What Are Microaggressions?

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on August 31, 2021
4 min read

“Microaggression” is a term that’s recently become common when talking about race, diversity, equality, and similar topics. It refers to when someone, either accidentally or purposefully, says or does something offensive. Chances are you’ve been on the receiving end of a microaggression, whether you realized it or not, and it’s equally likely that you’ve committed microaggressions yourself.

"No one is immune from inheriting racial, gender and sexual orientation biases," commented Derald Wing Sue, PhD, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College of Columbia University. "Everyone, including marginalized group members, harbors biases and prejudices and can act in discriminatory and hurtful ways toward others".

A microaggression can be conveyed verbally, physically, or environmentally, and will usually revolve around gender, race, sexuality, and other minority groups. While microaggressions can come in many forms and are often unintentional, they always send a negative message that reinforces stereotypes about a person or group of people. They’re usually subtle, but they’re just as hurtful as more obvious displays of discrimination.

For many people, it can be difficult to recognize microaggressions in everyday life, but they’re more common than you may realize. For example, a microaggression can look like this:

  • “We’re all members of the same race: the human race.” This signals that members of different races all have the same experiences, but this is not true.
  • “If they work hard, everyone in our society can succeed.” This signals that unequal outcomes for people of different races come from laziness, not from societal influences.
  • “Your English is so good.” This signals that people from non-white races are not true Americans, and that they are aliens in their own country.
  • “Where are you really from?” This signals that, based on their appearance, someone can’t be “from” the United States.

It can be painful when you’re the victim of a microaggression. First and foremost, you need to do what’s best for yourself. Find peers who belong to the same minority group as you and talk about your experiences. You’ll find out that, although these microaggressions are a serious issue in society, you aren’t alone. Having your experiences validated by others who understand your feelings will help you fight feelings of insecurity.

In the moment, one of the ways to deal with microaggression is to disarm it. Disarming comes in the form of making statements or responding to the microaggressions with reversed comebacks. For example:

  • If someone says, “You speak great English,” you can respond by saying, “You speak great English, too.”
  • If someone says, “You’re beautiful for a dark girl,” you can reply with, “You’re pretty for a white girl.”

By turning the microaggression back on the person, you’re making them see why their comment was insulting.

Do your best to consider context. If the microaggression came from someone whose relationship is valuable to you and you feel comfortable addressing it, be confident enough to bring it up. These kinds of confrontations can be nerve-wracking, but it’s important that you express your feelings.

If the best thing for you is to ignore the microaggression, that’s ok. Silence can be difficult because it leaves you with negative feelings, but it can be even more draining to confront someone about it. If you decide not to respond immediately, you can always take time to reflect and choose to address it at a later time.

If you’re a bystander to a microaggression, be supportive to the victim. Microaggressions are hurtful, but words from an ally can be even more powerful. Your kindness to the victim and disapproval to the microaggressor will be remembered.

When you get involved as an ally, be conscious of who you speak for. If you try to speak for the victim instead of alongside them, it can be taken as another kind of microaggression.

Many people don’t believe that they’ve ever been the microaggressor. Even if you have good intentions or have been the victim yourself, you can commit microaggressions. This doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but it does mean that your society values majority groups over minority groups.

If someone accuses you of committing a microaggression, don’t be defensive. Instead of reacting immediately, take a minute to think about your behaviors and how they appear to other people. Acknowledging how the victim is feeling will help them move on from this negative experience. If they’re comfortable talking about it, you can ask how to avoid committing microaggressions in the future.

Microaggressions are directed towards particular groups of people, but they have a huge impact on society as a whole. To make an impact on microaggressive behavior, address it when you see it happen, educate others, disarm the behavior, and, if necessary, seek help.