What to Know About Microaggressions

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, an author and a professor of psychology and education, on the significance of the slights, insults, and put-downs of people of color and other marginalized communities.

What is a microaggression illustration.
What is a microaggression illustration.

The word microaggression has come to the fore during this most recent period of racial reckoning in this country. It’s a relatively new addition to our cultural lexicon, but not for Derald Wing Sue, M.S., Ph.D., a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College, Columbia University and one of the most prominent and prolific voices on the psychology of racism. Microaggressions have been a focus of much of his research and writing, which includes the books Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence, Overcoming Our Racism, and Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation.

“In a lot of my work I’m studying, why do we dehumanize people?” he says. “Society dehumanizes Black people. You can see that in a major microaggression with the Black Lives Matter movement when people say, ‘All lives matter.’ That’s a microaggression, because it invalidates what the message of Black Lives Matter means — that, in our nation, Black lives are of lesser value. And by saying that ‘all lives matter,’ there’s a false equivalence that just diminishes the issue.”

Health Matters spoke with Dr. Sue about the meaning of microaggressions, how they permeate daily life, and the toll they take on the health of people of color and other marginalized communities, as well as what allies can do to recognize and ultimately help mitigate the existence of microaggressions.

Derald Wing Sue, expert in microaggressions.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue

What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, insults, put-downs, and invalidations that people of color experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they are engaging in an offensive or demeaning form of behavior. Most people who commit microaggressions don’t realize that it’s generated from implicit bias — that is, bias that is outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator — which is quite different from explicit bias, in which they are conscious of the harm in what they’re saying or doing. [My research team’s] original work was on racial microaggressions, but almost any marginalized group in our society can be the object of them.

What are some examples?
African Americans are most likely to experience microaggressions of dangerousness and criminality. Asian and Latinx Americans receive microaggressions of perpetual foreigner in your own land. Women get microaggressions of sexual objectification. LGBTQ individuals face microaggressions of sinfulness, that not only is it pathological — their lives and orientation — but that they are sinning.

There are three forms: nonverbal, verbal, or environmental. A typical nonverbal communication directed primarily toward African Americans comes out in fear, anxiety, criminality. On the subway, almost anytime you see an empty seat, it is next to a Black passenger. In fact, passengers who come into the subway are always more likely to sit next to white passengers. That is nonverbal communication that, if you’re African American, there’s something wrong with you, that you’re dangerous.

I get verbal microaggressions all the time. After I do an address, audience members will compliment me and say, “You speak excellent English.” And while the person means it to be a compliment, the underlying communication is that I am a perpetual alien in my own country. I am not a true American. One of the most common ones is for a professor to compliment a Black student: “You are so articulate!” It seems to be a compliment, but the professor doesn’t realize that it’s a microaggression because the professor is surprised that a Black student could be articulate. In their mind, they are saying, “You’re an exception.” It allows them to cling to the stereotype that most Blacks aren’t bright and articulate.

Environmental examples include an employee hanging up nude photos of women or a fraternity party where an individual shows up in blackface.

“Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, insults, put-downs, and invalidations that people of color experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they are engaging in an offensive or demeaning form of behavior.”

— Dr. Derald Wing Sue

How can this be combatted?
When I was working in high schools, many Black teenage girls would tell me that one of the most common things they heard from white classmates was, “You’re pretty for a Black girl,” which led me to think about, what can the targets of microaggressions do as a comeback? We just submitted the final draft of our next book, in which my research team and I talked about microinterventions, the everyday comebacks or statements that disarm microaggressors.

Now, when people compliment my English, I say, “Thank you. I hope so. I was born here,” or, “You speak excellent English too.” When I brought that up, the high school girls would laugh. I said, “Why don’t you say the same thing?” When you get a compliment, “You’re pretty for a dark girl,” simply say, “You’re pretty for a white girl.” It’s a reversal. Verbal jujitsu. This is an art rather than a science.

Are microaggressions the same as racism?
Microaggressions vary from microassaults to microinsults to microinvalidations. A microassault is like old-fashioned racism, being called a racial epithet. You know where the person is coming from. Microassaults are meant to put you down, to harm you. And it’s easier for me to deal with an overt racist than someone in which the racism is outside of conscious awareness.

We find microinvalidation probably the most harmful, and it’s the well-intentioned people who are unaware of their biases that do the most harm. They are the teachers who educate our children; the employers who decide whom they’re going to hire, retain, promote, and fire. They’re the healthcare providers who determine the quality and quantity of healthcare that people receive.

Microaggressions to people of color are constant and continual. They occur from the time you awaken until you go to bed, from the time we are born until we die. They are also cumulative, in which anyone can represent the straw that breaks the camel’s back. They are constant reminders of your second-class status in this society. They create a psychological racial fatigue because you always have to decipher the conscious communication from the hidden insult.

What is their impact?
Microaggressions can have macro impact. When Trayvon Martin was killed by George Zimmerman, Zimmerman was operating from a microaggression that African American youngsters walking in that particular neighborhood represented a potential criminal. So, while it was a microaggression — it seemed to be an insignificant harm in action — the impact was the death of Trayvon Martin.

One of the things that police officers historically have been able to use as a defense that was acceptable to a jury was that they killed the unarmed Black man because they feared for their lives. Now, I don’t doubt that many police officers feared for their lives, but it was based upon a stereotypical image of how Black men are portrayed in our society, that they are criminals, subhuman aliens, or other beings — that killing them is not related to killing a human being.

Microaggressions have macro impact upon the standard of living of marginalized groups in our society. How else can you define the fact that the majority of CEO positions in Fortune 400 companies are white men? Why are 90% of school superintendents white men in an occupation actually dominated by women? Microaggressions not only harm on an individual level, but they also harm the standard of living, housing, employment, and healthcare. It has a major detrimental impact. It isn’t the white supremacist who is harming my standard of living. It is decent, well-intentioned individuals who experience themselves as moral human beings who do not realize that they are engaging in actions that are detrimental to the psychological health, physical survival, and well-being of people or communities of color.

What is the difference between micro- and macroaggressions?
Microaggressions affect individual targets and reside in the individual biases, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of individuals. Macroaggressions affect whole classes of groups of populations and reside in the structures, programs, policies of institutions, society, and our customs. This is the distinction that can be made between individual racism (microaggressions) and systemic racism (macroaggressions).

What are examples of macroaggressions?
We have come to recognize the power and impact of environmental macroaggressions that affect socially devalued groups in our society. Confederate statues and flags. Sports teams’ logos of Native Americans. The American Psychological Association has conducted studies that indicate mascots and environmental macroaggressions have major psychological harm and impact. I applaud the taking away of the Confederate flag in NASCAR, and removing Aunt Jemima. Other people may not find them offensive, but certain groups do. And they are very harmful psychologically.

What can people do to change this?
There are everyday actions that any of us can do to combat micro- and macroaggressions. In our book Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, we’ve identified four different categories of actions that people can engage in. One is to educate perpetrators or educate stakeholders. The second is to make the invisible visible. Oftentimes, what happens is that people aren’t aware of what they’re doing. So, if they are not aware of it, they won’t change. A third one is to disarm the micro- or macroaggressions. And the fourth is to seek outside help and authority.

All four of those strategies outline many behaviors — tactics we call them — that individuals can take. Some of the tactics overlap. When someone says, “You’re pretty for a dark girl,” for you to come back and say, “You’re pretty for a white girl,” you’ve achieved two of the goals: One is making the invisible visible to a perpetrator. You’re making them sit back and say, “Geez, I just insulted the person.” But you’re also disarming the microaggression. So, it’s falling under two classifications.

Do microaggressions affect people’s health?
Not only do they have detrimental health consequences for marginalized group members, but they have psychological harm too. It has work performance harm. It has educational harm. In fact, one study that we conducted — and this was primarily on Asian Americans — correlated subjective well-being with the number of microaggressions that they experience in real time. They were attached to monitors, and anytime they experienced some microaggression, they would record it. The American Psychological Association had a study of 3,000 subjects and it found that of all the groups, African Americans experience many microaggressions over the course of the day. One young African American woman talked about how she was mistaken for the cafeteria worker three times in one day. It was just a mistake, but when this happens on and on, it is tiring.

It impacts the well-being and psychological health of people of color. In fact, subjective well-being — or someone’s personal measure of their own well-being — is lower, dependent upon the correlation with microaggressions that happen to them, and there’s higher incidences of anxiety and depression. Many people have begun to use the term racial battle fatigue; people of color constantly must be vigilant and ward off these hostile invalidations and insults.

Also, there are many studies of healthcare providers that indicate that they deliver a different quality of care to patients or clients who are racially, culturally different. All you have to do is to look at COVID-19, which may not discriminate against a gender, race, or different individuals, but the impact is differential. In the state of New York, for example, we know that Black and Latinx communities are differentially impacted. They have higher incidence of COVID-19. They have higher levels of death far beyond their population.

What can people do to support their peers?
There are two things you can do: one is to be nonracist, the other is to be anti-racist. It’s easy for people to be nonracist, but it’s harder to intervene and take action. And we have found there’s a major gap in taking action. Someone once said to me that the ultimate white privilege is to be able to acknowledge your privilege but do nothing about it.

When I was in California, I worked for an institution that was racist in its policies and practices, and I would share this with white colleagues in my department. They would admit it and support me. But when it came to speaking out at a large faculty meeting, they were silent. I was so upset and felt betrayed. I asked them why they didn’t support me, and they had all types of reasons. Now I know why: They were fearful of the repercussions, so they wouldn’t make the invisible visible, and they wouldn’t understand themselves as racial, cultural beings — to understand white privilege and step forward and be an ally.

Glossary of Terms

Anti-racist: Someone who intervenes and takes action against racist people, pronouncements, and situations.

Environmental microaggression: Manifests at a systemic/macroscopic level, such as the display of the Confederate flag; often hard to recognize and remedy.

Microaggression: A subtle, indirect, or often unintentional act of discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

Nonverbal microaggression: A microaggression perpetrated by an action rather than words, e.g., not sitting next to a person of color on the subway.

Microassault: The communication of a racial epithet. Consciously discriminating. A clear verbal, nonphysical assault or deliberate discriminatory action.

Microinsult: The communication of rudeness and insensitivity that demeans a person’s racial heritage or identity.

Microintervention: An anti-bias response meant to disarm a microaggressor, e.g., when someone compliments the language skills of an American-born person of color, who responds, “Thank you. I hope so. I was born here,” or, “You speak excellent English too.”

Microinvalidation: Probably the most harmful, according to Dr. Sue; microinvalidations come from well-intentioned people who are unaware of their biases that do the most harm. They deny the experiential reality of people of color.

Nonracist: Someone who is aware of their own bias or preconceived notions about others.

Subjective well-being: The personal measure of one’s own well-being.

Verbal microaggression: A statement or phrase, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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