Not sure what a microaggression is? We asked experts to share some common microaggression examples and tips on what to do if you hear them.
Although saying we “don’t see color” may be a well-intentioned turn toward diversity, openness and acceptance, the truth is that all of us do see it, and the differences we have culturally, ethnically and racially ought to be embraced. But some people’s attempts at doing so fall flat or miss the mark, resulting in what we know today as microaggressions. These offhand remarks might not sound or seem overtly racist, but they highlight the unaddressed biases many of us have when it comes to race, gender, culture and sexuality. They can be so subtle that it helps to take a look at some real-world microaggression examples in order to learn what they are and how to respond—and for those not affected personally, to learn how to be anti-racist and what it means to be an ally.
But first, what are microaggressions, exactly? Derald Wing Sue, PhD, a Columbia University psychologist who teaches prevention techniques on how we can face these moments in our lives, describes microaggressions as the everyday slights, indignities, insults, cultural appropriationand put-downs that people of color experience in their daily interactions, often from well-intentioned individuals who are unaware of their own White privilege and that they are engaging in an offensive and demeaning way.
Microaggressions are a reflection of “implicit bias“—stereotypes and prejudices that are outside the level of one’s conscious awareness. “They reflect unconscious worldviews of inclusion, exclusion, superiority and inferiority,” Sue says.
How are people of color impacted by microaggressions?
Microaggressions are not harmless, trivial or insignificant—they are ever-present in the lives of people of color. “Microaggressions are constant and cumulative in the life of people of color or marginalized group members,” Sue says. “They occur to [people of color] from the time they awaken in the morning until they go to bed, from the time they are born until they die.” In Sue’s 2019 study published in the journal American Psychologist, 75% of Black Americans said they experience daily microaggressions. And with each passing slight comes a lingering impact.
In isolation, microaggressions may seem harmless, but an onlooker may not realize that the target has already experienced three or four others while going about their day. Microaggressions take a heavy psychological and physical toll on recipients as well. “They’re constant reminders to people that they are second-class citizens,” says Sue, which decreases the mental and physical well-being of these individuals. This is compounded by the racism in health care that can make it difficult to get proper treatment for these issues. The ability to problem-solve, the ability to perform well at work and the chance to do well in school are at all risk when microaggressions are present.
Microaggressions are also symbolic of past historic injustices, many of which have also been subjected to whitewashing. “The incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the enslavement of Black people, the taking away of land from the Indigenous people,” are all felt through these spoken and unspoken moments, Sue notes.
Microaggressions can be manifested in three different ways: verbal, nonverbal and environmental. Let’s take a look at some examples.
Verbal microaggression: “You speak excellent English”
Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images
As an Asian American man, Sue has personal experience in how verbal racial microaggressions can come to light in day-to-day life. “After a presentation, it is not unusual for an audience member to come up to me and say, ‘Professor Sue,’ and engage me in conversation and say something like, ‘By the way, you speak excellent English.'” Here’s the dilemma: From the perspective of the audience member, they are making a conscious effort to compliment Sue. But, almost all microaggressions have what he calls a “hidden meta-communication”—a demeaning message. “While he or she is saying, ‘You speak excellent English,’ they are in essence saying that you are a perpetual alien in your own country,” he says.
So what can be done if you experience or witness this? Often, the perpetrator of the microaggression isn’t aware. “As long as a person is unaware they’ve engaged in an offensive and demeaning way toward you, they’re not motivated to change,” Sue has observed. Making someone aware that they have done so is key. When he’s complimented on his “excellent English,” Sue’s comeback is, “Thank you, I hope so! I was born here.” In this statement, he’s acknowledging the speaker’s conscious compliment, but counters the unconscious idea that he is a foreigner.
Verbal microaggression: “Where are you really from?”
Other verbal microaggression examples in this vein include asking where someone is fromor where they’re really from. The communication in these circumstances, says Sue, “is that you are not a ‘true American.’ Only true Americans look [this] way.” As in the previous microaggression example, you can respond that you are from the United States—or even specify which state or city you’re from.
Verbal microaggression: “She’s pretty for a Black girl”
Sue has seen a type of microaggression happen to Black women in which their White counterparts will mention, as a supposed compliment, that their friend is “pretty for a Black girl.” This subtly indicates that only White women can be truly beautiful, or that features such as natural Black hair need to be straightened, controlled or “fixed” to adhere to White standards.
One response that he’s heard and recommends? “Thanks—you’re pretty for a White girl.” This verbal reversal of sorts forces the person to consider the implications of their words while also countering the idea that Blackness does not equal beauty.
Verbal microaggression: “All lives matter”
On a national scale in the United States, the Black Lives Matter movement is the target of a very specific verbal microaggression: “All lives matter.” Of course no one would disagree that everyone’s life is important, but this phrase diminishes a movement that specifically addresses the particular injustices Black people have faced in their lives. By repeating this phrase, people “don’t realize they have committed a microaggression because they are dismissing and negating the BLM meaning,” Sue explains.
