Insidious Oppression: 10 Common Racial Microaggressions

Crowd of peopleAs we covered in last month’s article on microaggressions, they are often subtle, racial insults by well-intentioned people. And they’re experienced by people of color on a regular, sometimes daily, basis. One study found that 96% of African-Americans reported that they experienced microaggressions within the previous year.

Some of the most common microaggressions that racial minorities experience are:

  1. When shopping or dining, the assumption that they are service workers rather than customers.
  2. The assumption that minorities are likely thieves and thus are followed around retail stores. A black woman shared that this happens to her “at least once a week at places where I am receiving some kind of service.”
  3. Critical and offensive comments, stated as fact, on how minorities talk, dress, or style their hair. For example: comments that a person is “too loud” or “speaks so well,” as though it is unexpected from someone of their culture.
  4. Not understanding racial and cultural differences and assuming that racial minorities are the same ethnicity. For example, when my Japanese friend moved to Chinatown, people constantly asked her if she felt “at home.” She’s not Chinese. It’s not the same.
  5. Assuming that all Latinos speak Spanish. No other ethnic group in the United States is expected to be bilingual.
  6. Asking, “What are you?” when unable to identify his or her racial or ethnic background.

While there are individual instances of microaggressions, there are also environmental ones. These are microaggressions that occur and are supported on a larger, societal scale:

  1. The Oscars is a perfect example of the environmental aspects of microaggression. An all-white actor/actress nominee selection for the Academy Awards ceremony sends the message that white is the standard and the only important perspective or influence there is.
  2. The constant bombardment of feisty, neck-rolling black women in media as a standard and accepted representation of black women.
  3. Questioning and challenging the need for minority spaces within larger organizations that are dominated by the majority. For example, when I was planning a meeting for social workers of color (in a predominantly white organization), I heard the comment, “This offensive. This is wrong.”
  4. Finally, the denial by people in the majority of racial experiences is a cornerstone of microaggressions.

What can be done about it? A multipronged approach is needed. First, people inflicting the pain need to stop. As in any relationship, when someone is hurt, the person who caused the hurt needs to stop the painful action, apologize, and commit to not repeating it.

Of course, this is easier said than done. Change is a long process, just like in relationships. Mistakes will be made, and painful interactions will continue to occur. But making a commitment not to engage in microaggressions is a useful start.

Here are some concrete steps and important considerations:

Stop and Think Before Speaking

How will your comment be received? Does the setting make a difference? Is it something you should say to another person?

I recently had a white friend ask me about commenting on a black woman’s hair. She knew that hair was an important and sensitive topic in the black community, and she wanted to be respectful in complimenting this woman’s hair. We talked it through and discussed what she wanted to say, why she wanted to say it, and her relationship with the woman. It seemed “safe” to compliment the woman’s hair.

Context Matters

And then I asked about the environment. Where would they be and who else would be present? Those factors can have a big impact; in this case, it changed my perspective. Suddenly a compliment no longer was “safe” and felt different when singled out to one black woman in a room of white women.

For the record, when my friend approached me to ask her question and have this discussion, she prefaced it by saying she wanted to ask me something related to race and understood if I didn’t want to have the conversation with her. She didn’t act on her privilege and assume that she could ask me anything because she’s white and I’m black. This is very different than when people approach minorities and ask them questions about race assuming that they will represent their entire race—another form of microaggression.

For those of us on the receiving end of microaggressions, we need to acknowledge its impact on us. Constant exposure to microaggressions has a significant toll on the physical and mental health of racial minorities. Research demonstrates that the cumulative effects of microaggressions are devastating. They can lead to feelings of isolation, self-doubt, and frustration.

Recognize It for What It Is

We need to acknowledge a microaggression for what it is. To ignore or dismiss it allows it to fester within us, causing harm to who we are as people. This isn’t to say it should be at the forefront of our minds each day, or that you need to confront everything you experience. But it does mean that you need to be aware that this happens and has an effect. Then you can prepare to deal with it.

Awareness Is Key

There are some situations and environments where you may experience microaggressions more frequently. If you are in an environment where you are the “only,” this may be one of those situations. Be aware of this so you can prepare for those times.

Do a Self-Inventory

The hardest part of dealing with microaggressions is that they are easily deniable.

I just like your hairstyle. What’s the big deal?

OK, so you don’t speak Spanish. It was an honest mistake. Don’t overreact!

