Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional, discriminatory behaviors or statements that adversely affect individuals based on their race, gender, sexuality, or other minority status.
Microaggressions often go unnoticed by the perpetrators because they’re based upon implicit biases and prejudices, unlike overt discrimination. Nevertheless, they can have significant negative impacts on people’s lives, their mental health, and how they’re treated by society.
Despite their subtlety, microaggressions can create a hostile environment for marginalized people. In fact, while the perpetrators may not notice them, those marginalized groups are acutely aware of the constant put-downs and stereotyping.
Understanding microaggressions is vital in the 21st Century for fostering inclusive and respectful relationships across social contexts, including (but not limited to) schools, workplaces, and healthcare settings.
Definition of Microaggression
A microaggression is a subtle form of discrimination, often unconscious, that manifests in the form of casual derogatory comments, treatments, or behaviors toward members of a marginalized group.
In the academic literature, microaggressions have been defined as:
“…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults” (Sue et al., 2007).
Key features of microaggressions include:
- Their subtlety: They’ve often hurtful but still too subtle to be identified in diversity and inclusion documentation
- The frequency: Minority groups face them regularly as they’re systemic biases that many people have and use on a daily basis
- Their potential to inflict harm regardless of intent: Microaggressions are usually unintentional, and the perpetrators may or may not mean harm – they’re often based in implicit biases and prejudices that have been instilled in us since childhood (Johnson & Johnson, 2019)
The harmful effects of these actions are usually more apparent to the recipients, who regularly experience these subtle forms of discrimination, while the perpetrators are completely unaware.
When these harmful experiences are brought up, some people may even accuse the victim of over-sensitivity, wokeness, or having a victim complex, because people from privileged social groups may not be able to relate to the persistent wearing-down that people with this lived experience feel acutely (Andresen, 2021).
Types of Microaggressions
Understanding the different types of microaggressions allows us to better recognize and address them.
Regardless of the type, all microaggressions can have harmful effects on the targeted individuals, contributing to feelings of invisibility, alienation, and invalidation.
The preeminent scholar on microaggression, Derald Wing Sue, created three classifications of microaggression (Sue & Spanierman, 2020):
- Microinsults: These are subtle, often unintentional, behaviors or comments that come across as rude, insensitive, or demeaning of a person’s racial, gender, or other identity. These often manifest as subtle snubs, and the perpetrator may be totally unaware. For example, a teacher might consistently assume girls aren’t good at sports and should sit out, thereby subtly demeaning them based upon a gender stereotype.
- Microinvalidations: These are comments or behaviors that subtly exclude, negate, or dismiss the feelings, thoughts, or experiences of a marginalized person. They are often unconscious behaviors, but nonetheless, they tend to invalidate the valid concerns of targeted individuals. An example could be a white person telling a person of color that racism no longer exists, or that they “don’t see color”, thereby negating the person’s true experience of racism in the 21st Century.
- Microassaults: These are the most extreme version, because they go beyond implicit bias. Instead they are explicit, conscious acts of discrimination that are actually intended to harm. These might be similar to old-fashioned racism or discrimination. For example, they can include using racial slurs, wearing offensive t-shirts and claiming it’s “free speech”, or openly denigrating people based upon their sexual orientation, lifestyle choice, or another identity feature.
Examples of Microaggressions
Microaggressions in Schools and Education
- Assumed Inferiority: This occurs when a teacher (or other student) assumes a student has low academic abilities or lower intelligence based on their identity status. For example, a teacher might be surprised when a student of color, or a student from a very poor family, performs well on a test. This expression of surprise sends a message to the student that they are thought to be unintelligent. Such a microaggression could reinforce and remind that student of a harmful stereotype that we might refer to as the “tyrany of low expectation. Indeed, according to labeling theory, by assuming someone is unintelligent, we may be encouraging them not to even try.
- Gender Stereotyping: This involves making assumptions about a student’s interests or abilities based on their gender. For instance, a teacher might not even ask girls whether they want to participate in STEM subjects, because they subtly assume that it’s a “boy’s thing”. This microaggression perpetuates traditional gender roles and gives constant subtle messages to girls not to go into STEM-related fields. Similarly, a teacher may constantly choose boys for leadership roles because they have an implicit bias that leadership is for boys.
- LGBTQ+ Exclusion: This happens when school activities or discussions do not consider the perspectives and experiences of LGBTQ+ students. For example, the education system may exclusively focus on heterosexual relationships, leaving the LGBTQ+ students left out and not taught about safe practices for them. More insidiously, in states like Florida, there is a legal assumption that talking about straight parents/couples isn’t sexualized speech, but talking about gay couples is, which sends a message to the students that their sexual identity should be ‘kept in the closet’.
- Socioeconomic Assumption: This occurs when a student’s socioeconomic status is assumed based on their appearance or behavior. For instance, a student who doesn’t wear the newest fashion or buys clothes from a second-hand store might be teased, causing them distress. This microaggression can intensify feelings of exclusion and inadequacy.
- Disregard of Disability: This happens when the needs of students with disabilities are overlooked or dismissed as unimportant. For example, a school might fail to provide the necessary support and accommodations for a student with a learning disability. Or, the teacher might keep bringing up the disability as a reason for why they can’t do this, that, or the other (instead of putting in place the necessary accommodations).
- Religious Intolerance: This takes place when students are belittled or excluded based on their religious beliefs. For instance, a student who might wear certain religious outfits or have a dietary need based on their religion might be singled-out as strange or uncool because of their practices.
