A microaggression is a comment or action that negatively targets a marginalized person or group. A microaggression can be intentional or accidental. It is a form of discrimination.
People who engage in microaggressions may mean no harm toward the person or group being targeted. They may not even realize that they are making a microaggressive comment or action.
Regardless, microaggressions can be very hurtful to the people who experience them.
This article looks at what a microaggression is and gives some examples. It also describes how to avoid them and what to do if they happen.
Microaggressions may demean a person’s race, gender, sexual orientation, heritage, age, or health status, for example.
Microaggressions convey disparaging messages to people because they belong — or are perceived to belong — to a specific group.
The person sending the message may not realize that it is a microaggression. In some cases, a microaggression can be disguised as a compliment. One example is when a person says how articulate a colleague is or how well they speak English, implying that this is somehow unexpected because of the person’s skin color or nationality.
Denying a person’s experience is also a form of microaggression. For instance, saying to a transgender person, “I’m a woman, so I understand what you are going through.”
In a more specific example, cisgender women may use microaggressions to diminish the experience of transgender women. For example, a cisgender woman may complain that a transgender woman cannot understand what they are experiencing, implying that transgender women are not “real” women.
The psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce first coined the term in the 1970s to describe subtle insults and put-downs that African Americans experience regularly. Psychologists have since expanded its use to include this behavior toward any marginalized group.
A marginalized group includes “individuals, groups, or populations outside of ‘mainstream society,’ living at the margins of those in the center of power, of cultural dominance, and economical and social welfare.” Marginalization is not something people choose to experience. Instead, it results from exclusion and discrimination by structures of power and the people within them.
A person may experience marginalization due to their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation, for example.
It is usually clear when someone’s behavior is discriminatory, such as when they use a racial slur. A microaggression, however, may be harder to identify, and the person may not realize that their behavior is harmful.
Microaggressions can take several forms. They may be:
- Verbal: A verbal microaggression is a comment or question that is hurtful or stigmatizing to a marginalized group or person. For example, saying, “You’re so smart for a woman.”
- Behavioral: This involves behaving in a way that is discriminatory or otherwise hurtful to a marginalized person or group. For example, when a waiter or bartender ignores a transgender person and instead serves a cisgender person, someone whose biological sex matches their gender identity.
- Environmental: An environmental microaggression is when a subtle discrimination occurs within society, for example, when a college campus only has buildings named after white people.
Psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue and colleagues have defined three classifications of microaggression:
- Microassaults: This is when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive. An example is telling a racist joke, then saying, “I was just joking.”
- Microinsults: This is a comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory. For example, saying to an Indian doctor, “Your people must be so proud.”
- Microinvalidations: This is when a person’s comment invalidates or undermines the experiences of a marginalized group. An example would be a white person telling a Black person that “Racism does not exist in today’s society.”
There are many everyday examples of microaggressions. People may target others with microaggressions because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, class, disability, mental health, weight, or age, among other factors.
In 2018, Kansas State University conducted a study into workplace microaggressions. The researchers found that 73% of women working in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics had experienced at least one form of sexual objectification.
Some other examples of microaggressions include:
- treating someone as a second-class citizen because of their gender, race, or sexual orientation
- complimenting a person raised in the United States on their English simply because they are not white
- telling a person with obesity that they should eat less
- making assumptions about someone based on their religion, age, or class
- deliberately not using a transgender person’s preferred pronouns
- underrepresenting different races, sexualities, and disabilities in the media
- being unwilling to find stereotypical or derogatory sports team names offensive
- using offensive terminology, such as, “That’s so gay”
- considering certain people to be of more value than others based on their ethnicity, class, or sexuality
These microaggressions are an insidious, pervasive form of racism. Some
This form of everyday racism can have a devastating effect on individuals and communities. Often, the dominant person who uses them is unaware of it or unaware of the effect.
