deliberately in a discriminatory manner.

However, they are not intending to offend someone or may not think their actions are harmful. The person will not openly say that they are acting in a discriminatory way.

Microinsults

These occur when people unintentionally or unconsciously say discriminatory things or behave in a discriminatory way.

When people communicate microinsults, they may believe that they are complimenting the person. However, they are actually making insulting statements.

Microinvalidations

These are actions and behaviors that deny racism and discrimination. Invalidations occur when a person undermines the struggles of target groups.

Racism is present in society, and people who believe it does not exist negate reality.

Many different groups experience microaggressions and racism. Racial, gender, sexual, and religious microaggressions exist.

Some people may associate with more than one group and experience intersectional racism and microaggressions.

Microaggressions exist in the everyday lives of people in targeted groups, including their work and school lives.

For example, females who may be experts in their field or at a high ranking level within an organization may experience male colleagues interrupting or rolling their eyes when they speak.

People coming from different countries to work may also experience microaggressions from perpetrators wondering whether they will go back to their homeland.

Referring to different targeted groups as “you people” is also a harmful microaggression.

Lesbians, gays, people with disabilities, blonde hair, or overweight, and religious groups are often the targets of jokes. These jokes can sometimes circulate through emails or in social settings.

These are only some examples of microaggressions in the workplace.

Understanding what microaggressions are and how people communicate them can help others recognize them and correct their behavior.

A study appearing in the journal Urban Education reported that people who experience racial microaggressions have negative job satisfaction. Offensive speech and microaggressions can affect productivity.

A hostile work environment may also undermine employees’ safety.

People who experience microaggressions are at risk of mental and physical health issues, which can lead to absenteeism.

Some mental health effects of microaggressions may include:

Feelings of being undervalued from microaggressions may prevent people in targeted groups from:

  • applying for jobs
  • negotiating salaries
  • striving for promotions

Some schoolteachers may communicate microaggressions towards their students. Experts suggest that teachers’ beliefs about a student’s academic abilities are crucial for the individual’s success.

Likewise, a teacher who has a different perception of a student’s abilities because of their race may negatively impact their success.

Bullying is a significant problem in schools. Targeted groups who experience microaggressions or bullying in schools include:

  • lesbian
  • gay
  • bisexual
  • transgender
  • queer
  • questioning

About 33% of high school students in the United States who self-identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual report being bullied on school property.

Furthermore, cyberbullying occurs in about 27.1% of surveyed students. Some students report skipping school because of safety concerns.

Microaggressions can be a form of bullying at school. Even if it is not intentional by the perpetrator, the use of microaggressions can have the same effects as more overt forms of bullying.

Microaggressions can put students at risk of physical and mental health problems, including:

  • depression
  • suicidal ideation
  • drug and alcohol abuse
  • risky sexual activity

Their academic ability and what they achieve may also be impaired.

A 2012 report from The Civil Rights Project suggests that African American students and students with disabilities are at a higher risk of receiving a suspension than others.

Suspensions are among the indications of whether a child will eventually drop out. Previous school suspensions also increase the risk of incarceration.

These examples represent only a few of the impacts of microaggressions in school. Controlling discrimination in schools requires educating staff and students.

Suicide prevention

If you know someone at immediate risk of self-harm, suicide, or hurting another person:

  • Ask the tough question: “Are you considering suicide?”
  • Listen to the person without judgment.
  • Call 911 or the local emergency number, or text TALK to 741741 to communicate with a trained crisis counselor.
  • Stay with the person until professional help arrives.
  • Try to remove any weapons, medications, or other potentially harmful objects.

If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, a prevention hotline can help. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours per day at 800-273-8255. During a crisis, people who are hard of hearing can call 800-799-4889.

Click here for more links and local resources.

The point of responding to microaggressions is to change people’s actions and behaviors.

People can think about responding to microaggressions in three steps.

  1. Did it really happen? They can begin by questioning whether the microaggression happened. Sometimes, a microaggression may be subtle, and a person needs to verify that they are a victim. Support from loved ones or social media groups can help determine if an action or behavior was a microaggression.
  2. To respond or not? The individual needs to decide whether they should react. If the person’s life is in danger, they must weigh the consequences of responding. If a microaggression occurs in the workplace, they may worry that a confrontation could affect their working relationships, especially with a superior. People may fear losing their job or getting into trouble if they say something.
  3. How to respond? Lastly, the person must decide how to respond if that is what they choose. People can respond to microaggressions in a passive-aggressive, proactive, or assertive way.

Responding to microaggressions takes courage as it requires challenging the behaviors of others.

When a female is interrupted in a meeting, for example, they may calmly address the person who interrupted them after they are done speaking. They can ask whether they may continue to contribute.

This is an assertive response that may promote reflection by the perpetrator and help others learn to behave more inclusively.

Sometimes, people who experience regular microaggressions may become frustrated and yell back in a proactive way. This can be therapeutic for some people who have accumulated anger and frustration over many years.

The burden of responding to microaggressions and educating others often falls on the victims.

Microaggressions in the workplace can have severe consequences. People in targeted groups may develop depression and anxiety, leading to absenteeism.

Microaggressions can also impact a person’s salary and job satisfaction. People may also feel undervalued and avoid applying for promotions.

Students can also experience microaggression at school from teachers and other students. Students in targeted groups may be more at risk of punishment than others. A teacher’s beliefs about their students’ abilities may also negatively impact individual success.

Responding to microaggressions is challenging, and people may require encouragement from loved ones and support groups. A stepwise approach may help victims respond effectively to microaggressions.

Educating perpetrators on their harmful behaviors is a necessary step in controlling microaggressions.