Microaggression theory

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Microaggression is a term coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on African Americans.[1][2][3][4] In 1973, MIT economist Mary Rowe extended the term to include similar aggressions directed at women, and those of different abilities, religions, and other socially marginalized groups.[citation needed] Eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as the poor and the disabled.[5] It has also been defined as "rooted in racism, sexism, or discrimination based on nationality or sexual orientation. It can be delivered casually or even unconsciously."[6]

It has been argued that the microaggression concept "fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties" that sometimes involves "building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses".[7] Recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if "implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people ... to interact with people of color".[8] It has been argued that microaggression theory pools trivial and ignorable instances of racism with real, genuine prejudice and exclusion,[9] is a distraction from dealing with much more serious acts,[10] and can actually cause more emotional trauma than the microaggressions themselves.[11]


Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership."[12] Sue describes microaggressions as generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. According to Sue, microaggressions are different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offense and are unaware they are causing harm.[13] He describes microaggressions as including statements that repeat or affirm stereotypes about the minority group or subtly demean it, that position the dominant culture as normal and the minority one as aberrant or pathological, that express disapproval of or discomfort with the minority group, that assume all minority group members are the same, that minimize the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator's own bias, or minimize real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.[13]

Race or ethnicity[edit]

Main article: Racism

Social scientists Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) described microaggressions as "the new face of racism", saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of racial hatred and hate crimes, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous, and often unintentional. Researchers say this has led some Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans.[14] An example of such subtle expressions of racism is Asian students being pathologized or penalized as too passive or quiet.[15]

According to Sue et al.,[16] microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:

  • microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal; e.g. name-calling, avoidant behavior, purposeful discriminatory actions.
  • microinsult: communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs; unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient of color.
  • microinvalidation: communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group.

Gender and sexuality[edit]

Further information: Sexism

Women, including trans women, report experiencing gender-related microaggressions.[17][not in citation given] Some examples of sexist microagressions are "[addressing someone by using] a sexist name, a man refusing to wash dishes because it is 'woman's work,' displaying nude pin-ups of women at places of employment, someone making unwanted sexual advances toward another person".[18]

Other gender- and sexuality-related microaggressions include the sexual exoticization of lesbians by heterosexual men, linking homosexuality with gender dysphoria or paraphilia, and prying questions about one's sexual activity.[13] Transgender people are often misgendered (labelled as having a gender other than the one they identify with), among other forms of microaggression.[19]

The following have been proposed as "microaggressable" themes:[13]


Further information: Intersectionality

People who are marginalized in multiple ways (e.g., a gay Asian-American man or a trans woman) experience microaggressions rooted in multiple forms of marginalization.[20][not in citation given] For example, in one study Asian-American women reported feeling sexually exoticized by majority-culture men or viewed by them as potential trophy wives.[21] African-American women report experiencing microaggressions such as ones involving their hair (particularly that it is "unprofessional").[22]

People with mental illnesses[edit]

Further information: Disability abuse

People with mental illness report experiencing more overt forms of microaggression than subtle ones, coming from family and friends and authority figures.[23] In a study involving college students and adults experiencing community care, five themes were identified: invalidation, assumption of inferiority, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, and being treated as a second class citizen.[23]

College campuses[edit]

Allegations of microaggressions are particularly common among the relatively educated and affluent populations of American colleges and universities.[7] Some scholars think that the environment of protectiveness, of which microaggression allegations are a part, prepares students "poorly for professional life, which often demands intellectual engagement with people and ideas one might find uncongenial or wrong".[11]

Derald Wing Sue, the Columbia University Professor whose research helped inform the theory, has misgivings of how the concept is applied on campuses, "I was concerned that people who use these examples would take them out of context and use them as a punitive rather than an exemplary way." Christina M. Capodilupo, an adjunct professor at Columbia Teachers College and a co-author cited on the "Racial Microaggressions in Every Day Life" sheet said "some people use the word to shut down conversations instead of reflecting on the situation."[24]


One US study found that even some mental health professionals are perceived to engage in microaggressions by African-American clients.[25]