Verbal microaggression: Racist jokes
Separating intent from impact is one way to shed light on a microaggression, says Sue. This is especially true when it comes to jokes that perpetuate stereotypes. It doesn’t really matter if someone “didn’t mean it that way”—which is, in itself, one of the phrases to avoid in conversations about race—words can harm, and the important thing is how the comment or joke impacted others. If someone tells a racist joke, you can say, “I know you meant that to be funny, but I found it offensive,” he advises. You shift the topic from their intent to the actual impact of their words.
Verbal microaggression: “Anyone can succeed if they work hard”
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Kim Kardashian, in an interview with Variety, echoed this “myth of meritocracy” with her recent comments about business success, saying, “It seems like nobody wants to work these days.”The idea that all groups have equal opportunity to succeed and that there’s an even playing field does not speak to the reality of all people, says Aisha Holder, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Columbia Health. “Think about when we are talking about someone’s performance. Could we be attributing [lack of] success to that person based on unconscious biases we have about marginalized populations?” she asks.
“Playing into that notion does not acknowledge that there’s systemic racism, there’s sexism that has existed, that impacts whether people excel in the workplace,” adds Holder. “If we’re blind to that, then we’re not really addressing some of those systemic issues that impact people’s lives.”
People of color tend to be assessed differently from White people in a toxic workplace as well, which is another barrier to success they face. It’s something that management and leadership training experts Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale, founders of Raw Signal Group, work to address when coaching professionals on how to become more effective leaders. “Too often, bosses give feedback to racialized employees that they would not give anyone else on the team,” they explain. “It’s vital for any boss to give their team feedback about how they’re doing against the expectations of their role, but feedback about grooming, attitude and dress code tends not to be equally enforced. It’s the responsibility of every modern leader to get curious about how to do better.”
Verbal microaggression: Asking a person of color to represent all people of color
In the wake of the George Floyd protests, 25-year-old Astrid Rhodes*, who identifies as Indian American, found herself in an uncomfortable position while working at a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit. Her colleagues would ask her, “What should we be doing differently? What charities should we be donating to?” She wondered why they were asking her when Google is free. “Are you asking me because I’m a person of color, or are you asking me because I’m an employee and you actually care what I have to say?” asks Rhodes.
While coworkers may have seen the moment as a wake-up call to racism and been genuine in their intentions to support the Black community and BIPOC, it adds unwanted pressure on employees of color. “Every leader needs to get educated about microaggressions, instead of leaving marginalized employees to shoulder that burden,” the Nightingales add.
Holder describes moments like these as a “tension of invisibility and hyper-visibility,” where women like Rhodes are “very invisible in these workspaces, but then there’s a hyper-visibility where there’s a spotlight on them that often asks them to represent everyone that’s part of their group and be the spokesperson, with the assumption that they represent a monolith group.”
“It’s subtle and implicit,” Holder says. “It’s disorienting and it’s confusing, and the recipient is left wondering ‘What’s happening here? Did that really happen? Is it me?'”
Nonverbal microaggression: Avoiding sitting next to a Black passenger on the subway
As a professor at Columbia University in New York City, Sue has seen the Black community, in particular, be targeted by nonverbal microaggression examples, especially in the city’s subway system. “If you’ve ever ridden on the subway in New York City, if you want a seat on a crowded train, it is always next to a Black passenger.” The seats next to them are the last seats taken, or remain empty, he’s observed. “That’s a nonverbal communication that indeed there is something dangerous, wrong or bad about being next to a Black individual.” If you’re White, simply being aware of how you choose who you sit next to can help you uncover and face your own implicit bias.
Nonverbal microaggression: Tensing up when a Black person enters the elevator
Similarly, when Black individuals go into an elevator, and White riders tense up and hold their belongings more closely, those are also nonverbal microaggressions that send a message to Black passengers. “You’re dangerous, you’re a criminal, you’re up to no good”—those subliminal messages are all things that are damaging to Black individuals, Sue notes.
As in the previous microaggression example, if you’re White, recognizing if or when you engage in these seemingly small actions can be a way to fight racism every day. “We have a responsibility to enhance our awareness of biases we hold,” Holder says.
Environmental microaggression: There are no people of color in the room
Environmental microaggressions are communications to people of color that they do not belong. This could mean being the only Black person in the neighborhood. Or, in his work at universities and workplaces, Sue has seen environmental microaggression examples of institutional racism. In his role training academics and leaders on how to identify and address organizational implicit biases, as well as mitigate microaggressive behavior surrounding race, gender and sexual orientation, he noticed something: The vast majority of the people he was addressing were White.
Sue levels with attendees of his talks on what needs to change in order for their efforts to be successful and properly received. “I was introduced [at an event], and I scanned the audience—they all looked White,” he says. “I wonder if you know the message you are sending out to prospective students and faculty of color,” he once told a particular group. If a person of color were to read the room, they’d pick up this message: “You will not be comfortable here, you are not welcome here. If you choose to come here, there is only so far up that you will rise. As a Black student, you might not graduate; as a Latinx faculty member, you may not be promoted and tenured.”
