Microaggression is a subtle form of oppression experienced by minority groups as part of everyday life. The term was originally coined to characterize the racism experienced by people of color but has since been broadened to include the microaggression encountered by women and other minority groups.
Any interaction either subtly or directly enforcing a person’s inferiority as a result of their group membership is a form of microaggression. Microaggression may be as subtle as continually mispronouncing a non-English-based name or as overt as asking “Where are you from?” The message, whether intentional or not, is “You are foreign, and you do not belong.”
Giving a backhanded compliment, such as saying to a transgender woman, “You’re so pretty! I never would have known you were trans,” is also a form of microaggression, as is denying the existence of discrimination and racism or saying, “I don’t see color.” Many critical theorists believe these invalidations to be the predominant form of microaggression in contemporary society.
- Treating members of minority groups as if they do not belong in particular settings
- Making racist or sexist assumptions and treating a person as if those assumptions are true
- Making racist, ageist, ableist, or sexist jokes
- Exhibiting surprise at a person of color’s intelligence or eloquence
- Telling a bisexual person to “pick a side” or assuming a bisexual person will cheat or is promiscuous
- Assuming a person with a disability has a lower quality of life than a person who is able-bodied
- Being asked to state one’s gender on forms where only “male” and “female” are offered as options
- Assuming a person of color is a janitor or assistant rather than a professor or manager
- Assuming a male medical professional to be a doctor and a female medical professional to be a nurse
Another form of microaggression is the myth of meritocracy. Meritocracy holds, erroneously, that those who are intelligent, determined, hardworking, and fundamentally good will be able to succeed and become happy, through these attributes alone. Those who do not succeed, according to meritocracy, must then be lazy, unintelligent, bad, or otherwise flawed.
This belief is considered harmful because it:
- Discounts the effects of privilege
- Falsely purports there to be equal opportunities for all
- Asserts a person’s race, sexuality, gender, or disability to have no effect on that person’s ability to achieve success
- Holds policies such as affirmative action to be “racist” because they provide “unfair advantages”
- Perpetuates stereotypes about people of color and other minority groups
Microaggression and Systemic Oppression
According to a number of feminists, race scholars, and other critical theorists, the predominant form of discrimination today is covert rather than overt. People are unlikely to use racist epithets, especially in a professional or educational setting, and they may not directly refuse to hire a person from a minority group. However, they may instead take steps—often without realizing they are doing so—to make life more uncomfortable for members of minority groups. Studies indicate, for example, men have a tendency to talk over and interrupt women and are frequently unaware they are doing this or that they exhibit this behavior more frequently with women.
Proponents of microaggression theory believe microaggression should be defined according to the feelings of the victim rather than those of the perpetrator. A heterosexual woman who tells her bisexual female friend, “I don’t know why you date women. You could get any guy you wanted!” may think she is paying her friend a compliment. However, this comment may invalidate her friend’s identity. The behavior is still considered a microaggression, no matter the intent of the behavior. When a white person insists “I don’t see color” in order to demonstrate they are not racist, they are in fact denying the significance of a person of color’s identity, cultural history, and experience. This type of statement is also considered a microaggression.
Responding to Microaggression
It may be challenging to respond to microaggression, especially when the perpetrator is a family member or other loved one. Everyday Feminism writer Aliya Khan suggests some of the following as possible responses to microaggression:
- Offer another way to look at the situation.
- Say “I disagree.” Depending on the situation, one may choose to simply leave it at that but may also choose to elaborate and explain why.
- Ask questions to challenge the microaggression.
- Change the subject.
- Bonilla-Silva, E. (2003). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
Khan, A. (2015, January 18). 6 Ways to Respond to Sexist Microaggressions in Everyday Conversations. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/01/responses-to-sexist-microaggressions
Liu, A. (2015, February 25). No, You’re Not Imagining It: 3 Ways Racial Microaggressions Sneak into Our Lives. Retrieved from http://everydayfeminism.com/2015/02/ways-racial-microaggressions-sneak-in
- Microaggressions: Power, privilege and everyday life. (n.d.). The Microaggression Project. Retrieved from http://www.microaggressions.com
Sue, D. (n.d.). Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Sent. Retrieved from http://www.ucop.edu/academic-personnel-programs/_files/seminars/Tool_Recognizing_Microaggressions.pdf
Last Updated: 04-27-2016
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michael bJanuary 20th, 2015 at 8:40 PM
feel like I been discriminated in workplaces. everytime I start new job. treated like trash. and they take their anger out on me, call me gay. my wages low
ShantaMarch 22nd, 2018 at 10:22 PM
There are many assumptions about people’s intentions that are made in this article that are biased and short-sighted. This is also exemplified by stating that microaggression is present, dependent upon the interpreters view point or conceptualization of information that is presented to them. This is a slippery slope because it allows people, who make erroneous assumptions about others’ intentions, to design a reality that does not exist. In addition, it allows the person to remain in denial about their own biases and perpetuates how they view this “dysfunctional” world they see around themselves. I implore people to work with reality by frequently, and HONESTLY, questioning themselves about their assumptions of reality. Honesty is the key.
mary sMarch 2nd, 2021 at 2:47 PM
Back in the 1980’s, I tried therapy for help in dealing with the stresses of being a woman working in a STEM field. I deliberately chose a woman therapist with a Ph.D., who described herself as a feminist, assuming that she would be sensitive to my situation. However, in one therapy session, she said to me, “I get the feeling that you think this should be an intellectual discussion”, with a grimace of disdain at the word “intellectual. That sure seemed like a microagression to me. It seemed sexist to me. That comment made her part of the problem, not part of the solution.
StephenOctober 1st, 2022 at 2:20 AM
What you mention is fascinating. I can see that you want to ease your stress. This is emotional. Perhaps she was the wrong person for this. Her qualifications may have led you up the wrong path because a Ph.d holder may be knowledgable in their field, but that field is narrow not general. Also, I have found some women do not have empathy where you would expect to always find it- a stereotype! I can feel for your disappointment. Perhaps she was not experienced enough. Whatever happened the session came to an impasse, and she threw you some sort of challenge. I wonder what her supervisor made of it. It must have added to your stress. There is such a lot going on here. The essence though is the stress, and the therapist seems to be in the way. fascinating.
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