Teaching and Learning Tip #25: Microaggressions Matter

March 6, 2018

Tip #25: Microaggressions Matter

Contributed by Christine Mata, Student Rights & Responsibilities

What are microaggressions? Why do they matter? These are great questions. You may think microaggressions are the new buzz word but this concept has been in existence for over 40 years. The term was coined by Chester Pierce in 1970 who was a Professor of Education and Psychiatry at Harvard University. He used microaggressions to describe “the subtle, stunning and often automatic and non–verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs.’” Dr. Pierce developed the concept of microaggressions to demonstrate the mental and physical impact these subtle slights have on people. Although Dr. Pierce focused on race, other researchers expanded this concept in the field of education, psychology and even to demonstrate that microaggressions can affect other targeted social identities

We tend to discuss microaggressions from a racial lens because race is an extremely salient aspect of our identity. However, microaggressions can affect all social identities and can intersect with multiple identities. Racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”

A few things to remember about microaggressions:

  1. Micro-aggressions (simplified) - Statements or behaviors, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults based on race and other social identities. Remember to focus on impact not intent. We can have good intentions yet cause harm in  the process through language, behavior and assumptions (to name a few). They occur in the classroom, workplace and day-to-day life.

  2. There are different levels:

    1. Micro-assaults (often conscious) – Explicit racial comments meant to hurt the intended victim through name calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions

    2. Micro-insults (unconscious) – Behaviors or comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity, and demean a person’s heritage or identity

    3. Micro-invalidation (often unconscious) – Comments or behaviors that exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiences of a person of color

  3. They impact mental health: Research indicates that experiencing large amounts of microaggressions lead to distress, anxiety, depression and physical issues (Sue et al., 2007).

  4. The harmful impact of microaggressions:

    1. Many are subtle and escape recognition by both the perpetrator and target.

    2. Make people feel excluded, like second class citizens and sometimes unsafe.

    3. Over the course of time microaggressions lead to mental and physical health issues.

    4. Affect retention of students, staff and faculty of color.

    5. Microaggressions can interact across other identities (gender, race, ability, religion, sexual orientation, immigration status, social class, age….etc)


Minikel Lacocque, J. (2012). Racism, College, and the Power of Words: Racial Microaggressions Reconsidered. American Educational Research Journal, 50(3), 432-465.

Nadal, K. (2014). The Adverse Impact of Racial Microaggressions on College Students' Self-Esteem. Journal of College Student Development., 55(5), 461-474.

Sue, D., Lin, A., Torino, G., Capodilupo, C., & Rivera, D. (2009). Racial Microaggressions and Difficult Dialogues on Race in the Classroom. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190

Sue, Derald, Rivera, David, Watkins, Nicole, Kim, Rachel, Kim, Suah, & Williams, Chantea. (2011). Racial Dialogues: Challenges Faculty of Color Face in the Classroom. Cultural Diversity & Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(3), 331-340.

Sue, D. (2010) Microaggressions in everyday life: race, gender, and sexual orientation


Franklin, Jeremy. "Racial Microaggressions, Racial Battle Fatigue, and Racism-Related Stress in Higher Education." Journal of Student Affairs at New York University 12 (2016): 44.

Nadal, KL. 2012. Featured Commentary: Trayvon, Troy, Sean: When racial biases and microaggressions kill. Communiqué, American Psychological Association.

Sue, D., et.al. 2007. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. American Psychologist, 62(4): 271–286

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