Examples of racial microaggressions include:
- serving a white person right away without checking who was there first
- denying that racism exists
- accusing the other person of being oversensitive when they are harmed by a microaggression
- saying, for example, “The best person should get the job, regardless of race,” as this does not take into account structural or institutional racism
- not speaking up when a colleague is a target of a microaggression
These reflect prejudice, stereotyping, or discrimination against a person because of their gender. Usually, they are directed by males toward females.
- the use of sexist language
- denial that sexism exists
- assumptions about gender roles
- an assumption that another gender is inferior
- institutional factors, such as a pay gap or glass ceiling for promotions
Among the 259 female participants in the study, 94% had experienced sexist microaggressions. Those who had were more likely to report burnout, particularly if they were from an underrepresented racial or ethnic group.
This is another type of gender-based microaggression directed by males toward females.
These microaggressions reflect an ingrained prejudice toward, dislike of, or contempt for females.
- sexist humor
- action that reflects objectification
- language that reflects objectification, for example, comments and assumptions about clothing and behavior
- assumptions of inferiority
- refusal to take on certain roles, such as caregiving, due to the belief that these are strictly for females
Heterosexism was one called “homophobia.” The older term is inaccurate because it refers to an irrational fear, rather than the systemic and interpersonal discrimination and marginalization that exist.
Heterosexist microaggressions are sexuality based. They target people with various sexual orientations and are often carried out by cisgender people.
- using derogatory terms
- making assumptions about people’s sexual orientation
- moving away from people or excluding them from discussions
- telling someone that they don’t “look” or “seem” like their identity
- accusing people of being oversensitive
- suggesting that a person is not a “real” man or woman
- saying “I’m not homophobic, but…”
- keeping quiet when a microaggression is directed against someone else
Microaggressions can be harmful and stressful to the people who experience them.
Researchers studying the effects of racial microaggressions on undergraduate college students found that those who experienced them regularly had lower self-esteem. The researchers also discovered that these racist microaggressions were especially harmful in work and educational settings.
In another study, researchers found that people who experienced ethnic microaggressions had higher levels of depression and trauma. However, the study could not confirm that the microaggressions directly caused the participants’ depression.
One study that looked at 325 “minority” graduate students found that more than 98% had experienced microaggressions. The results showed that microaggressions caused significant distress and increased the risk of depression, regardless of a person’s social status.
Microaggressions are a subtle form of prejudice. They are comments or behaviors that harm members of marginalized communities. The people who engage in microaggressions are often unaware of the negative impact.
But if a person understands that their comments or actions are microaggressions and continues to behave in the same way, the prejudice they express is no longer implicit. It is explicit bias.
It can be difficult for a person with learned bias to change how they act toward marginalized groups.
However, some tips can help people review their beliefs and change their behavior. For example:
- Listen to the person receiving the microaggression and empathize with their feelings.
- Try not to be defensive or dismiss the person’s feelings.
- Take responsibility for any underlying bias held toward certain groups.
- Take steps to become more educated and understanding.
- Commit to changing microaggressive behaviors.
The American Psychological Association recommends these strategies to people who face microaggressions:
- Respond to the microaggression if it feels safe to do so.
- Discuss the incident briefly, and arrange to discuss it with the person again later. This gives them the chance to reflect and you the chance to consider, and possibly practice, what to say.
- Let the person know how the microaggression made you feel and why it is significant.
- Criticize the microaggression, not the person.
- Take care of yourself by seeking social support and practicing healthy self-care techniques.
- Avoid taking on work related to marginalization — unless it is your choice to do so. Being asked to do so can be a form of microaggression.
Bystanders can help by being allies. This might involve speaking up against the microaggression. But always say how the language or behavior made you feel — not how you assume it made the recipient feel, as this can be unintentionally dehumanizing. No one can ever be sure quite how something makes another person feel.
Microaggressions are actions or comments that express prejudice against a marginalized group or person. They can be very stigmatizing and harmful.
Although it can be difficult to admit fault, a person who engages in microaggressions can educate themselves about the impact of harmful language and change their behavior.