These are common responses when calling out microaggressions. When you experience a microaggression, there’s something inside you telling you that you’ve been hurt. Perhaps you get a knot in your stomach, flashes of warmth, an instant headache, or a voice saying, “That’s not right.” Often there is some physical experience that acts as a red flag for you. Pay attention to it.

Seek Support

Have someone in your corner who sees and understands microaggressions. You need someone you can talk to and explain what happened, your feelings, and to do some reality testing with. Because the offender and bystanders will likely deny and even become defensive about microaggressions, you need someone you can talk to without defending your experience.

If you don’t feel comfortable talking to someone in your life, seeking the guidance of a qualified therapist can help you sort through your feelings about your experiences.

Let It Out

Don’t let the self-doubt, anger, or frustration eat away at you or cause you more harm. Whether it’s walking, talking, screaming, crying, or running, find a way to let the pain out. After you’ve done this, you’ll be able to think clearly and decide on your next plan of action.

To Confront or Not Confront?

There are pros and cons to this, particularly in work settings, often placing us in a catch-22. Each circumstance and each person is different. What you need in your life changes with time and environment. Be compassionate and flexible with yourself as you make the decision to confront or not confront a microaggression.

The societal and environmental aspects of microaggressions need to change. Though it may seem overwhelming trying to change centuries-long systems of oppression, “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has” (Margaret Mead).


  1. Klonoff, E. A., & Landrine, H. (1999). Cross-validation of the schedule of racist events. Journal of Black Psychology, 25, pp. 231-254.
  2. Pierce, C., Carew, J., Pierce-Gonzalez, D., & Willis, D. (1978). An experiment in racism: TV commercials. In C. Pierce (Ed.), Television and education, 62-88. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
  3. Steele, C. M., Spencer, S. J., & Aronson, J. (2002). Contending with group image: The psychology of stereotype and social identity threat. In M. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology, 23, pp. 379-440. New York: Academic Press.
  4. Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice, American Psychologist, 62(4), pp. 271-286.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Gwendolyn

    March 23rd, 2015 at 8:23 AM

    I am never too sure about how to confront these things when they happen at work. It puts you in a very bad place when you have to burn some bridges because in the end there will always be people who don’t take this too well, will just think that you are being critical and will never want to work with you to solve the problem.

  • Kelsea

    March 23rd, 2015 at 10:27 AM

    I guess that I just don’t see that much of this, probably because I am a white female and am not looking for it or wouldn’t be offended by it the way that a person of color may be. But I also know that I should see that just because I do not see this happening, there are plenty of others who do see this type of behavior all around them., and the thing is that no one should have to feel like they are being displaced and misused in their own country.

  • melvin

    March 23rd, 2015 at 3:52 PM

    Until you have these sneaky little underhanded things perpetuated against you, then yu have no idea what it feels like to be so marginalized within this society

  • Gracie

    March 24th, 2015 at 3:36 AM

    There are many minorities who say that they can’t even go shopping say at the mall without being viewed as a likely shoplifter. It has to be so discouraging to be a citizen who has never broken the law nor done anything wrong and always feel like someone is looking at you like they expect that you are going to become a lawbreaker at any given moment.

  • Madray

    March 24th, 2015 at 10:41 AM

    Yeah I hate those little comments that at first sound like a real compliment and then the more you think about it you start to understand that while they may be complimenting you, they are critiquing your entire culture as a result. Not cool in any way.

  • brody

    March 25th, 2015 at 3:48 AM

    Come on people, we are better than this!

  • Monita

    March 25th, 2015 at 11:31 AM

    ummm what are you?!?
    if someone seriously asked me that, I would seriously have to think long and hard about how much I really didn’t want to have to go to jail!

  • Thomas

    March 26th, 2015 at 11:35 AM

    What I think would be a very compelling conversation to have would be to take these same people who say that someone has been passively aggressive toward them and then ask the person from whom they perceive that they receive this slight. Does that person think that they slighted this other person just because they are a minority? Or do they even recognize at all that they have said or done something that could be seen in this way? I would guess that many many times they are not even going to realize that they could have done something offensive. I know that this does not make it right, but I think that it points to more and more dialogue being needed to address these issues on all sides.

  • cj

    March 27th, 2015 at 11:05 AM

    I didn’t get that feel about the Oscars at all this year. There are black members of the academy too, so maybe no one thought that the performances were there to give the nods to this season.

