What's Considered a Microaggression?

Microaggressions is a term that's gained popularity in the last few years but it was coined back in 1970. timsa/Getty Images

I grew up being asked the same question nearly every time I met someone new: "Where are you from?"

I would respond, "I'm from Washington D.C."

There was something about this answer that was unsatisfactory to whomever had asked. So, they would try again: "Oh, but I mean – like, where are you from?" They often squinted their eyes at this point for emphasis.

Eventually, I learned that to many people I have racially ambiguous features. I took these moments as opportunities. I would ask questions about their assumptions in return, and it would turn into a dialogue. Later when I started college, my classmates and I were taught that these kinds of questions about where people are from are "offensive" and should be avoided.

A few years later, I learned a word for it: "microaggressions."

The term arose from an effort to define the ways in which racism was changing, from more overt and public acts, to smaller day-to-day slights.

But what exactly is a microaggression, and is what I experienced necessarily a result of racism?

Microaggression Versus Macroagression

The idea that racism is manifesting in less visible ways has spawned new areas of research. At Washington University in St. Louis, there's a whole lab full of researchers who are trying to understand hidden mental biases — what are often referred to as "implicit biases."

Professor Calvin Lai runs the Diversity Science Lab at Washington University and says that people often are not consciously aware that they harbor negative thoughts about certain groups.

These underlying thoughts, whether we're aware of them or not, influence our behavior. Lai includes microaggressions among these behaviors, and defines microaggressions as "verbal, behavioral or environmental negativity based on someone's group membership, be it race, gender, or otherwise."

The person who first coined the term "microaggression" was Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce back in 1970. Pierce wrote about how white racial aggression and violence against blacks works to keep blacks down in the U.S. He wrote that microaggressions are subtler compared to "a gross, dramatic, obvious macro-aggression such as lynching," but in the same way are meant to "brutalize, degrade, abuse, and humiliate another group of individuals." Pierce described racism as a mental illness, and argued that understanding these "small, continuous bombardments" is essential to treating the disease.

Since then, researchers have sought to further define microaggressions and their consequences. For example, psychologist Derald Wing Sue and his collaborators published a landmark paper in 2007 that laid out an entire framework for classifying different types of microaggressions and their impact. They gave examples of microaggressions such as being followed in a store or receiving poor service in a restaurant. They pointed out that even an expression like "I believe the most qualified person should get the job " could be considered a microaggression in certain contexts, for instance, to disparage affirmative action. And research links microaggressions to negative mental health outcomes such as lower life satisfaction and increased depression.

The microaggression terminology has gradually seeped into conversations about race in the mainstream media, college campuses and the workplace. A host of educational interventions have cropped up to meet the demand for solutions. For example, in 2018 Starbucks announced it would close its U.S. stores to provide anti-bias training to employees following an incident in which two black men were arrested at a store in Philadelphia after they declined to buy anything but wanted to wait in the cafe to meet a colleague.

Are People Sometimes Just Overly Sensitive?

Use of the term "microaggression" has also been met with significant criticism. Some scholars argue that while it may be true that subtler forms of prejudice exist, the field has a long way to go in gathering robust evidence to support the theories proposed by Sue and others. Until then, they say it's premature for anyone to use the term microaggression, let alone claim they have already developed effective interventions.

"If Minority Group Member A interprets an ambiguous statement directed toward her—such as 'I realize that you didn't have the same educational opportunities as most Whites, so I can understand why the first year of college has been challenging for you' — as patronizing or indirectly hostile, whereas Minority Group Member B interprets it as supportive or helpful, should it be classified as a microaggression? The MRP [microaggression research program] literature offers scant guidance in this regard," writes psychologist Scott O. Lilienfield of Emory University.

Other critics take issue with the idea that such small acts cause serious harm, especially when they are not ill-intended. They argue that some racial and ethnic minorities are being overly sensitive. But a study published in March 2019 found strong evidence that ethnic minorities are not any more sensitive to slights than white people. Both groups experienced the same decrease in happiness and life satisfaction after microaggressions. It's just that minorities experience microaggressions more often.

Lai of the Diversity Science Lab agrees with critics who say that the term is a bit fuzzy. It's nearly impossible to prove someone's intentions, and a lot depends on the context. What's reasonable, Lai says, is thinking about your local context and then doing research. For example, if you're a white doctor who primarily works in an African-American community, then you should educate yourself so that you can provide culturally competent service.

"You might not be acting out of implicit bias, you may just be ignorant," Lai says.

Yet, having a vocabulary to describe awkward situations is useful says Agnes An, an advertising professional who lives in New York City. She's Korean American and says she has experienced microaggressions in a variety of contexts — from the workplace to the dating scene.

"People will ask where I'm from and don't ask me anything else, that's it," she says. "Or when I respond, that's the remainder of the conversation, 'Oh I like K-Pop and kimchee,' when there are so many other aspects of me."

She says this happened a lot when she was growing up, but the term "microaggression" hadn't gone mainstream. She just ended up walking away from these interactions feeling bad. Now, An feels empowered to speak up.

"I appreciate that people have coined something because it's a recognition that it actually happened. It makes it real, and allows people to talk about it with each other," she says.