With contributions by Dorothy Lsoto, University of Wisconsin-Madison
Microaggressions are a targeted form of insult and demeaning action or language directed towards a group of people based on their identity. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defined microaggressions as: "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults to the target person or group" (Sue et al., 2007). Because they tend to be more subtle than overt discrimination, hatred or bigotry, microaggressions have been studied as "modern" forms of racism or sexism. They are, however, not always subtle or covert.
Microaggressions relay hostility and exclusion or "othering", exacerbating feelings of not belonging. Microaggressions are especially harmful because they can be experienced on a daily basis. A 2022 study found that African-American teenagers face racist microaggressions on average 5 times a day (English et al. 2022).
The term microaggressions was originally coined in 1970s by psychiatrist Chester Pierce. Pierce came up with the term to categorize the daily racial offenses, dismissals and insults on African American people by non-Black Americans. The term microaggressions has since been redefined to encompass societal exclusion of any marginalized group of people.
Watch a short video on that uses mosquito bites as an analogy to a microaggression.
Classification of microaggressions
Sue et al. (2007) classified microaggressions into three broad types:
- Microinsults are comments or actions that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's identity. Can be unintentional but hold hidden insulting messages.
- Microinvalidations are comments made to invalidate or undermine someone's experience, thoughts, or feelings related to their identity.
- Microassaults are explicit derogations characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack with intention to hurt through name-calling, exclusion, or purposeful discriminatory actions. Most likely to be deliberate.
The classification is fluid. A comment the first time can be a microinsult, the second or third time it can become a microassault. The same comment may also be perceived in different ways by different people based on their own identity and experiences.
Microaggressions can occur among individuals (personal interactions or withdrawal of interactions), in a physical setting (for example, workspaces that are exclusionary) as well as at the institutional level (manifested through culture, beliefs, policies and structures). Recognizing microaggressions as harmful is important for identifying them when they happen and responding to them appropriately.
Examples of microaggressions in science
Table 1. Microaggressions in science (adapted from Harrison and Tanner 2018 and Sue et al. 2007)
|Microinsult||"You need to learn how to speak English with less of an accent. You sound unscientific."||You cannot have an accent and be a scientist.|
|"The paper [led by author with a Spanish surname] should be reviewed by a native English speaker."||People with "foreign" sounding names cannot write English well; this comment is often received by native English speakers who happen to have non-Anglo names.|
|"We only hire the best, we don't need a diversity hire."||Excellence and diversity are mutually exclusive.|
|"The lack of diversity in the society fellows just reflects the demographics of the senior leadership of the field. If we wait long enough, the demographics will change."||Scientists who are not white and men are not leaders in the field. There are no further actions I need to take to ensure diversity in awardees.|
|"Only faculty who are not good researchers care about teaching."||Teaching is not important and one cannot be good or care at both research and teaching.|
|Faculty, staff or students of color being questioned whether they belong in their own building||People of color don't belong here. You cannot be faculty, staff or a student.|
|"It's too bad they are going to a primarily undergraduate institution, they are such a good scientist."||Teaching is not important and research does not happen at PUIs.|
|Microinvalidation||"We don't need anti-racism training, race isn't an issue in our department. We have one Black faculty member."||Ignores experience of the one faculty member, who is being tokenized, and any Black students or staff in the department, or the experiences of other people of color.|
|Scheduling faculty or graduate student retreats on the weekend.||Assumes people don't have other responsibilities outside of academia.|
|"I don't believe that was a sexist comment, you're blowing this out of proportion."||You are being too sensitive, and I understand your experience better than you.|
|"I don't need to wear a microphone. My voice is loud enough."||I determine whether you can hear me or not. It's not important to me if you are unable to hear me - that's your problem.|
|"You should stop doing that women-in-science thing you do, it's not a good use of your time."||Service to the community and leadership are a waste of time.|
|Microassault||"It's a shame you are having kids in graduate school, your research must not be that important to you."||Parents cannot have children and succeed in science.|
|"Oh, don't worry, you'll get a faculty job, you're Black."||Conveys resentment and hostility about affirmative action.|
|"You only got that fellowship because you are a minority."||Membership in a minoritized group confers a special advantage and this individual did not deserve the fellowship on their own merit.|
|Scholars of color being stereotyped as angry or aggressive.||This comment reflects discomfort of white people with presence and expressions of people of color, which may be interpreted as hostile when in fact they are just conveying emotions differently, and it can also be used to dismiss and negate identification or rejection of stereotypes and racism.|
|Faculty, staff or students of color being prevented access after hours to their own workspaces.||People of color are not allowed here.|
Williams et al. (2021) proposed expanding Sue et al. (2007)'s initial 9 groupings of racial microaggressions to reflect the breadth of harm they inflict:
- Not a true citizen
- Racial categorization and sameness
- Assumptions about intelligence, competence, or status
- False color blindness/invalidating racial or ethnic identity
- Criminality or dangerousness
- Denial of individual racism
- Myth of meritocracy/race is irrelevant for success
- Reverse-racism hostility
- Pathologizing minority culture or appearance
- Second-class citizen/ignored and invisible
- Connecting via stereotypes
- Exoticization and eroticization
- Avoidance and distancing
- Environmental exclusion
- Environmental attacks
Research on microaggressions in STEM
- A study of 38 Black and Latino/a college students in STEM revealed prevalence of racial microaggressions and stereotyping from their supervisors, including questioning their intellectual capacity and research competence. (McGee 2016)
- Native women students experienced greater frequency of microinsults and microinvalidations, including exclusion by white faculty and peers, being singled out as spokesperson for Native people, having their knowledge challenged, and experiencing rude or stereotyping comments from faculty. (Shotton 2017)
- In a study of 57 women instructors, clinicians, and/or research faculty across several STEM disciplines from a Midwestern land grant university, 25% expressed having experienced gender stereotypes or objectification due to their physical appearance; 40% reported being ignored in a professional setting or having their authority challenged; and 25% received comments on women's work being inferior to that of men's or getting comments of being too "assertive" or "sassy." (Yang & Carroll 2016)
- A study of Chicano and Chicana awardees of prestigious fellowships in the U.S. revealed patterns of racial and gendered microaggressions, including statements and behaviors that made them feel out of place, experiences of lowered expectations from faculty because of their gender and/or race, as well as not so subtle incidences of sexism and racism. (Solórzano 1998)
- Graduate women students in astronomy and physics reported experiencing gender microaggressions, such as sexual objectification, being treated like a second-class citizen, assumptions of inferiority, restrictive gender roles, invisibility, sexist language and jokes, and denial of reality of sexism by their peers and professors. (Barthelemy et al. 2016)
- Of almost 800 US medical students surveyed, 61% reported experiencing at least one microaggression weekly and 33.9% almost daily. Black women experienced more microaggressions than other groups. Frequency of microaggression exposure was positively related with depression symptoms and thoughts of leaving their institution or withdrawing from medical school altogether. (Anderson et al. 2021)
Microaggressions contribute to feelings of impostor syndrome, of not belonging, heightened anxiety, anger, and of needing to prove oneself to others that one belongs in STEM.
While these feelings can certainly interfere with academic and scientific success, many students who disproportionately experience negative stereotypes can manage their impact and implement coping strategies and succeed despite how others treat them (McGee and Martin 2011).
How to respond
The first step in responding to microaggressions is being able to recognize them.
The 5 D's of Bystander Intervention are also useful for dealing with microaggressions. (See also, How bystanders can shut down microaggressions).
Check out this tool for interrupting microaggressions compiled by the University of Minnesota that identifies different types of microaggressions with examples and sample responses.
And remember: It's the impact that matters, not the intent.
To learn more
- What to know about microaggressions by Anna Smith, March 9, 2022 Medical News Today
- Watch video Microaggressions in the classroom. Directed by Carla LynDale Carter, Lecturer at the University of North Texas in the Department of Media Arts.
- Watch short video on Responding to microaggressions by Theresa Rangel.
Anderson, N. et al. 2021. The Association of microaggressions with depressive symptoms and institutional satisfaction among a national cohort of medical students. Journal of General Internal Medicine. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11606-021-06786-6
Barthelemy, R. S. et al. 2016. Gender discrimination in physics and astronomy: Graduate student experiences of sexism and gender microaggressions. Physical Review Physics Education Research, 12(2), 020119. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevPhysEducRes.12.020119
English, D. et al. 2020. Daily multidimensional racial discrimination among Black U.S. American adolescents. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 66, 101068. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.appdev.2019.101068
Harrison & Tanner. 2018. Language matters: Considering microaggressions in science. CBE Life Sciences Education 17, no. 1: fe4. https://doi.org/10.1187/cbe.18-01-0011.
McGee, E. O. 2016. Devalued Black and Latino racial identities: A By-product of STEM college culture? American Educational Research Journal, 53(6), 1626–1662. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831216676572
McGee, E. O., & Martin, D. B. 2011. ''You would not believe what I have to go through to prove my intellectual value!'': Stereotype management among academically successful Black mathematics and engineering students. American Education Research Journal, 48(6), 1347–1389. https://doi.org/10.3102/0002831211423972
Shotton, H. J. 2017. "I thought you'd call her white feather": Native women and racial microaggressions in doctoral education. Journal of American Indian Education, 56, 32–54. https://doi.org/10.5749/jamerindieduc.56.1.0032
Solórzano, D. G. 1998. Critical race theory, race and gender microaggressions, and the experience of Chicana and Chicano scholars. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 11, 121–136. https://doi.org/10.1080/095183998236926
Sue, D.W. et al. 2007. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. The American Psychologist 62, 271–86. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271
Williams, M.T. et al. 2021. After Pierce and Sue: A Revised racial microaggressions taxonomy. Perspectives on Psychological Science 16:991-1007. https://doi.org/10.1177/1745691621994247
Yang, Y., & Carroll, D. 2016. Understanding female STEM faculty experiences of subtle gender bias from microaggressions perspective. 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition Proceedings, 27098. https://peer.asee.org/27098