black woman having conversation with white male coworker in front of officeShare on Pinterest
Martí Sans/Stocksy United

Bias and prejudice take many forms.

Sometimes, they appear obviously calculated to oppress members of marginalized groups and remind them of their “lesser” status. But they can also take more undefined forms. People can discriminate without harmful intentions or, for that matter, any awareness of their bias.

The term microaggression refers to this type of subtle, often unconscious bias. Like overt racism and discrimination, microaggressions can surface in speech, behavior, or actions.

But, since they tend to take the form of jokes, casual remarks, or innocent questions, microaggressions often pass unchallenged.

Microaggressions reflect a lack of awareness of the experiences of marginalized groups. They stem from implicit bias — the assumptions and stereotypes everyone carries.

You might not necessarily recognize your own biases, but they still exist in your mental framework, where they can trickle out into the things you say and do.

In short, members of any marginalized group typically face microaggressions on a regular basis.

People who participate in microaggressions don’t always realize what they’re doing. But the remarks and snubbing actions still have a pretty harmful impact.

Microaggressions send the message, “You’re not like the rest of us. You don’t belong.”

They leave those on the receiving end feeling demeaned, invalidated, and further thrust to the margins.

While you might have heard “microaggression” for the first time fairly recently, the concept itself is far from new.

Chester M. Pierce, an African American psychiatrist, introduced the term in the 1960s. He used it to describe the “automatic, preconscious, or unconscious” put-downs and racial discrimination white people direct toward Black people in everyday interactions.

He contrasted microaggressions with macroaggressions, or outright acts of racism, like cross burnings, beatings, or lynching.

A number of experts have since expanded on his research:

  • In 1995, psychologists Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson published a paper on stereotype threat, illustrating the harmful impact of racial and gender stereotypes — both of which often give rise to microaggressions.
  • In 2000, psychologists John Dovido and Samuel Gaertner published a paper examining the ways aversive racism, or unintentional racial bias, showed up in white hiring decisions made over a period of 10 years.
  • Since the early 2000s, psychologist Derald Wing Sue has written several books and papers on microaggressions, expanding the definition of the concept to include other marginalized identities.
  • Since the 2010s, psychologist Kevin Nadal has written multiple books on microaggressions, including “Microaggressions and Traumatic Stress,” which explores the lasting impact of regular discrimination, no matter how subtle its form.

So, how do microaggressions show up in day-to-day life?

A 2007 review broke down microaggressions into three specific types:

  • microassaults
  • microinsults
  • microinvalidations

Microassaults

Microassaults tend to be more obvious and deliberate than other microaggressions, though people who participate in microassaults might not always state their prejudice outright.

Consider these examples:

  • A group of Black children enters a public pool and dive into the water. A white parent watching by the poolside immediately stands up and calls, “Kids! Time to go! Get out, right now.”
  • A white parent says to an Asian parent, “No offense, but I don’t want my child around you people. You understand, right? COVID-19 came from your part of the world, so it’s just too risky.”
  • You’re bisexual. Someone in your social circle always greets you by saying, “Hey, queer.” Each time, you tell them this term make you uncomfortable and ask them to address you by your name. They always give a similar reply, “Calm down, I’m joking. You shouldn’t be so sensitive.”

Microinsults

These microaggressions often masquerade as compliments or curious questions. Unpacking them, however, generally reveals bias, cultural insensitivity, and false assumptions or beliefs.

You can often recognize a microinsult, because it praises one member of a historically marginalized group while putting down the group as a whole. A microinsult says, “Well, you might have done OK, but you’re an exception.”

Here’s an example:

You’re hanging out with your roommate and your partner, who has anxiety and depression. Your roommate, who manages a café, tells a story about a customer who came in and, while waiting for their order, had a loud and animated conversation with no one.

“They were clearly off their meds,” your roommate says. “I was afraid they were going to throw their drink or smash up the display or something. You gotta watch out for those crazies.”

They then turn to your partner. “Don’t worry,” they say. “I know you’re not crazy crazy.”

Here’s another:

Your best friend brings her sister, who uses a wheelchair, to your birthday party. You’re handing out birthday cake when you hear someone ask, “So, I’ve always wondered. How can people in wheelchairs have sex?”

You can also engage in microinsults without saying anything at all.

Say you do freelance computer and technology repair and usually make house calls. But when a new potential client with a Hispanic name messages you to request an appointment, you tell them to bring their computer and meet you at your local library — just in case they live in a “bad” part of town.

Microinvalidations

These microaggressions ignore or deny someone’s identity and experiences.

A person says to a transgender friend, for example, “You know, it’s amazing. I just can’t tell you aren’t a real guy.”

Microinvalidations often deny that racism and prejudice exist:

  • “Homophobia isn’t a thing anymore. You can get married now, right?”
  • “Skin color doesn’t matter. We’re all people.”

This type of microaggression commonly appear in fields like healthcare and education:

  • Many healthcare professionals still believe that Black people have “thicker skin” than white people and, accordingly, experience less pain.
  • Other professionals dismiss their patient’s symptoms, saying “Nothing’s wrong with you. Lose some weight, and you’ll be just fine.”
  • Teachers might say, “If you want to succeed, all you have to do is make an effort,” without acknowledging the inherent privileges enjoyed by white students and the barriers faced by many students of color.

