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Playing the ‘race card’: What are microaggressions?

Updated: Aug 14, 2020

by Dr Grace Mansah-Owusu.


The term microaggression has been used increasingly within everyday language but what does it mean? By looking and understanding what racism means will give a basis for understanding what microaggressions are. Racism is defined as “any attitude, institutional structure, action or social policy that subordinates’ persons or groups because of their colour” (Jones 1997). Microaggressions create the under-layer of racism and together they combine to provide negative attitudes of marginalised groups, which often convey an absence of belonging and permanent difference for these ‘outgroups’.

Microaggressions are about every day seemingly ‘harmless’ comments or behaviours that are wrapped in prejudice, bias and discrimination that marginalised groups are often confronted with. These microaggressions can include, “slights, insults, in-validation and indignities that might be well-intentioned but feel and are harmful to the marginalised individual” (Sue, 2010). Microaggressions often expose underlying stereotypes and thought processes about under-represented groups and when people are subject to these attitudes or behaviours, they often feel ‘othered’ ‘outside of’ and ‘external’ to the accepted ‘norm’.

Even though microaggressions have always been pervasive in society and are insidious, the problem is that they are often hard to detect, pin-down and expose. Microaggressions can take the form of subtle snubs, dismissive looks, gestures or even tone of voice. They can be so common and pervasive that they can often be ignored or seen as innocent or minor by the perpetrator. This can lead to people labelling underrepresented individuals as being oversensitive. These responses can be hidden and brushed under the carpet by phrases like “it’s only a joke”, “it’s just a bit of banter”, “don’t take things too seriously” or “he/she doesn’t mean it like that”, however for many people these events can often build, forming a layer or resentment, anger or the thought of never being understood. 

Kandola (2018) highlights that during a conversation, a person from the majority group may not be aware of how the words, gestures, or non-verbal behaviours that may come across to the minority person. The two people may take very different messages away with them at the end of the exchange. Some more examples of microaggressions include: being ignored, talked over, having your authority undermined, being constantly criticised for seemingly small issues, having assumptions made about your honesty and persistently not saying someone’s name correctly in comparison to majority group members.

Environmental Microaggressions

Environmental microaggressions refer to demeaning or threatening individual, institutional educational, or political cues that may be communicated (Sue 2010). Environmental microaggressions can send hidden, invalidating or demeaning messages which can mean: ‘ your people are not welcome here’ ‘you will not feel comfortable here’ or ‘you cannot progress here’.

Environmental microaggressions include symbols and signs that involve the absence of inclusivity and these can further signify lack of membership and belonging (Sue 2010). In workplaces, environmental microaggressions for a black person can not seeing black employees or customers on a company website. It can also include the organisation’s location, e.g. in a rural area or small town without much ethnic diversity and little or no black representation at senior management or executive teams. 

Microaggressions can include black people being micromanaged, passed up for promotion or having more disciplinary’s, suspensions or cases of unfair dismissal, more than other racial groups. These examples may not be explicit or deliberate but still convey powerful, negative messages. 

Microaggressions can combine to create feelings of worthlessness and anger, which can make people feel like outsiders, like they don’t belong in a space or environment. Below are some categories of microaggressions defined by Wing et al (2007).

Categories of Microaggressions

Alien in own land 

“Where are you really from?” 

“Your English is very good”

“Where were you born”

Message: you don’t belong here

Ascription of Intelligence 

“You are so articulate”

“You are very well-spoken”

“You are a credit to your race”

Message: it’s unusual for someone of your race to speak this well or show intelligence

Colour Blindness 

“When I look at you, I don’t see colour” 

“There’s only one race, the human race” 

Message: denying a person’s racial/ethnic experience and denying the significance that this may play in their lives.


Clutching your bag when a black male/female approaches you, 

A sales assistant following a black person around a store 

Message: You will steal, you are dangerous

Denial of individual racism

“I’m not racist, I have several black friends”

 Message: Because I have friends of colour I can’t be racist.

Myth of Meritocracy 

“I think the most qualified person should get the job.”

“Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough”

Message: black people are lazy/incompetent or need to work harder. People are given unfair benefits because of their race. (Wing et al, 2007).

The above categories show examples of microaggressions and how they can manifest. Some of these things might seem minor, not serious or not important. However, to individuals facing these comments and behaviours regularly, they can be severely exhausting and damaging to confidence, self-worth and self-esteem.

Micro-aggression Research

Research by Nadal et al (2014) researched over 500 racially underrepresented groups in America and it was found that higher levels of microaggressions were related to poorer mental health and depressive symptoms. 

Torres et al (2010) also completed research into the effects of microaggressions and found that those who felt like their personal ability was underestimated based on their race, had higher levels of perceived stress for up to a year which also led to higher levels of depressive symptoms. 

These studies give some evidence to the view that these seemingly little and small events and incidences can have significantly negative effects on mental health, self-confidence and self-worth. 

Counter Arguments 

Some people believe microaggressions infantilise the members of marginalised groups and suggest that they cannot overcome these slights. Others think it can generate a victim mindset if microaggressions are highlighted too much. Some even think it can create a climate where represented groups can feel stressed at thinking what to say or what to portray when communicating with groups. Even though the above arguments can be true, giving people the knowledge and awareness of what microaggressions are can allow a certain amount of responsibility and encourage self-reflection. 

What can people do to reduce microaggressions?

Think carefully about your assumptions and ideas about people

When you have a feeling or thought about someone, think to yourself about where that thought or feeling came from. Try and pinpoint when you first had those thoughts and feelings and what that person might have reminded you of. Negative emotions and bias don’t come from nowhere, so digging deep can help you pinpoint the origins of such thoughts.

Justify your Decisions 

When making a decision about a person, e.g. when conducting a performance review, write down a list of pros and cons with evidence to support those thoughts or ideas. This will allow you to understand what you are feeling and the evidence will show you where the bias is, if there is any. Another idea might be to go through this list with a neutral and trusted person and discuss your thoughts, this will allow you to be aware of your processes and blind spots. 

Educate Yourself

Learning about the experiences and lives of marginalised groups can allow you to understand people who might seem to be different from you. It is easy to make assumptions about people you have not spent time with or don’t know anything about. It is worth learning about other people’s stories and experiences that may be different from your own. This will go a long way to help develop less ‘us’ vs ‘them’ divisions. 

Reducing Environmental microaggressions 

Representation at all Job Levels 

For environmental microaggressions, your organisation should think about increasing and having diverse representation at all levels, senior to junior. There are probably already countless people that are already reaching and working to these levels but due to many things, including microaggressions lead individuals in organisation to feel like a person, ‘isn’t the right fit’ or that they ‘aren’t meeting the mark’ or ‘there’s something not quite right’ and this is often not to do with performance.

Often people from underrepresented groups aren’t getting the same opportunities as others because they aren’t even considered for roles. Opening your eyes to the talent within your organisation before looking elsewhere is also a way to grow and develop everyone. You can do this by offering inclusive and credible leadership pipelines and programmes that specifically target underrepresented groups can be a way to grow successful and diverse environments. 

Make your Visuals Inclusive

Under-representing people on your company website, advertising, social media really speaks volumes to customers, supporters and potential employees. Making sure this imagery reflects your locations, markets, customers can communicate acceptance and belonging in a way that words alone cannot.  

As microaggressions are so common, thinking carefully about how verbal and non-verbal messages are received and what could be understood by the recipient/s is important. Often, non-verbal cues and behaviours say more to a person than what is verbally communicated. To avoid microaggressions, thinking carefully before speaking or responding is a way to plan ways where people feel comfortable, accepted heard and valued.  


Torres,L., Driscoll, M.W and Burrow A.L (2010). Racial Microaggressions and Psychological Functioning Among Highly Achieving African Americans: A Mixed-Methods Approach. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 29, 10, 1074-1099.

Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K.E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S and Rasmus, M (2014) The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling Implications for Clients of Color. Journal of Counselling and Development, 92, 1, 57-66

Wing, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, Esquilin (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62, 4, 271-286



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