What are microaggressions? The term has been around for nearly 50 years, but recently has had a
resurgence to describe a particular behaviour which causes harm to marginalised persons.
Oxford Languages defines them as “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of
indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as
a racial or ethnic minority.”
While this definition is not incorrect, it does not address the context or harm done by these. It is
easy to see microaggressions as less harmful than, say, outright slurs, but if a racialised slur
feels like a punch to the gut, microaggressions are like being repeatedly bitten by a swarm of
insects – individually painful and itchy, but all together harmful and dangerous. Research has
shown that microaggressions can have real impacts that affect every part of a person’s life.
Derald Wing Sue, who has written two books on microaggressions, defines the term: "The everyday
slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those
who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people."
By looking at both definitions it is clear that it is not only what has been done, but by whom and
how. Many microaggressions are unintentional and many who commit them would be appalled to
have their actions or statements called racist, falling back on how it was not their intent. Whether
intentional or not, the microaggression is another insect bite.
Microaggressions are not:
• The result of someone being “too sensitive” or “not having a sense of humour”
• “Political correctness”
We have all committed microaggressions at some point, but with more awareness of
microaggression we can all work towards making less of them. Microaggressions are closely tied to
implicit biases, which are the attitudes, stereotypes and assumptions that we are not even aware of,
that can creep into our minds and affect our actions (also known as "thoughts about people you
didn't know you had.")
Examples of racialised microaggressions might include:
• Assuming an Asian woman to be submissive.
• Clutching your bag closer to yourself when you see a Black man coming towards you.
• Complimenting a South East Asian person on how well they speak English (even when their
first language may well be English).
• Expressing surprise that a Black person has a PhD.
• Asking to touch a Black person’s hair.
• Asking to use a nickname because their real name is “too difficult” to pronounce.
• Saying “I don’t see colour, we are all the human race”.
• “All lives matter”
• “Where are you really from?”
• “Is your marriage going to be arranged?”
• Using the word “gypped” to mean cheated.
• “Don’t you wish you could eat bacon/ beef though?
• “Oh I didn’t realise, you look white!”
• As a minority, I understand how bad the Holocaust was for Jews.
Microaggressions are not limited to racial harm but can also include:
• Saying to bisexual people that they are “just greedy” or “need to pick a side”.
• A trans/ non-binary person being repeatedly misgendered and the speaker laughing and
saying how it is “so hard to remember”.
• To a trans person “I would never have guessed you weren’t really a woman/ man”
• A woman being spoken over in meetings and her ideas ignored, but when repeated by a man
welcomed as insightful and important.
• Pushing someone in a wheelchair without asking for permission
• Moving disability aids “out of the way”
• When someone says they are an immigrant and that their first language is not English,
responding with “No you’re not” or “Yes it is!”.
• Saying “You’re so inspiring!” to disabled people just going about their normal lives
If you are white, I strongly recommend taking the Implicit Racial Bias Test (see links below) as you
may be surprised by the outcome.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BJL2P0JsAS4 Video of Derald Wing Sue discussing
microagressions, what they are and how they cause harm to marginalised people
https://itooamharvard.tumblr.com/ “A photo campaign highlighting the faces and voices of black
students at Harvard College. Our voices often go unheard on this campus, our experiences are
devalued, our presence is questioned– this project is our way of speaking back, of claiming this
campus, of standing up to say: We are here. This place is ours. We, TOO, are Harvard.”
https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/289921.Derald_Wing_Sue books by Derald Wing Sue
including “Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation” and
“Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact”
https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html The Implicit Racial Bias Test
https://www.vox.com/2014/12/26/7443979/racism-implicit-racial-bias The Implicit Racial Bias Test
Times on how to respond to microaggressions
Examples-of-Microaggressions.pdf More examples of microaggressions