  • Sulay

    March 27th, 2015 at 5:07 PM

    This has caused me to have identity issues all my life because I dont claim my race because of how its portrayed and how i feel. I tend to side with the racist remarks because of the media and all the negative portrayal and actual negative behavior by people in my racial group. I also am afraid more around people of my own race. And its hard to find a therapist to help me with this. I dont know where to begin to deal with this issue of what some people see me as self loathing and hatred of myself. But im not saying i feel this way about myself. Its how others see me, i dont see myself as my race. I identify as an American but im told that I am foolish but thats how i feel. Any insight about this is truly welcomed.

  • Smythe

    March 28th, 2015 at 7:24 AM

    This would be like someone very high ranking who also happened to be of color being led to the area where “the help” usually congregate and being asked where their uniforms are… just because this is the assumption that certain people are always going to have about those who have a little more pigment to their skin!

  • Hank

    March 29th, 2015 at 3:44 PM

    Making assumptions about things you don’t know anything about… that can get you in trouble every single time.

    If you don’t really know anything about something or about a culture it is probably bets to just keep your mouth shut.

  • Garen A.

    March 30th, 2015 at 6:36 AM

    Microaggressions were pivotal in my understanding of how marginalization happens every day – not just in the commonly mentioned places like CEO’s, presidents, movies/TV representation etc. My former professor Dr. Sue (Chinese-American born in Oregon) always told us about the frustration he would get from people when they asked where he is from, and he would say “Portland”. They would react like he misunderstood the question and ask again. Another one I hear often is someone “speaks English so well”. I imagine the most frustrating part is that you’ve clearly been insulted, but if you speak up and say anything, you’re the one that’s being irrational. Being white gives us the luxury of being able to ignore this type of stuff. Not everyone has that luxury.

  • Trevor

    March 31st, 2015 at 11:43 AM

    Oops I am the epitome of one who should always stop and think before I speak :/

  • A Baldheaded Man

    June 7th, 2015 at 10:59 AM

    Has anyone seriously considered that we as black people are just “chronically cursed”? I don’t know if it has been since Bible times are not (curse of Ham) but you have to acknowledge that Blacks have had a special brand of mistreatment for centuries now and there is no apparent end in sight. Africa is full of plagues, wars, desertification, famine, diseases, etc. African-Americans: an unarmed black man gets shot dead by police at least once a week, black on black violence, HIV, highest rates of everything else bad, highest unemployment, most incarcerated, most victimized by scams, most insulted at work or on TV, least trusted, most offensive to other races when intermarrying… We should at least commend ourselves everyday for continuing on under the circumstances.

  • Sulay

    June 8th, 2015 at 1:19 PM

    Baldheaded man I do not feel it is a curse but it is indicative in the bible as the plight of the Jews. I am in no means a religious person. But I think its part of not knowing our worth as a people, a race of depressed and Im speaking of black Americans which are totally different from Africans on the continent. Very interesting perspective everyone gave. I just say I am an American who identifies as a New Yorker. As if being “black” isn’t a thing. Its a culture that other races have started to immulate via music gospel and hip hop where it is okay. Someone said “only if WE could be accepted as people as much as our music and culture is accepted by other.”

  • PC Authoritarian

    June 5th, 2018 at 8:44 AM

    This is the evolution of the United States of the Offended. You should not confuse ignorance for malice. Half of this list is absurd. As a native white man, I am trying to learn Spanish, and will be HAPPY to complement a Latino’s command of the English language if it’s deserving in the context of how I wish I could have that same command in Spanish, and there’s no microagression about it. Microagression turns ignorance into violence as ammunition to be used in the PC war. The only reason anybody feels slighted by half these items is because the left is pushing the victimhood mentality. I’d almost rather move to Mexico and be a minority than listen to the propaganda the collective of victims wants to push. I would be proud to receive a “you speak such great Spanish” complement as a validation of my success from my hard work. But then again I value hard work. I value personal responsibility. Maybe you should try it. PS, other stuff on this list has no business being here it’s not a microagression. It’s more overt racism and racist preconceptions, e.g. following blacks around a store because they’re going to shoplift is not a microagression but it is pretty outrageous. Enough with the PC agenda, we will not stand by idly and let anybody turn this country into a postmodernist’s Marxist “utopia” of eventual horrors.

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