Because perpetrators are generally well-meaning and microaggressions are subtle, their recipients often experience attributional ambiguity, which may lead them to dismiss the experience and blame themselves as overly sensitive.[26] If challenged by the minority person or an observer, perpetrators will often defend their microaggression as a misunderstanding, a joke, or something small that should not be blown out of proportion.[27]


A 2013 scholarly review of the literature on microaggressions concluded that "the negative impact of racial microaggressions on psychological and physical health is beginning to be documented; however, these studies have been largely correlational and based on recall and self-report, making it difficult to determine whether racial microaggressions actually cause negative health outcomes and, if so, through what mechanisms".[28] A 2016 study found that microaggressions were associated with increased risk of preterm birth among black women, but only among those who were not already at high risk of such.[29]

Recipients of microaggressions may feel anger, frustration, or exhaustion. African-Americans have reported feeling under pressure to "represent" their group or to suppress their own cultural expression and "act white".[30] Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions is thought to lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and trauma.[27][30][31][32] Many researchers, Greer & Chwalisz, 2007; Solórzano, Ceja, & Yosso, 2000; Watkins, LaBarrie, & Appio, 2010, have argued that microaggressions are actually more damaging than overt expressions of bigotry precisely because they are small and therefore often ignored or downplayed, leading the victim to feel self-doubt rather than justifiably angry, and isolated rather than supported.[citation needed] There are studies suggesting that microaggressions can lead people of color to fear, distrust, and avoid relationships with white people.[31] On the other hand, some people report that microaggressions have made them more resilient.[32] Scholars have suggested that, although microaggressions "might seem minor", they are "so numerous that trying to function in such a setting is 'like lifting a ton of feathers.'"[33]

Culture of victimhood[edit]

A review of sociological literature conducted by two sociologists—Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning[7]—argues that the discourse of microaggression leads to a culture of victimhood. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt states that this culture of victimhood lessens the "ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own" and "creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims".[34] Ralph Nader has similarly criticized the trigger warnings and political correctness on campuses as creating too much sensitivity.[35]

American conservative media have suggested that the victim complex caused by the microaggression theory can have fatal results. In 2015, an African-American TV news reporter in Virginia killed two white colleagues because he thought they were racially abusing him by eating watermelon, telling him to do "field work" or to "swing by a location".[36][37][38]


Some psychologists have criticized microaggressions for assuming that verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities are necessarily due to bias,[8][39] and have argued that recommendations inspired by microaggression theory, if "implemented, could have a chilling effect on free speech and on the willingness of White people, including some psychologists, to interact with people of color."[8] It has also been pointed out that the uncertainty that can occur when one considers whether a behavior is due to racial bias is a larger phenomenon that occurs regardless of identity conflict.[40]

It has been argued that the microaggression concept "fits into a larger class of conflict tactics in which the aggrieved seek to attract and mobilize the support of third parties" that sometimes involves "building a case for action by documenting, exaggerating, or even falsifying offenses".[7] It has been argued that the concept of microaggressions is a symptom of the breakdown in civil discourse, that microaggressions are "yesterdays well-meaning faux pas",[41] and that it has become "unacceptable to question the reasonableness (let alone the sincerity) of someone's emotional state", making adjudication of alleged microaggressions like witch trials.[11]

Writing for The Federalist, Paul Rowan Brian argued that microaggression theory pools trivial and ignorable instances of racism with real, genuine prejudice and exclusion.[9] Viv Regan, writing for Spiked Online, wondered whether the comfort provided by having a convenient label for alleged rudeness outweighs the damage caused by overreaction.[42] Amitai Etzioni, writing in The Atlantic, suggested that attention to microaggressions distracts from dealing with much more serious acts.[10] Another article in The Atlantic expressed concern that the focus on microaggressions can actually cause more emotional trauma than the microaggressions themselves.[11]

