A microaggression is a comment or action that negatively targets a marginalized group of people. Groups may experience marginalization due to their race, gender, religion, or sexual orientation. While most would readily recognize a racial slur as an overt form of discrimination – microaggressions may be harder to identify. A microaggression can be intentional or accidental and is considered a form of discrimination. As most institutions are publicly committed to responding to overt acts of racism, the covert acts of intolerance (such as microaggressions) present more unique challenges and as a result, often go unaddressed.
Researchers Charles Pierce (2001) and Derald Wing Sue (2010, 2020) have written extensively about these subtle, often automatic, and sometimes non-verbal exchanges which are “put-downs” by the offenders. Both Pierce and Wing Sue maintain that the cumulative weight of these offensive acts becomes a defining ingredient in interpersonal interactions.
Researchers studying the effects of racial microaggressions on undergraduate college students found that those who had regularly experienced them tended to have lower self-esteem. In another study, researchers found that those who experienced ethnic microaggressions had higher levels of depression and trauma.
Derald Wing Sue and colleagues identify three types of microaggressions:
Microassault – a microassault is when a person intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive. An example of a microassault is a person telling a racist joke, then saying “I was just joking”. Or, the white female student, “insisting” on just touching the hair of her black female roommate.
Microinsult – A microinsult is a comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory. For example, this could be a person saying to an African American colleague: “You are so articulate – Your people must be so proud.”
Microinvalidations – A microinvalidation is when a person’s comment invalidates or undermines the experience of a certain group of people. An example of a microinvalidation would be a white person telling a black person, “Racism does not exist in today’s society”.
- In what ways might fear of committing a microaggression prevent the free flow of dialogue in an academic setting? What can be done to mitigate this fear?
- If dismissing microaggressions is insensitive and possibly even racist, what “ground rules” can you offer regarding communicating with others?
- Are jokes that rely on stereotypes ever acceptable? Why or Why not?
Derald Wing Sue, (2020) Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.
Derald Wing Sue (2010) Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact