Microaggression theory

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Microaggression theory is a social theory that describes social exchanges in which a member of a dominant culture says or does something, often accidentally, and without intended malice, that belittles and alienates a member of a marginalized group.

Psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce coined the word microaggression in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals he said he had regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflict on black people.[1][2][3][4] In 1973, MIT economist Mary Rowe extended the term to include similar aggressions directed at women; eventually, the term came to encompass the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, such as poor people, disabled people and sexual minorities.[5]

Description and prevalence[edit]

Psychologist and Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as "brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership."[6] Sue describes microaggressions at generally happening below the level of awareness of well-intentioned members of the dominant culture. Microaggressions are considered to be different from overt, deliberate acts of bigotry, such as the use of racist epithets, because the people perpetrating microaggressions often intend no offence and are unaware they are causing harm.[7]

Microaggressions have been described[by whom?] 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 minimise the existence of discrimination against the minority group, seek to deny the perpetrator's own bias, or minimise real conflict between the minority group and the dominant culture.[7]

Forms of Racial Microaggressions[edit]

According to Sue et el,[8] microaggressions seem to appear in three forms:

Race or ethnicity[edit]

Main article: Racism

Social scientists have described microaggressions as "the new face of racism,"[citation needed] saying that the nature of racism has shifted over time from overt expressions of white supremacy and racial hatred, such as hate crimes or the existence of the Ku Klux Klan, towards expressions of aversive racism, such as microaggressions, that are more subtle, ambiguous and often unintentional. Researchers say this has led white Americans to wrongly believe that racism is no longer a problem for non-white Americans[9]

Studies[citation needed] show that a wide variety of people in the United States report experience with racial microaggressions, including Latino American, African American, and Asian American people. Racial microaggressions are not limited by class or circumstance, and can be experienced by college students and upper-middle class professionals.[citation needed] For example, white students and professors seeming surprised when an African-American student makes a particularly insightful or intelligent comment in class,[18] and Asian students being pathologized or penalized as too passive or quiet.[10] One famous example of a race-related microaggression happened when during the 2008 U.S. democratic presidential primaries Joe Biden described Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Sue wrote that while on the surface Biden's comment sounded like praise, the message heard by African-Americans was "Obama is an exception. Most Blacks are unintelligent, inarticulate, dirty and unattractive."[7]


Women, including trans women, commonly report experiencing gender-related microaggressions.[citation needed] Microaggressions commonly endured by women include catcalls or wolf-whistling; the male gaze in an inappropriate context; being touched without permission; condescension; being ignored or frequently interrupted; and having their ideas at work attributed to others.[7] 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."[11] Transgender people are commonly misgendered, among other forms of microaggression.[12]


Main article: Sexism

Members of sexual minorities commonly report experiencing microaggressions. These commonly include the sexual exoticization of lesbians by heterosexual men; linking homosexuality with gender identity disorder or paraphilia; and prying questions about one's sexual activity.[7]

The following have been proposed[by whom?] as "microaggressable" themes:[7]

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.[citation needed] For example in one study Asian-American women reported feeling sexually exoticized by majority-culture men or viewed by them as potential trophy wives.[citation needed] Latina women report being assumed to be "spicy and sassy."[citation needed] African-American women report experiencing microaggressions such as ones involving their hair (particularly that it is "unprofessional") or assumptions of stereotypes (such as being labeled an "angry black woman").[13] African-American women often experience microaggressions rooted in the assumption that they are scary, aggressive, loud and/or violent, that they are criminals, intellectually inferior to others, and/or that their culture is pathological.[citation needed] Researchers say black women attribute most microaggression to their race, with gender as a secondary contributor.[14]


Researchers[citation needed] report that most perpetrators of microaggressions consider themselves to be unprejudiced[citation needed] , with one U.S. study finding that even mental health professionals with extensive antiracist training engaged in microaggressions with African-American clients.[15]

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.[16] If challenged by the minority person or an observer, perpetrators will often defend their microaggression as a misunderstanding, a joke, or something small that shouldn't be blown out of proportion.[17]

In guidance for mental health professionals, Sue asks them to be aware that everyone commits microaggressions, and says that if they are accused of committing one they should remain non-defensive and quickly apologize.[18]


Recipients report microaggressions make them feel invisible, exhausted, frustrated, powerless, emotionally detached, helpless or tense.[citation needed] They may also feel a pressure to conform, a loss of their own integrity, or a pressure to "represent" their group.[19] Over time, the cumulative effect of microaggressions can lead to diminished self-confidence and a poor self-image, and potentially also to mental health problems such as depression, anxiety and trauma.[15][17][19][20] Many researchers[citation needed] 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-doubting rather than justifiably angry, and isolated rather than supported.[citation needed] On the other hand, some people report that microaggressions have made them more resilient.[20]

Research has shown that when women experience microaggressions, they may become depressed, develop low self-esteem, or experience sexual dysfunction. Some develop eating disorders and body image issues.[20]

Research has shown that microaggressions can lead people of colour to fear, distrust and avoid relationships with white people.[15]

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. ^ Paludi, Michele A. (2012). Managing Diversity in Today's Workplace: Strategies for Employees and Employers. Praeger. ISBN 0313393176. 
  7. ^ a b c d e f Sue, Derard Wing (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Wiley. pp. 229–233. ISBN 0470491396. 
  8. ^ Sue, D., et al. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.
  9. ^ Sue, Derald Wing, et al (Summer 2008). "Racial Microaggressions Against Black Americans: Implications for Counseling". Journal of Counseling & Development. Retrieved 11 September 2014. 
  10. ^ 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. 
  11. ^ Wing, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons. p. 169. ISBN 9780470491409. OCLC 430842664. 
  12. ^ Paludi, Michele A. (2013). Women and Management: Global Issues and Promising Solutions. Praeger. p. 237. ISBN 0313399417. 
  13. ^ Lundberg-Love, Paula K. (2011). Women and Mental Disorders. Praeger Women's Psychology. p. 98. ISBN 9780313393198. 
  14. ^ Chambers, Crystal Renee (2012). Black Female Undergraduates on Campus: Successes and Challenges. Emerald Group Publishing (Diversity in Higher Education). pp. 83–87. ISBN 1780525028. 
  15. ^ a b c 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. 
  16. ^ David, E.J.R (2013). Internalized Oppression: The Psychology of Marginalized Groups. Springer Publishing Company. p. 5. ISBN 0826199259. 
  17. ^ a b Love, Katie Lynn (2009). An Emancipatory Study with African-American Women in Predominantly White Nursing Schools. Proquest. p. 221. 
  18. ^ Sue, Derald Wing (2012). Counseling the Culturally Diverse: Theory and Practice. Wiley. p. 173. ISBN 1118022025. 
  19. ^ 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.
  20. ^ a b c Lundberg, Paula K. (2011). Women and Mental Disorders. Praeger. pp. 89–92. ISBN 0313393192.