Combating Racism – Stamp Out Microaggressions

The biases I wrote about last week (here), can lead to microaggressions. Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward people of color. They have also been defined as “acts of disregard that stem from unconscious attitudes of white superiority and constitute a verification of black inferiority.” They are not limited to human encounters alone but may also be environmental in nature, as when a person of color is in an office setting that unintentionally assails his or her racial identity.

Microaggressions are exemplified by dismissive and often innocuous comments, behaviors or beliefs that minimize, exclude or render the other insignificant. Microaggressions hold their power because they don’t let us see that our actions and attitudes can be discriminatory.

Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such behaviors when they interact with racial or ethnic minorities. Because these are subtle, often automatic exchanges which are “put downs” by offenders, they may not be overtly physically violent, however, they create conditions in which people may not feel as safe as members of a dominant cultural group.


Microassaults: These are explicit, conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets, displaying swastikas, discouraging interracial interactions, or deliberately serving a white patron before someone of color. They are intended to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.

Example: In a study in American Behavioral Scientist, a group of 36 Black males students on five elite campuses, including Harvard and the University of Michigan, reported that when they went to the computer lab to do schoolwork, white students would often call security to make sure they weren’t there to cause trouble. When security arrived, they would check the students’ ID and sometimes ask them to provide a second one to prove the first was valid.

Following up on last week’s article about the impacts of implicit bias, and because microassaults are usually intentional and conscious, I will focus more on microinsults and microinvalidations.

Microinsults: These are verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. Microinsults represent subtle snubs, frequently unrealized by the perpetrator, but conveying a hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.

An example of a verbal microinsult is an employee who asks a colleague of color “How did you get this job?” implying s/he may have landed it through and affirmative action or a quota system, rather than through merit and qualifications. Or lauding a professional person of color in a backhanded way with, “I’m surprised you speak English so well. I thought you wouldn’t because of your name.”

Or saying to a friend within earshot of others, after watching coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, “Middle Easterners . . . always killing everybody.”

Or a professor saying to a Black student, “Are you sure you’re in the right room. This is the honors section.”

Microinsults can also occur nonverbally, such as when a white teacher does not acknowledge a student of color in the classroom even though she has her hand raised and is primed to contribute to the conversation. Or when a white supervisor avoids eye contact or turns away, engaging in distracted behaviors, during a conversation with a Black employee. In these two cases, the message conveyed to persons of color is that their contributions are unimportant.

Microinvalidations: These are communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color. For example, white people often ask Asian-Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in the own land.

Another invalidation occurs when Blacks are told “I don’t see color” (an impossibility) or “All lives matter,” which negates their experiences as racial beings. When a Latino couple is given poor service at a restaurant and shares the experience with white friends, the microinvalidation occurs when the couple is told, “Don’t be so oversensitive,” nullifying their experience and diminishing its importance.

The latter two transgressions are less obvious in nature, yet they still put people of color in a psychological bind. While the person may feel insulted, typically the perpetrator doesn’t acknowledge that anything has happened because s/he is not aware that he has been offensive. This leaves the person of color confused and angry, taking an emotional toll on the individual. Often, if the person of color confronts the perpetrator, the perpetrator will deny having been offensive. The result is confusion, anger and an overall sapping of energy.

Nine examples of racial microaggressions can be found in the following chart:

From “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” D. W. Sue, C.M. Capodilupo, G.C. Torino, et. al., American Psychologist, May-June 2007.


  • Educate and elect educational and community leaders and community members committed to eradicating microaggressions through social justice-oriented work.
  • Deepen our understanding of the impacts of microaggressions on self and others.
  • Aid leaders in diversity building practices to create paradigm shifts focused on a better understanding of the impacts of microaggressions in professional and personal settings.
  • Seek opportunities to disrupt microaggressions in schools, workplaces and personal interactions.
  • Continue to shine a light on the harm these encounters can inflict, no matter how the person of color decides to react to a given encounter.
  • Because microaggressions are often invisible to the perpetrators, be mindful of the ways that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory.
  • Research the platforms of local, state and national elected officials to determine their commitment to social-justice oriented work.

Although the word “micro” implies something small or insignificant. These oppressive intercultural behaviors are neither minor nor insignificant. They can create subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle, but real and damaging social interactions. When a person experiences an onslaught of derogatory comments, invalidations, avoidance behaviors and deficit-laden comments, the experiences may weigh heavy on an individual’s spirit, self-worth, and sense of self. So when you hear or see a microaggression, interrupt it or counteract it with culturally responsive behaviors. By increasing your understanding of the process of being stigmatized, discriminated against, and experiencing bias, you can take steps to stamp out microaggressions.

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