“Aggressive” is defined as combative readiness, obtrusive energy, or a driving forceful energy. Most people can recognize and know how to deal with aggressive behavior from others. Similarly, people usually can tell when they are being aggressive with others. This is because aggressive behavior stands out and is “obtrusive” or “forceful.”
Microaggressions can be subtle and may be unconscious or unintentional. They originate from stereotypes toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups. When microaggressions are communicated, they repeat and affirm stereotypes. The reinforcement of stereotypes minimizes the fact that they promote the existence of discrimination or bias.
Derald Wing Sue, PhD, first proposed a classification of racial microaggressions in a 2007 article from the American Psychologist (Vol. 62, No. 4). Dr. Sue categorizes microaggressions into three types: microassaults, which are conscious and intentional actions or slurs; microinsults, verbal and nonverbal communications that can communicate rudeness and insensitivity in a subtle way but demean a person's racial heritage or identity; and microinvalidations, communications that are usually unconscious and do not take into account or negate the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of a minority group.
Even if microaggressions are unintentional or unconscious, they are still offensive. They communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to individuals who are a part of a targeted group. However, they are often missed as an area to be addressed because they may not fall in the category of more well-known overt and deliberate acts of racism. In fact, most people are unaware that they are doing it and how it affects others.
Microaggressions challenge us to give careful thought about what we say or do and how our words or actions may be based on stereotypes—understanding that those words and actions can hurt others even if they don’t speak up and bring it to our attention. This may require careful examination of ideas and thoughts that may have existed within us for a long time.
If it is difficult to determine if you have used microaggressions, learn more about them by exploring the examples below and those illustrated in the resources provided. This quote from Dr. Sue highlights the benefit of increasing awareness of microaggressions: "My hope is to make the invisible visible," he says. "Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow us to see that our actions and attitudes may be discriminatory."
Here are some examples of microaggression:
- Deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant (microassault).
- Asking a colleague of color how she got her job and implying that she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system (microinsult).
- Asking Asian-Americans where they were born or an African-American person how they got into an Ivy League university (microinvalidation).
Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G.C., Bucceri, J.M., Holder, A.M.B., Nadal, K.L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271–286. https://doi.org/10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271.
DeAngelis, T. (2009, February). Unmasking 'racial micro aggressions'. Monitor on Psychology, 40(2).
Slaughter-Acey JC, Sealy-Jefferson S, Helmkamp L, Caldwell CH, Osypuk TL, Platt RW, Straughen JK, Dailey-Okezie RK, Abeysekara P, Misra DP. Racism in the form of micro aggressions and the risk of preterm birth among black women. Ann Epidemiol. 2016 Jan;26(1):7–13.e1.
Torres MB, Salles A, Cochran A. Recognizing and Reacting to Microaggressions in Medicine and Surgery. JAMA Surg. 2019 Sep 1;154(9):868–872.
Overland MK, Zumsteg JM, Lindo EG, Sholas MG, Montenegro RE, Campelia GD, Mukherjee D. Microaggressions in Clinical Training and Practice. PM R. 2019 Sep;11(9):1004–1012.
Ro K, Villarreal J. Microaggression in Academia: Consequences and Considerations. Nurs Educ Perspect. 2021 Mar-Apr 01;42(2):120–121.
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