Microaggression theory has also been criticized by several conservative think tanks. Christina Hoff Sommers, in a video for the American Enterprise Institute, called microaggression theory oversensitive and paranoid.[43] Heather Mac Donald, writing for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research's City Journal, believes the theory is simply self-victimization, and refers to it critically as both a "farce" and a "fad".[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Derald Wing Sue (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Wiley. pp. xvi. ISBN 047049140X. 
  2. ^ Delpit, Lisa (2012). "Multiplication Is for White People": Raising Expectations for Other People's Children. The New Press. ISBN 1595580468. 
  3. ^ Treadwell, Henrie M. (2013). Beyond Stereotypes in Black and White: How Everyday Leaders Can Build Healthier Opportunities for African American Boys and Men. Praeger. p. 47. ISBN 1440803994. 
  4. ^ Sommers-Flanagan, Rita (2012). Counseling and Psychotherapy Theories in Context and Practice: Skills, Strategies, and Techniques. Wiley. p. 294. ISBN 0470617934. 
  5. ^ Paludi, Michele (2010). Victims of Sexual Assault and Abuse: Resources and Responses for Individuals and Families (Women's Psychology). Praeger. p. 22. ISBN 031337970X.
  6. ^ Yi, Hannah. "What exactly is a microaggression? Let these examples from Hollywood movies explain". Quartz. Retrieved 2016-10-23. 
  7. ^ a b c d Campbell, Bradley; Manning, Jason (2014). "Microaggression and Moral Cultures". Comparative Sociology. 13 (6): 692–726. doi:10.1163/15691330-12341332. Retrieved 20 September 2015. 
  8. ^ a b c Thomas, Kenneth R. (2008). "Macrononsense in multiculturalism". American Psychologist. 63 (4): 274–275. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.4.274. 
  9. ^ a b Paul Rowan Brian (December 16, 2013). "Unmasking The Mustachioed Menace Of Microaggression". The Federalist. 
  10. ^ a b Etzioni, Amitai (April 8, 2014). "Don't Sweat the Microaggressions". The Atlantic. 
  11. ^ a b c d Lukianoff, Greg; Haidt, Jonathan (September 2015), "The Coddling of the American Mind", The Atlantic, retrieved 14 February 2016 
  12. ^ Paludi, Michele A. (2012). Managing Diversity in Today's Workplace: Strategies for Employees and Employers. Praeger. ISBN 0313393176. 
  13. ^ a b c d Sue, Derard Wing (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Wiley. pp. 229–233. ISBN 0470491396. 
  14. ^ Derald Wing Sue; et al. (Summer 2008). "Racial Microaggressions Against Black Americans: Implications for Counseling" (PDF). Journal of Counseling & Development. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  15. ^ Paniagua, Freddy A., and Ann-Marie Yamada (2013). Handbook of Multicultural Mental Health: Assessment and Treatment of Diverse Populations. Academic Press. p. 308. ISBN 0123944201. 
  16. ^ Sue, D., et al. (2007). "Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice". American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.
  17. ^ Wing, D. W., ed. (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. John Wiley & Sons. ISBN 9780470627204. 
  18. ^ Wing, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 169. ISBN 9780470491409. OCLC 430842664. 
  19. ^ Paludi, Michele A. (2013). Women and Management: Global Issues and Promising Solutions. Praeger. p. 237. ISBN 0313399417. 
  20. ^ Zesiger, Heather (July 25, 2013). "Racial Microaggressions and College Student Wellbeing" (PDF). 
  21. ^ Derald Wing Sue, Jennifer Bucceri, Annie I. Lin, Kevin L. Nadal, and Gina C. Torino (2007). "Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience" (PDF). Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology. 13 (1): 72–81. doi:10.1037/1099-9809.13.1.72. 
  22. ^ Lundberg-Love, Paula K. (2011). Women and Mental Disorders. Praeger Women's Psychology. p. 98. ISBN 9780313393198. 
  23. ^ a b Gonzales L, Davidoff KC, Nadal KL, Yanos PT (2015). "Microaggressions experienced by persons with mental illnesses: An exploratory study". Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal. 38 (3): 234–41. doi:10.1037/prj0000096. PMID 25402611. 