These invalidations often prove difficult to challenge. They might not convey outright negativity, so people who experience them might feel uncomfortable and insulted without knowing exactly why.

Some people assume microaggressions don’t really matter all that much, in the grand scheme of things. “Micro” means small, so they can’t really be such a big deal, can they?

“Micro” just means these aggressions are often so subtle and casual that others don’t always notice them. But those targeted by the aggressions do notice them and feel their sting.

People compare microaggressions to repeated poking, or thousands of tiny cuts. Let’s take the example of a paper cut.

You probably find paper cuts annoying and unpleasant, but they probably won’t completely derail your day like a more serious injury might.

What if, though, you got several paper cuts over the course of your day, or a paper cut (or two) almost every day? You never know when or where they’ll happen. But, since you get them so frequently, you just know they’ll keep happening.

Eventually, those little stings add up to some serious agony. You might become more cautious around paper and even try to avoid it as much as possible.

Microaggressions add up in a similar way. Experiencing one or two might cause some temporary discomfort and distress, but facing a constant stream of verbal or physical “cuts” can lead to feelings of:

These repeated stings don’t just cause pain. The uncertainty around not knowing when or where the next one will happen can also take a heavy toll on well-being.

Determining exactly what counts as a microaggression isn’t always easy, and the complexities of the concept have prompted plenty of criticism.

Common protests include:

  • “They’re just jokes.”
  • “I meant it as a compliment.”
  • “Since when did asking an innocent question become such a big deal?”
  • “You can’t have a conversation anymore without saying something ‘politically incorrect.’ Why bother talking to anyone at all?”

Some critics point out that a remark one person finds offensive might not bother someone else, suggesting that people who feel “microaggressed against” are just too sensitive.

Sure, not everyone finds the same comments equally offensive, and one member of a marginalized group can’t speak for every member of that group. All the same, if someone says, “Hey, that remark was a little offensive,” it probably deserves some re-evaluation.

And, certainly, context does come into play.

You probably wouldn’t want to say, “Wow, you speak English so clearly,” to your new Iranian co-worker. After all, maybe they grew up in the United States. But, it might be a perfectly sincere compliment if that same co-worker tells you, “I only started studying English 2 years ago.”

Mistakes happen, too.

Accidentally using the wrong pronoun, for example, might not be a microaggression. But using the wrong pronoun again and again, saying, “I just can’t remember, since I don’t see you that way,” is a microaggression.

Some critics claim calling out microaggressions limits free speech and promotes a “victim culture” by suggesting that marginalized groups are more vulnerable.

Others say a fixation on microaggressions misses the forest for the trees, so to speak.

But here’s the thing: You can’t actually have a forest without trees. Each microaggression that takes root emphasizes and reinforces racism, homophobia, and other discrimination.

Unchallenged, they pave the way for hate crimes and other overt expressions of racism.

Experiencing a microaggression might leave you feeling insulted, invalidated, and unsure how to respond.

Depending on the circumstances — what was said, who you’re with, whether you feel safe — you might decide to address the remark.

If you don’t feel comfortable calling someone out, or believe challenging the remark and explaining why it was problematic will only compound your distress, you might ignore it instead.

Of course, the microaggressions you face stack up, whether you openly confront them or let them go. Over time, you might find yourself unable to manage the burden.

Turning to trusted loved ones can help, particularly since microaggressions can fuel a sense of isolation. Family and friends who understand what you’re going through can listen and offer emotional support.

A more professional type of support can also make a difference, especially when microaggressions:

  • affect your sense of self
  • contribute to depression, anxiety, or other mental health symptoms
  • leave you feeling unusually angry or irritable
  • affect your performance at school or work
  • lead you to avoid friends and loved ones

. A culturally competent therapist can:

  • offer guidance on managing the mental health impacts of microaggressions
  • help you explore ways to safeguard your well-being in racist and discriminatory environments

Our guide to finding a culturally competent therapist can get you started.

Once you recognize the damage microaggressions can do, you might start to wonder how to avoid giving offense yourself.

These tips can help:

  • Examine your own biases. Everyone has biases. It comes with being human. But when you do the work to actively identify and challenge these biases, you’re less likely to notice them slipping into your words and behaviors.
  • Consider your words carefully. It never hurts to take an extra second or two to think before commenting on or questioning some aspect of another person’s identity. Is what you want to ask any of your business? Will it further your relationship, or are you just curious? Could your comment offend them?
  • Take time to learn about others. Spending time with people of different cultures, religions, and life experiences is a key step in opening up your worldview. To cultivate greater empathy, challenge yourself to listen more than you speak.

And if you do mess up and someone lets you know about it? Listen to what they say instead of challenging them or defending yourself.

Then, apologize sincerely, and use your mistake as an opportunity for growth.

Microaggressions are real, and so is the harm they cause.

Avoiding them in your own speech and behavior makes for a great start, but addressing and preventing them may also require you to call them out when you witness them in your everyday life.

These resources offer a starting place to familiarize yourself with common microaggressions and get more guidance on avoiding them:


Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.

Article resources: