Microaggressions: What You Need to Know

UCLA Ed professors Carola Suárez-Orozco and Daniel Solorzano share insights on subtle, often unintentional slights on race, gender, status.

If you’ve ever felt slighted or put down by something someone has said or expressed through a glance or other suggestive response, you may have been the target of something known as a microaggression.

Oftentimes unconscious and automatic, microaggressions (MAs) are brief, subtle verbal or non-verbal exchanges that send denigrating messages to the recipient because of his or her group membership (such as race, gender, age or socio-economic status). The initiator of the message may be unaware that he or she has engaged in a behavior that is cumulative – one of a lifetime of demeaning messages that erode its victim’s confidence.

Carola Suárez-Orozco, a professor at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies and a psychologist by training, suggests that MAs are usually expressed by someone in authority: “Such offenses are typically enacted by a person of more privileged status, which is generally the majority culture, onto those in minority groups.  The person who does it may not necessarily mean anything by it, but little by little, it wears away at a person’s well-being and suggests to them they don’t belong.”

It’s hard to determine exactly how microaggressions may come to infect our psychological makeup.  “Microaggressions are likely an enacted form of implicit bias. They grow out of many different perceptions we have internalized over the process of our socialization,” says Suárez-Orozco.  “This behavior is learned in the home, through the media, picked up from our peers and others, and it’s at work on many different levels in our society.”

To UCLA Professor and Associate Dean for Equity and Diversity Daniel Solorzano, whose work in the field of education is framed by a sociological perspective, MAs are a particularly damaging form of systemic racism used to disempower minorities or others who live in the margins of society: “They are layered assaults, based on a person of color’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigrations status, phenotype, accent, or surname.” MAs are cumulative in nature, says Solorzano, and can take a psychological, physiological, and even an academic toll on people of color.

Given the diverse racial and socio-cultural makeup of student populations in schools and on college campuses nationwide, MAs present a serious and growing concern, particularly given their potential to diminish or even invalidate a learning experience.  In the classroom, MAs are especially harmful because they can create a hostile learning environment and ultimately may undermine a student’s ability to succeed academically.

Having led a study examining microaggressions in community college classrooms, Suárez-Orozco and her team of researchers sought to observe and record real-time covert MAs. What they found was daunting:  MAs happened in a third of the classrooms that were observed, and faculty instructors were more likely to enact an MA than students were, which were reflective of power dynamics in the classroom. MAs also happen more often in classrooms with higher numbers of diverse students.

Microaggressions are not necessarily intentional, however, and may in fact stem from unconscious bias.  For example, a teacher may tell a student, “You speak English very well” and intend it as a compliment, but to the recipient it may underscore a sense of exclusion and infers that the person isn’t a part of the mainstream culture.

Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Teachers College Columbia University who has written two books on the topic of MAs,  “Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” and “Microaggressions and Marginality,” says “Microaggressions may appear to be a compliment but contain a meta-communication or hidden insult towards target groups to which it is delivered, and are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.”

To recognize MAs when they happen – and to stop enacting them towards others – Professor Sue outlines five things we can do:

  1. Learn constant vigilance of your own biases and fears;
  2. Experiential reality is important in interacting with people who are different from you in terms of race, culture, and ethnicity;
  3. Don’t be defensive;
  4. Be open to discussing your own attitudes and biases and how they might have hurt others or in some sense might reveal bias on your part;
  5. Be an ally: Stand personally against all forms of bias and discrimination.

For more information, please see:

  • Microaggressions in Everyday Life,” talk given by professor Derald Wing Sue of Columbia University/ John Wiley & Sons Publishing / October 4, 2010 / YouTube.com


Reprinted from Sudikoff Public Forum