Environmental microaggression: The glass ceiling
These issues aren’t just racial: The “glass ceiling” that women have faced sees its share of microaggressions too, whether with verbal, everyday sexist expressionsor by the culture of the environment. Women “talk about a hostile, invalidating work climate. And that’s what they’re referring to, that the top positions are all men and they are made to feel unwelcome, their advancement in the company will not be there,” Sue says.
Calling this out at work can help educate your company’s managers. “I know you want women to do well on this team, but always assigning them to hospitality groups isn’t going to allow them to develop leaderships skills,” is an example of how you might be able to separate the intent from the impact of such an environmental microaggression.
Interestingly, microaggressions may also be found at the intersection of two marginalized groups—for example, women who’ve coming up against the glass ceiling and women who, in addition, have faced racism. Take White, female film director Jane Campion’s remarks at the 2022 Critics Choice Awards directed at Black tennis champions Venus and Serena Williams: “Venus and Serena, you’re such marvels—however, you don’t play against the guys, like I have to.” Although, as a woman in a predominantly male field, Campion has surely faced bias, her comments neglected the additional barriers the Williams sisters faced due to their race, as well as sexism. (Campion later apologized.)
Environmental microaggression: Talking the diversity talk, but not walking the walk
Even if your company says they’re committed to diversity, you still might be the only Black person in the office if your bosses are just giving lip service to the issue. “Every company wants to build a culture where their employees can thrive, but few have put in the work to make that a reality,” say the Nightingales. “Culture isn’t a vision statement or a motivational poster, it’s a sum of the last 10,000 interactions I’ve had at work and how they’ve made me feel,” they explain.
“After George Floyd was killed, a lot of think tanks and NGOs released or rereleased statements talking about their commitment to diversifying the workplace,” explains Rhodes, “but when you look at the majority of think tanks in D.C., the only place that they’re looking to diversify is the intern pool, and most of them don’t even pay their interns.” This is an example of an environmental microaggression, because a lack of representation in the workplace conveys a message for BIPOC that “you don’t belong, there isn’t a place for you,” says Holder.
In addition, some managers don’t know how to (or simply don’t want to) respond to microaggressions. “Many leaders pretend that microaggressions don’t happen, or that they aren’t a big deal when they do. Those leaders often contribute to their staff feeling disrespected, by not intervening in the moment, and by not taking the complaint seriously,” the Nightingales have observed. “But we work with thousands of leaders, and many of them do see microaggressions happen. They know it’s not OK. But they freeze up and wait to see if anyone else noticed, or if the marginalized person in the room is going to address it.”
The Nightingales say that in these moments, all eyes are on the boss, as everyone else in the room waits for a signal from leadership as to whether this behavior is acceptable in the workplace. “A leader saying something sends a message,” they remind, “and a leader saying nothing sends a message too.”
How should you respond to microaggressions?
In addition to the examples above, Sue gives some general suggestions for other ways to respond as targets, White allies and bystanders:
Make the invisible visible
Simply saying “that’s a stereotype” or “that’s a microaggression” can effectively call attention to the perpetrator.
Directly disarm the microaggression
Cutting down or blocking the microaggression while it’s in progress is another way to address it, by saying things like, “Woah, let’s not go there” or “Danger, quicksand ahead.” These are simple phrases that can get your point across. “When someone steps on your toe, you say, ‘Ouch!’ You don’t have to elaborate,” Sue says. “It’s important for you to communicate that what they just said is offensive or unacceptable to you.”
Plan responses ahead of time
Often, a microaggression occurs so quickly that by the time you experience one or witness one, it’s already over. You’re left stunned and wishing you had said something sooner, or something smarter. Sue recommends rehearsing responses to bring attention to, educate on and disarm microaggressions so they become like a reflex or habit. “They have to be in your repertoire, rehearsed, and will come out quickly,” he says.
Seek outside support for help
There are times in which confronting a perpetrator is potentially harmful or dangerous to you, especially if there is a large power differential, Sue warns. This can occur if “the perpetrator is your manager, or the professor, because they have power over you to give you that raise, or to label you as a troublemaker or overly sensitive.” In these situations, “asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it is actually a sign of strength,” and it validates who we are as racial, cultural beings, he adds.
*Some names and titles have been changed to protect privacy.
- Derald Wing Sue, PhD, professor of psychology and education
- Aisha Holder, PhD, clinical psychologist at Columbia Health
- Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale, founders of Raw Signal Group
- American Psychologist: “Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders”
- Variety: “‘Money Always Matters’: The Kardashians Tell All About Their New Reality TV Reign”
- YouTube: “Jane Campion: Award Acceptance Speech | 27th Critics Choice Awards | TBS”