Racism comes in many forms — and that includes the insidious microaggression.
Columbia University professor Derald Wing Sue, who studies the psychology of racism and anti-racism, summed up racial microaggressions as the “everyday insults, indignities and demeaning messages sent to people of color” by individuals who are often oblivious to the offensive nature of their words or actions. Microaggressions — a term first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s — can be directed at members of any marginalized group, including the LGBTQIA+ community, women and people with disabilities. Here, we’ll focus on those geared toward the Black community.
Microaggressions are broken down into three categories: microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations.
Microassaults are the more obvious and deliberate discriminatory behaviors, such a cashier purposely skipping over a Black customer in line, telling a racist joke or wearing a T-shirt with a Confederate flag on it.
Microinsults and microinvalidations, on the other hand, tend to be unconscious, unintentional and less obvious. In fact, well-intentioned perpetrators of microinsults often believe they’re being complimentary when they tell a Black colleague that they’re “so articulate.” An example of a microinvalidation is when a white person says they’re “colorblind” to racial differences (thus minimizing the struggles that non-white people have dealt with because of their skin color) or tries to claim that racism doesn’t exist anymore.
“It’s a monumental task to get white people to realize that they are delivering microaggressions because it’s scary to them,” Sue told the American Psychological Association. “It assails their self-image of being good, moral, decent human beings to realize that maybe at an unconscious level they have biased thoughts, attitudes and feelings that harm people of color.”
The perpetrator and even the recipient of the microaggression may try to brush off these comments as if they’re no big deal, but the cumulative effect of these interactions can be damaging to Black, Indigenous and people of color’s mental and physical health. The stress of being exposed to these incidents over time is linked to depression, psychological trauma, anxiety and high blood pressure, among other negative health outcomes.
Below, Black people share the microaggressions they’ve personally had to deal with and why they’re offensive:
1. When an airport gate agent questions why you’re in line for business class.
“I travel a lot as a wedding photographer and because of my airline frequent flyer status, I’m upgraded most of the time and get to fly in business class. Ticketing and gate agents always ask me if I’m in the correct line. They want to make me aware that I’m in a line of privilege. I’m usually singled out and asked if I’m flying business. At first, I used to say yes, but I started noticing that I was the only one asked most times, especially if I was the only Black person in the business line. Now, I audibly question why they single me out.” — Joshua Dwain, wedding photographer
2. When someone tells you you’re so pretty that they ‘don’t even think of you as Black.’
“Although the insult here should be obvious, the several well-intentioned people that paid me this ‘compliment’ seemed to have no idea how insulting and hurtful this is. The idea that one cannot be both Black and pretty runs deep in this country. While growing up, every single example of beauty in the media and in my beloved books were white girls or women. Black people, particularly with hair like mine, were often relegated to the role of the dowdy best friend — if they appeared in the show, film or book at all. Nothing I read or saw growing up told me that Black was pretty.” — Laura Cathcart Robbins, writer and host of “The Only One In The Room” podcast
3. When people assume you got into a college because of an athletic scholarship.
“As an alumni of a private university, when someone asks if I played basketball in college, it implies that I was accepted on a sports-related scholarship instead of an academic basis. This is an assumption that all African Americans are athletic and mainly attend college through sports scholarships. I have never been a part of a sports team and I attended my university on a partial academic scholarship.” ― C.D., nurse
4. When a retail employee follows you around the store because they assume you’re going to shoplift.
“When I’m shopping in a store, like at the mall, and the store clerk follows me around the store constantly asking, ‘Do you need help finding anything?’ Asking once is fine, as I understand the need for good customer service. However, being constantly watched with the intent of criminality is another microaggression experienced by Black people. It assumes that we are stealing or don’t have the money to buy the clothes in the store. Anytime I notice this behavior, I decide not to spend my money there. “ ― Erlanger Turner, psychology professor
5. Or when a retail worker immediately directs you to the sales rack.
“A few years ago, I went to Macy’s on 34th St. I walked into the Louis Vuitton section to find a gift for my mother. As soon as I walked in, the sales associate greeted me and, without any prompt, proceeded to direct me to the sales rack. I was dumbfounded. I didn’t understand, only to realize I was the only Black customer who had walked into the store and the only one who wasn’t dressed in designer brands. I left the store right then and there. I didn’t even want to get a gift for my mother after that. I just looked around window shopping then eventually went home. I spoke to my husband and some friends about it but never truly addressed how it bothered me.” ― Jan-Kristòf Louis-Mansano, school counselor
6. When people ask to touch your hair — or just do it without your permission.
“I was at a party where a white woman, who I had met several times before, asked if she could touch my hair (even though she had never asked before). Then, before I could respond, she had both hands on my Afro.
