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This article is for those interested in learning more about microaggressions in the workplace, school, and life.

History of the word Microaggressions

The term “racial microaggressions” was first coined in the 1970s by a professor named Chester M. Pierce. As visible by the term, his focus was on race, specifically toward Black American students. Later, psychologist Derald Wing Sue expanded the term microaggressions to include gender, sexual orientation, and disability (view 5-min video).

Derald Sue (2010, p. 5) describes microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.”

Around 2005, Stephen Young (2007) introduced micromessaging which includes micro-inequities, micro-advantages, and micro-affirmations, mostly directed toward businesses. Young borrowed micro-inequities from Mary Rowe, PhD from MIT’s Sloan school of Management who in 1973 coined the word. Dr. Rowe defined micro-inequities—similar to microaggressions—as messages with two big impacts: 1) they exclude a person because they are different, having the recipient feel like they’re on the outside, and 2) they negatively impact their self-confidence and productivity. Dr. Rowe felt that micro-affirmations might be the antidote to micro-inequities.

In 2014, there was a scholarly paper written on microaggressions called “Microaggression and Moral Cultures” that got picked up by an Atlantic writer, Conor Friedersdorf, in September 2015. Friedersdorf’s article, “The rise of victimhood culture,” created quite a stir about the morality of microaggressions especially on college campuses. Though a very interesting conversation, I’ll save my response for another article.

Types of Microaggressions

Blatant, Overt Actions: Microassaults

A microassault is a “blatant verbal, nonverbal, or environmental attack intended to convey discriminatory and biased sentiments.” (Sue et al., 2008, p 111)

Covert Actions: Microinsults

Microinsults are “unintentional behaviors or verbal comments that convey rudeness or insensitivity or demean a person’s racial heritage identity, gender identity, or sexual orientation identity. Despite being outside the level of conscious awareness, these subtle snubs are characterized by an insulting hidden message.” (Sue et al., 2008, p 111)

Impacts the daily life of an individual

Cumulatively burdensome and conveys biases that place the receiver as someone less than

  • A man only talking to other men in the meeting ignoring women and people of color
  • Caucasian woman crosses the street when she sees a tall Black man approaching her
  • A woman pulls her children close when she sees a man in a playground
  • Mixed-race individual being continually asked, “No, where are you REALLY from?” (Though about Asians and not mixed-race, see comedy skit here: “What kind of Asian are you?”)
  • African-American individuals repeatedly being followed around by the store clerks
  • Arnold Schwarzenegger referring to Democrats as “Girlie Men” (insinuates that people possessing feminine traits are weak)

Impacts a person’s ability to thrive at work

Individuals can’t show their full range of expression for fear of falling into a negative stereotype (Stereotype Threat)

  • Not hired because they’re not a culture fit (For example: They may be too different from the cultural norm which was set by White, men with Ivy League education)
  • Black man told he is too angry when he’s showing passion at work
  • Woman given a negative review because she ‘s too aggressive or not nurturing enough
  • Men told they are weak for showing emotion at work
  • Person with a physical disability spends so much time advocating for herself to make work more accessible and inclusive for people with wheelchairs (e.g. buttons on doors so she can open them, wheelchair support in benefits, wheelchair accessibility in offices she needs to visit) that her work is getting compromised. She has to navigate advocating for herself so she can thrive at work while not alienating herself from HR and her manager thus putting her job at risk.

Individuals not feeling welcomed into a space

  • Holiday party held at a place without wheelchair accessibility
  • Sales slide decks only feature Caucasian people/couples
  • Meeting rooms are named after famous male scientists
  • Sign language not offered at a conference
  • No all-gender bathrooms
  • Benefits that don’t support disabilities, transgender surgeries, time off work for supporting aging parents/young children/children with special needs.

Covert Actions: Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations are “verbal comments or behaviors that exclude, negate, or dismiss the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of the target group…They are unintentional and usually outside the perpetrator’s awareness.” (Sue et al., 2008, p. 112)

  • “Maybe the men in the meeting had just had a chat so he only looked at the men.”
  • “Maybe the woman needed to cross the street to get where she was going.”
  • “Did they ask the clerk if he or she was following them? Maybe the clerk was just being friendly.”
  • “I don’t see color. We’re all the same. We’re all human.” (Said in response to discussing race. Can shut down the conversation.)
  • “Character, not color, is what matters to me.” (Also can shut down a conversation around difference.)

Where do we go from here?

Stay tuned for my next post on what to do with this knowledge.

As a diversity consultant I help organizations, teams, and individuals bridge differences. Contact me for more information.


Sue, D. W., & Sue, D. (2008). Counseling the culturally diverse: Theory and practice. New York: J. Wiley.

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: race gender, and sexual orientation. New York: J. Wiley.

Young, S. (2007). MicroMessaging: Why great leadership is beyond words. Chicago: McGraw-Hill.