What Is A Micro Aggression?

Reviewed by Rashonda Douthit, LCSW

Published 06/27/2022

Although the term "microaggression" might be enjoying some attention in the past few years, there is still much about microaggressions that are downplayed or misunderstood—and microaggressions still often go unexamined and unaddressed. They are the source of countless research studies, surveys, and academic papers. Understanding the basics is necessary to truly understand the issue and the cascade of effects that follow microaggressions. What is a microaggression?

Micro Aggressions: A Brief History And Definition

The term "microaggression" first entered into common understanding in 2007, though the term itself preceded this period by over thirty years. A psychologist, Derald Wing Sue, began studying the small, seemingly harmless comments made to people of certain people groups, with a heavy focus on people within certain racial groups, and published his findings on the subject, effectively identifying "microaggression theory." It was the first paper of its kind, clearly identifying and calling out the types of behavior and speech patterns that target people of a certain race and identified why those seemingly small comments and behaviors are so dangerous to the mental health of people being targeted.

Although the concept of microaggression was not new in 2007, it was an idea that had largely been downplayed and ignored; with a steady decline in overt racism, many were content to ignore the pervasive nature of racist and discriminatory behavior and speech patterns. With the publishing of Sue's 2007 paper, the concept was thrust into the limelight and expanded to cover a wide, far-reaching range of issues, including any discrimination, and most subjects of social justice. While it began as a racist concept, it has grown substantially in all that it encompasses.

Types Of Microaggressions

The term "microaggression covers many different types of subtle insults, including microassault, microinvalidation, and microinsults. The first, microassault, is one of the most common types of microaggressions and is often justified under the guise of "coming from another time." Older people may be more prone to this form of microaggression (though they are not the only perpetrators), and it may include using language that has been identified as offensive to certain people groups, intentionally excluding people from conversations, or staring or glaring at people, such as interracial couples, or same-sex couples.

Microinvalidations are microaggressions that casually invalidate someone's experience. "Racism doesn't exist anymore" is one of the most common microinvalidations, as it refuses to acknowledge the experience of people who say that they are targeted for their race, identity, or belief system. Asking where someone is "really" from and telling someone they are "too sensitive" to perceived attacks or inappropriate behaviors are other common microinvalidations.

Microinsults, the final category, are also painfully common. Microinsults can be verbal or nonverbal and might include insinuations that someone does not belong to or casual remarks about how "different" someone is from other people belonging to their same culture or identity. Assuming that someone is in an inferior work position and giving someone a nickname because their name is "too difficult to pronounce" or "too hard to remember" are other common examples of micro insults. These are examples of microaggressions, though there are countless more that people use against certain people groups.

Why Micro Aggressions Are Problematic

Small, offhand comments might seem innocuous enough. A racially charged comment made in passing or a rude comment uttered quickly and unashamedly might not seem to be particularly dangerous or problematic. Still, they are a form of prejudice, and they can have a significant impact on the people and people groups they target—not to mention the collective consciousness of a group of people or even a country. While people in authority are quick to decry outright prejudice and discrimination, authority figures, peers, and even political leaders are less likely to come down on microaggressions and may even use them themselves.

In large part, microaggressions are so problematic because they make it difficult for people to easily and effectively identify wrongdoing. Much like gaslighters' manipulative behaviors, microaggressions creep into casual conversations with such simplicity and guilelessness that they seem impossible to call out as cruel, rude, or inconsiderate. Microaggressions are also problematic because they are largely systemic; most people have come across some form of microaggression at some point or another, with many even being on the receiving end. Many microaggressions are even rooted in common terms and phrases, such as the phrase "holy cow" or having been "gypped." These terms are collective conscious and used without a thought, despite targeting specific people groups in mocking or derogatory ways.

Microaggressions are also problematic because they make dismantling prejudice and discrimination difficult, often suggesting that people who oppose such speech patterns are too sensitive or too aggressive. Ironically, many oppositions are met with a great deal of aggression, making it frightening and overwhelming to call out inappropriate speech and behavior. Microaggressions reinforce negative stereotypes and target certain people groups without offering clear options for recourse.

Microaggressions: Who Do They Target?

Microaggressions are frequently discussed in conjunction with race, but they do not only impact people of different races. Instead, microaggressions can target virtually anyone within a specific racial background, culture, or subculture and may even target people of certain sexual orientations, gender identities, and religious affiliations. Different types of microaggressions have a similarly harmful effect on individuals experiencing microaggressions. The most commonly occurring microaggressions target race, sexual or gender identity, and religious affiliation.

Racial microaggressions form the core of microaggression theory and maybe the most common microaggressions displayed in the world today. Racial groups targeted by microaggressions run the gamut, including Black populations, Hispanic populations, and Asian populations. Some microaggressions are obviously offensive, while others are proffered under the guise of being positive or kind, such as the stereotype of a certain group being good at math or having impeccable rhythm.

Sexual and gender identities are also frequent targets of microaggressions, with suggestions such as "They just want attention," "It's just a phase," and "They are just hopping on a new trend," all serving to invalidate the feelings and experiences of people with certain sexual orientations or gender identities.

Religious affiliations are also common microaggressions, the most common targets being Islamic people and people practicing eastern religions. Mocking is a common microaggression involved in religious affiliations, assertions that a particular religious group is wholly violent or dangerous. These microaggressions often intersect with racial identity and can encompass a multitude of attitudes and inappropriate profiling.

Encountering Microaggressions: How To Proceed

Encountering microaggressions can prove extremely difficult, both for the individual being targeted and anyone nearby; when such comments are made by people in authority—a manager, perhaps—it can be frightening to call out the behavior. Although a family argument may provide a more clear-cut situation and a safe space to respond, many people feel alarmed and frightened at the prospect of calling out behavior that negatively speaks of people of certain racial groups, sexual or gender identities, and belief systems. Although it would certainly be simple enough to say, "Call out and condemn every microaggression," this does not always take everyone's well being into account, and the real answer is far more complicated.

The target of a microaggression, for instance, can experience severe distress and even dangerous if they call someone out for their behavior, whether that is physical danger or the danger of losing their job. It can also be argued that someone being targeted with microaggressions should not be responsible for fighting for respect but should instead be supported and helped by others involved in the situation.

Microaggressions And Advocacy: Fighting For What's Right

Microaggressions can be difficult to identify and even more difficult to take down; all too often, when someone is called out for their inappropriate behavior or speech, they are quick to respond with a simple, "I'm only joking," or "Oh, come on—It's all in good fun," which can be difficult to counter without receiving a label of being difficult, argumentative, or aggressive. Nevertheless, it is vital for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds to combat microaggressions in day to day life, whether that means meeting with a supervisor to discuss inappropriate workplace behavior (always with an HR rep present) or correcting a family member who frequently uses prejudiced or discriminatory language at family gatherings.

Understanding that aggression often underpins discriminatory language is important when pursuing advocacy. Identifying someone's predilection toward discriminatory or inappropriate behavior can put everyone involved at risk and lead to frightening or alarming confrontations. While advocacy is important, advocating alone is often unsafe. Advocates would always do well to make sure a third party is present during confrontations. It should appeal to authority whenever possible to ensure that they are not unduly targeted by the person being identified as problematic, particularly when someone is called out has a history of aggression. Advocacy for microaggressions targets is vital, and microaggressions as a whole are alarmingly common, but a careful and multivaried approach to eradication offers the most promising solutions.