You're prettier when you smile.
I don't think I've ever heard a man being told to smile more.
I can't believe how well you speak English!
Thank you. I hope so, I was born here.
Who is the man in the relationship?
Whoa, let's not go there.
She only got the job because she's handicapped.
That's not how I view it.
Microaggressions: What they are and how to address them
Daily slights and dismissals known as microaggressions cause real psychological harm. However, there are effective ways to disarm them and protect your mental health.
You have probably heard the word “microaggression.” It describes the perpetual slights and insults experienced by people of color, women, and other marginalized groups.
The term itself is not new. It was coined more than 50 years ago by Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce to describe the daily racial insults and dismissals experienced by Black Americans. But the concept has gained traction over the past decade and expanded to describe put-downs related to race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, and socioeconomic status.
Microaggressions have been recognized in large part due to the work of Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York. Sue argues that they have harmful effects on mental health, largely because they are constant and continual, accumulating bit by bit and day by day, over a person’s lifetime.
“Far from being harmless and benign, microaggressions have a macro impact on targets. A whole body of research supports this conclusion,” Sue writes in Scientific American. “They increase stress in the lives of people of color, lower emotional well-being, increase depression and negative feelings, assail the mental health of recipients, impede learning and problem-solving, impair employee performance, and take a heavy toll on the physical well-being of targets.”
A recent study on the prevalence of depression among Black Canadians underscores Sue’s point. The research team, led by psychiatrist Jude Cénat at the University of Ottawa, found a positive association between the prevalence of depressive symptoms and everyday racial discrimination (a concept related to microaggressions). In fact, among women who reported very high rates of everyday racial discrimination, more than 98% had symptoms of severe depression. More recently, the same research group found that racial microaggressions predicted higher rates of anxiety symptoms in Black Canadians.
While researchers like Cénat and his team are documenting the scale of these impacts in marginalized groups, including people with intersecting identities like Black women, Sue and his colleagues are pushing the field toward solutions.
In a 2020 research article, they coined the term “microinterventions" to describe the actions people can take to disarm or neutralize microaggressions. Through their research, workshops, and a book, they are helping people targeted by microaggressions to move beyond coping and survival “to concrete action steps and dialogues.”
Sue and his colleagues acknowledge that microinterventions don’t solve the problem of stigma and discrimination, and place an unfair burden on the person being targeted. But microintervention strategies can help reduce the psychological toll of microaggressions and also be used by allies and bystanders to intervene on behalf of a target.
of women who report experiencing day-to-day inequities, discrimination, and bias at work. These experiences often take the form of microaggressions.
Source: Women in the Workplace, 2019
Black women, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are much more likely than women overall to experience microaggressions as professionals
Microaggressions by type, % of respondents
Others questioning your judgement
Being interrupted or spokenover more than others
Others commenting on your emotional state
Hearing/overhearing insults about your culture or people like you
Question: In the past year, during the normal course of business, have you experienced any of the following?
Source: Women in the Workplace, 2021
Should you respond to microaggressions?
Sarah Alsaidi, one of Sue’s former graduate students, is a driving force behind the development of microinterventions. A psychologist and consultant based in New York City, Alsaidi says microinterventions are designed to provide people with a repertoire of responses they can practice and make their own. Microinterventions help equip a person to quickly make a decision on if and how best to respond, and provide them with the tools to do so effectively.
She emphasizes that it is not always necessary to respond to microaggressions. Targets should decide on a case-by-case basis: "Microinterventions are not there to force people to respond or defend themselves.... They are meant to be an aid when you find yourself wanting to respond rather than be forced into silence, whereas other people may decide that a microaggression is not worth their time and energy.”
One of the reasons microaggressions are so insidious is because they are subtle and ambiguous. A target might ask themself, “Was that really a microaggression?” and think, “Maybe it’s just me. Maybe I’m making a big deal about nothing.”
“The literature shows that the harm associated with microaggressions is oftentimes linked to rumination — when we constantly replay something in our minds, especially negative experiences. That rumination is doubting, dwelling on it, blaming yourself, thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say something?’” she says.
Having those experiences validated can help disarm microaggressions. Alsaidi recommends putting in place a “buddy system” — a person you can turn to when you experience a microaggression. Your buddy can confirm your gut instinct about the slur and end the self-doubt and self-blame.
“Just getting that immediate validation is what we believe will reduce the negative mental health impact of the microaggression, even if you decide not to respond,” says Alsaidi.
Choosing to respond is another option; however, it carries some risk.
A study of how Black and Indigenous Canadians respond to microaggressions found that women were more likely than men to confront racial microaggressions. They were also more likely to distance themselves from perpetrators. That may seem counterintuitive, but the researchers suggest women use a combination of confrontation and avoidance depending on the context of the microaggression and their cognitive capacity for responding to it. The cost of resisting may simply be too high for women who may experience microaggressions based on multiple identities, including gender, race/ethnicity, socio-economic status, and sexual orientation.
Alsaidi and her Columbia colleagues acknowledge that microinterventions place the burden on people of color and other marginalized groups to counter microaggressions. But they also argue there are benefits to taking action, including feeling empowered and helping to break down social norms that allow microaggressions to go unchecked.
“For too long, acceptance, silence, passivity, and inaction have been the predominant, albeit ineffective, strategies for coping with microaggressions. Inaction does nothing but support and proliferate biased perpetrator behaviors which occur at individual, institutional and societal levels,” write the researchers.
Kevin Nadal, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, has extensive experience studying the impact of microaggressions on the mental health of people of color, women, LGBTQIA2S+ individuals, and other marginalized groups. He developed a guide to help people decide whether to respond to a microaggression.
To Respond or Not to Respond?
Use these questions, developed by counseling psychologist Kevin Nadal, to decide whether to respond to a micoaggression:
If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
If I don't respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?
If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person?
If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
If I respond, will the person become defensive and will this lead to an argument?
If you decide to respond, microinterventions can provide the language and tools you need at the ready. Alsaidi and colleagues studied how people respond to microaggressions and organized those responses into a conceptual framework consisting of strategic goals and tactics. The tactics can be learned, practiced, and adapted. Below are a few of their recommendations on using microinterventions.
How to respond to microaggressions
Researchers at Columbia University have developed a framework for responding to microaggressions. Psychologist Sarah Alsaidi explains how to use them.
Make the “invisible” visible
Recommendation: Make the hidden message, or “metacommunication,” in the microaggression explicit by naming it. For example, if a person moves away from you on the bus or seems to be anxious around you, you could say, “Relax, I’m not going to bite.”
“When you experience a microaggression, there’s a hidden message. And sometimes, all you want to do is make the microaggression more explicit,” explains Sarah Alsaidi.
Disarm the microaggression
Recommendation: Non-verbal communication goes a long way. Disarming a microaggression can be as simple as making eye contact with the perpetrator, shaking your head, or looking down. You can also interrupt the conversation and redirect it.
“Sometimes, you may just want to interrupt or redirect a microaggression. You don’t want to bother educating the offender or spend any more time on it,” says Sarah Alsaidi.
Educate the offender
Recommendation: Microaggressions are often unintentional. An effective way to educate a perpetrator is to differentiate between their intent and impact by saying, “I know you didn’t mean to offend me. But when you say ‘X,’ it actually has an impact on me. This is how it makes me feel.”
Microaggressions create an opportunity for dialogue, but choosing to educate someone about why their comments or actions are offensive can lead to burnout. That is why Alsaidi suggests reserving this strategy for someone you see frequently or who means a lot to you.
Seek external reinforcement or support
Recommendation: Reach out and connect with others who will allow you to safely express your emotions, validate your feelings, and offer advice and suggestions. In addition to putting in place a buddy system, consider going to therapy or attending a support group.
“Self-validation strategies can also help,” said Sarah Alsaidi. “Focus on your strengths, and find ways to celebrate your identity by attending events or following social media accounts that uphold your identity.”
Source: Sue, D.W., et al. (2019)
A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions by psychologist Kevin Nadal.
Microintervention Strategies: What You Can Do to Disarm and Dismantle Individual and Systemic Racism and Bias (Wiley, 2020) - A book by Derald Wing Sue, Cassandra Z. Calle, Narolyn Mendez, Sarah Alsaidi, Elizabeth Glaeser.
A microintervention workshop, such as one led by psychologist and consultant Sarah Alsaidi.
The Microaggressions Project - An online platform where people post examples of microaggressions in their everyday lives.
Do you have a resource to suggest?
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