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”.

Now What

  1. 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?
  2. If dismissing microaggressions is insensitive and possibly even racist, what “ground rules” can you offer regarding communicating with others?
  3. 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.

Microaggressions In The Classroom – YouTube

Derald Wing Sue (2010) Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestations, Dynamics, and Impact