  24. ^ Zamudio-Suaréz, Fernanda. "What Happens When Your Research Is Featured on 'Fox & Friends'". The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved 30 June 2016. 
  25. ^ Constantine, Madonna G. (2007). "Racial microaggressions against African American clients in cross-racial counseling relationships". Journal of Counseling Psychology. 54 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1037/0022-0167.54.1.1. 
  26. ^ David, E.J.R (2013). Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups. Springer Publishing Company. p. 5. ISBN 0826199259. 
  27. ^ a b Love, Katie Lynn (2009). An Emancipatory Study with African-American Women in Predominantly White Nursing Schools. Proquest. p. 221. 
  28. ^ Wong, Gloria; Derthick, Annie O.; David, E. J. R.; Saw, Anne; Okazaki, Sumie (24 October 2013). "The What, the Why, and the How: A Review of Racial Microaggressions Research in Psychology". Race and Social Problems. 6 (2): 181–200. doi:10.1007/s12552-013-9107-9. 
  29. ^ Slaughter-Acey, Jaime C.; Sealy-Jefferson, Shawnita; Helmkamp, Laura; Caldwell, Cleopatra H.; Osypuk, Theresa L.; Platt, Robert W.; Straughen, Jennifer K.; Dailey-Okezie, Rhonda K.; Abeysekara, Purni; Misra, Dawn P. (January 2016). "Racism in the form of micro aggressions and the risk of preterm birth among black women". Annals of Epidemiology. 26 (1): 7–13.e1. doi:10.1016/j.annepidem.2015.10.005. 
  30. ^ a b Sue, D., Capodilupo, C.M., & Holder, A.M.B. (2008). Racial microaggressions in the life experience of black Americans. Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, 39, 329-336.
  31. ^ a b Evans, Stephanie Y. (2009). African Americans and Community Engagement in Higher Education: Community Service, Service-learning, and Community-based Research. State University of New York Press. pp. 126–127. ISBN 143842874X. 
  32. ^ a b Lundberg, Paula K. (2011). Women and Mental Disorders. Praeger. pp. 89–92. ISBN 0313393192. 
  33. ^ "Harvard Study Suggests Microaggressions Might Make People Die Sooner". Retrieved 2015-09-10. 
  34. ^ "Where microaggressions really come from: A sociological account". Retrieved 20 September 2015. The key idea is that the new moral culture of victimhood fosters 'moral dependence' and an atrophying of the ability to handle small interpersonal matters on one's own. At the same time that it weakens individuals, it creates a society of constant and intense moral conflict as people compete for status as victims or as defenders of victims. 
  35. ^ DePillis, Lydia (6 June 2016). "An Election Season Conversation With Ralph Nader, the Nation's No. 1 Public-Interest Crusader — Pacific Standard". Medium. Retrieved 12 June 2016. 
  36. ^ Shammas, John (28 August 2015). "Virginia shooting gunman Bryce Williams thought WATERMELON in newsroom was racist". Mirror Online. 
  37. ^ A. B. Wilkinson (28 August 2015). "Making Sense Out of Bryce Williams and the Virginia Shooting". The Huffington Post. 
  38. ^ Shapiro, Ben (28 August 2015). "Vester Flanagan, Poster Boy for Leftist 'Microaggression' Culture". Retrieved 4 June 2016. 
  39. ^ Harris, Rafael S. (2008). "Racial microaggression? How do you know?". American Psychologist. 63 (4): 275–276. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.4.275. 
  40. ^ Schacht, Thomas E. (2008). "A broader view of racial microaggression in psychotherapy". American Psychologist. 63 (4): 273–273. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.63.4.273. 
  41. ^ Demetriou, Dan. "Fighting Together: Civil Discourse and Agonistic Honor". In Laurie Johnson; Dan Demetriou. Honor in the Modern World: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. Lexington Books. Retrieved 4 June 2016. 
  42. ^ Regan, Viv (29 December 2014). "Microaggression: desperately seeking discrimination". Spiked. 
  43. ^ Trigger warnings demean feminism. Here's why. on YouTube
  44. ^ "The Microaggression Farce". City Journal. Autumn 2014. 

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