Skip to main content




What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions refer to the normalization of commonplace verbal, behavioral or environmental indignities (whether intentional or unintentional), that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward culturally marginalized groups. While microaggressions can be seen as innocent, harmless comments, they actually reinforce stereotypes and are a form of discrimination. The term “microaggressions” was coined in 1970 by Dr. Chester Pierce and resurrected in 2003 by Dr. Derald Wing Sue.

Let’s look at the impact of microaggressions via the metaphor of a crumpled up piece of paper. The piece of paper represents one person, and each crease on the piece of paper represents one ignorant comment someone has made to them. The hundreds of creases on the piece of paper represent the many ignorant comments made to this person, every day, by folks with whom they interact.

It would be impossible to flatten out the piece of paper enough to remove all the creases; the creases are permanent. Just like a crumpled up piece of paper, microaggressions can make a permanent impression upon someone. It is important to understand that the cumulative impact of microaggressions can be severely traumatic and painful for folks who continually experience them.


What are the types of microaggressions?

There are three types of microaggressions:

  1. Microinsults refer to subtle insensitive comments and/or behaviors (often unconscious) related to a person’s identity. Example: “Helping” a wheelchair user without asking if they would like assistance​.
  2. Microassaults refer to conscious and intentionally biased/discriminatory comments and/or behaviors related to a person’s identity​. Example: Using racial slurs; denying accommodations for trans persons​.
  3. Microinvalidations refer to the subtle exclusion or negation of one’s feelings and/or experiential reality related to that person’s identity. Example: Repeatedly asking someone where they were born; Saying that you are “color-blind.”


How do I address microaggressions?

Often, when you point out that someone engaged with a microaggression, their response can be focused on defending their intention and displacing blame. For example, “You completely misunderstood what I was saying. It was just a joke.” Or, “My intention was not to hurt you. Why are you being so sensitive?”

To be successful, Dr. Derald Wing Sue advises folks to focus on the impact of a microaggression so someone can understand what happened and how they may have caused pain. Microinterventions must address the underlying message.

There are three steps to intervening with microaggressions when you notice someone else behaving in a problematic way and/or when you hear someone making discriminatory comments.

  1. Name It: If you hear someone making discriminatory comments or you notice someone behaving in a problematic way, call attention to the problematic behavior or comment that was made and address it out loud. Example: “I overheard you talking about having a ‘pow wow.’ Do you know where that term came from? Some people have no idea that it is an offensive appropriation of a term of great cultural importance to Indigenous folks.​”
  2. Claim It: State why you are uncomfortable, upset, offended or why someone else (to whom the comment is directed) may feel that way. Example: “Woah. The assumption you just made about trans folks makes me feel uncomfortable. I know it maybe wasn’t your intention to stereotype, but what you said could easily be interpreted in a hurtful and offensive way.”
  3. Stop It: Ask questions and seek to understand. Have the person explain why they said what they did or why they are behaving in that way. Finish by expressing your feelings of discomfort with future directives. ​Example: “Can you explain that joke to me? I don’t think making light of sexual assault like that is funny. In the future, I’d appreciate it if you wouldn't make jokes like that.”

Now, if you are being addressed because of problematic behavior and/or because you made a discriminatory comment (regardless of your intent) the following is critical to remember:

  • Stop before you respond or react. Do not take it personally. It is not about you; it is about the person who has been impacted.
  • Do not justify why your actions should not be interpreted as a microaggression because you have a [insert marginalized identity] friend.
  • Recognize your impact, reflect upon what has been said, and understand where you need to grow.
  • Own the impact and correct your behavior.
  • Diligently work to be better and not make the same mistake(s).

It is your responsibility to be aware of your own unconscious bias, to be observant of others, and to notice reactions of those in the room to know when to intervene. Learn more about microaggressions using another metaphor—“mosquito bites.”


Additional Resources & Reading