- Cultural Insensitivity: This occurs when aspects of a student’s culture are trivialized or disrespected. For instance, a teacher might repeatedly show no effort to rectify their mispronunciation of a student’s name and instead make a joke out of it, or give them an Anglicized name out of laziness. To the child, this might subtly imply that the student’s cultural background – and indeed their very name – is unimportant.
Microaggressions in the Workplace
- Racial Stereotyping: This happens when assumptions are made about a person’s ability at work based upon their race or ethnicity. For example, they may rely on negative stereotypes about the person’s culture as being lazy or unintelligent. For example, a manager might assign menial tasks to an employee of color, assuming they are less capable or not destined for leadership. This microaggression could limit people of color’s opportunities for growth, advancement, and ultimately, their earning power.
- Sexist Remarks: This occurs when a colleague makes a sexist joke or comment and acts as if it’s totally normal or acceptable. Such commentary could undermine the professionalism of the environment and make female employees feel very uncomfortable.
- Ageism: This happens when someone is judged not upon their abilities but rather their age. It could happen to younger people or older people. I recall, for example, when I was a young academic that the older male academics would talk down to me and try to pull their power over me regularly, simply due to my age.
- Homophobia: This happens when LGBTQ+ employees are made to feel uncomfortable or joked about based upon their sexuality. For example, a coworker might make an inappropriate joke about LGBTQ+ individuals that draws upon negative tropes about their abilities or lifestyles.
- Socioeconomic Bias: This occurs when an employee’s background – often, working-class or poor – is used as a heuristic to judge their abilities or potential. For example, a manager might overlook a hard-working employee for a promotion because they have a working-class accent and therefore assume they’re not leadership material.
- Ability Bias: This takes place when employees with disabilities are disregarded based upon the disability, or, their needs are not accommodated adequately. For example, I have a friend form college who had Cerebral Palsy so he had trouble speaking. People would baby him all the time, not aware that he was actually extremely intelligent.
- Religious Discrimination: This occurs when an employee’s religious beliefs are belittled or disrespected. For instance, an employee who prays over their food might be sniggered at, or subtle remarks might be made about them in the lunch room, that might not feel disrespectful to others, but is hurtful to that employee.
Microaggressions in Healthcare
- Racial Bias: This happens when healthcare providers make assumptions about a patient’s health or behavior based on their race. For instance, a doctor might presume a patient of is likely to use Eastern medicine practices, and that might affect how they cater their treatment, without even asking.
- Sexist Assumptions: This takes place when a healthcare provider dismisses or minimizes a female patient’s symptoms or concerns because she’s ‘being emotional’, which has been demonstrated by empirical research (see: Samulowitz et al., 2018) to occur regularly. For example, a doctor might attribute a woman’s chest pain to anxiety instead of investigating potential cardiac issues. This microaggression can lead to misdiagnosis or inadequate care.
- Age Discrimination: This occurs when a healthcare provider dismisses an elderly patient’s concerns, potentially out of knowledge that the patient has little recourse to complain or seek a second opinion (i.e. if they’re in assisted living). For example, a doctor might dismiss an elderly patient’s memory concerns as normal aging, rather than investigating possible cognitive impairment. This microaggression can lead to undiagnosed health conditions.
- Homophobia: This happens when healthcare providers make assumptions about a patient’s health based on their LGBTQ+ status. In Canada, there is ongoing debate about whether the ban on homosexual men from giving blood is one example of this, where it’s based on assumptions about promiscuity across an entire group due to their sexuality (Andresen, 2021). This can create a hostile healthcare environment to this population.
- Socioeconomic Stereotyping: This occurs when a healthcare provider makes assumptions about a patient’s ability to understand medical information or adhere to treatment plans based on their socioeconomic status. For instance, a doctor might not fully explain treatment options to a low-income patient, assuming they won’t comprehend. This microaggression can limit patient autonomy and negatively affect health outcomes.
- Disability Disregard: This takes place when a healthcare provider disregards a patient’s needs simply due to cognitive or physical disabilities that they face. For example, a doctor might skip a course of treatment because they assume the patient with a disability won’t be able to get to the hospital on time, rather than giving the patient the respect to ask them about the situation.
- Religious Insensitivity: This happens when a healthcare provider dismisses or disrespects a patient’s religious beliefs. For instance, a doctor might assume a patient has a certain dietary plan based upon their religion without actually asking or discussing the issue with the patient.
Microaggressions occur across all sectors of society and are felt on a daily basis by people from minority and marginalized communities. While the dominant cultural group often dismisses these concerns as ‘playing the victim’, in reality, these microaggressions can stack up to cause people significant emotional and psychological strain, as well as restricting their actual abilities to access services or get equal treatment for job opportunities.
Andresen, R. K. (2021). We All Bleed Red: Dismantling the Discriminatory Gay Blood Ban in the Era of Bostock. Loy. U. Chi. LJ, 53, 233.
Johnson, N. N., & Johnson, T. L. (2019). Microaggressions: An introduction. In Navigating micro-aggressions toward women in higher education (pp. 1-22). IGI Global.
Samulowitz, A., Gremyr, I., Eriksson, E., & Hensing, G. (2018). “Brave men” and “emotional women”: A theory-guided literature review on gender bias in health care and gendered norms towards patients with chronic pain. Pain Research and Management, 2018.
Sue, D. W., & Spanierman, L. (2020). Microaggressions in everyday life. New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. American psychologist, 62(4), 271.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]