“To be colorblind is to disregard my or any Black person’s humanity.”
It was done to draw attention to me and embarrass me. This woman grew up in the 70s and has probably seen more Afros than me, but she acted like Afros were a brand new concept. Secondly, she violated my personal space and touched me without my permission because she felt she had the right. That entitlement and violation is racism.” ― Valencia Morton, blogger at Millionairess Mama
7. When they make you feel invisible.
“White people have the amazing ability to ignore what is different than their norm. My presence has been ignored in plenty of white spaces for no other reason than the color of my skin. In work settings, this is demoralizing and causes racial trauma.” — Renée Cherez, travel writer
8. When they say you have good hair because it’s ‘not nappy.’
“This statement implies that to have good hair is to have hair resembling Eurocentric features. ‘Kinky’ or ‘nappy’ hair isn’t seen as beautiful in the eyes of society and wouldn’t be referred to as ‘good hair.’” — C.D.
9. Or when they tell you your hair isn’t ‘professional.’
“Years ago, when I was working in a very corporate banking environment, I decided to chop off all my hair. I wanted to start over and embrace my natural texture instead of beating it into submission every month with relaxers. I remember when my supervisor caught wind of my plan to chop my hair off that weekend, she made a point to stop by my desk and lean in before saying, ‘I know you want to be an individual and everyone loves your energy. But I don’t think cutting off all your hair is going to fly here. It’s not very professional.’ She was telling me that showing up as my authentic self — and my most healthy self — would not be accepted and possibly not even tolerated. I chopped my hair off that weekend and quit a few months later.”— Ashley Simpo, writer and content strategist
10. When people marvel at how ‘well-spoken’ you are.
“This statement implies that it’s shocking that a person of color is able to not only articulate their thoughts but hold an intellectual conversation. This is an assumption that people of color are less educated than their counterparts.” — C.D.
11. When a white person tells you they ‘don’t see color.’
“If you can look at me and not see color, then you are denying my racial experiences and my existence. As a Black woman, my race and my womanhood are interwoven. I am both at the same time, all the time. To be colorblind is to disregard my or any Black person’s humanity.” — Cherez
12. When they expect you to be a spokesperson for your entire race.
“The Black Lives Matter movement was being discussed in a space of mostly white people and I was the only Black man. I was essentially tokenized by another member of the group, equating all of my personal experiences to those of all Black people. The crazy part is that I didn’t even realize it until two other group members pointed it out post-meeting. This is a problem where we have become used to being ‘the other’ that we don’t realize when we are being targeted anymore.” ― Kellan Mansano, social worker
13. When they address your white partner instead of you.
“‘Let me show you around, sir.’ I can’t tell you how many times this statement was directed only to my white boyfriend while the two of us were house hunting a little over three years ago. Never mind that the down payment was coming from me — those realtors never failed to shake his hand first and look to him for answers during the showing. Even when he would say, ‘Actually, you better talk to her about the length of escrow or inspections etc.,’ they would still end up addressing him instead of me.
Sure, there was definitely some sexism in play, but many of my white, straight couple-friend-homeowners were also shocked to hear how far it went. These realtors were clearly not ready for a Black female decision-maker.” ― Cathcart Robbins
Should You Respond To A Microaggression?
If you’re on the receiving end of a microaggression, the choice to respond to or ignore the offense is ultimately up to you. Educating a “fragile” white person about the error of their ways requires a certain amount of emotional labor, which BIPOC simply may not have the energy for. To help you decide if you should bring it up or let it slide, consider the following factors from Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College who developed a guide to responding to microaggressions:
Will your physical safety be in jeopardy if you bring it up?
Will the offender be defensive and/or will this lead to an argument?
How will bringing it up affect your relationship with this person?
If you ignore it, will you regret doing so?
If you let them off the hook, does that convey that you’re OK with what they did or said?
There’s no one “right” way to respond. Some people might choose to make a joke or a sarcastic remark or gesture, such as roll their eyes, Nadal wrote. Some may share how the comment made them feel and explain to the perpetrator why it’s insulting. And others may need to release pent-up frustration by yelling. You’re well within your right to feel agitated or hurt by a microaggression, just know that labeling the offender a racist is likely to trigger defensiveness and escalate the conversation into an argument, he added. For that reason, it may be helpful to focus on and call out the racist behavior instead of calling the perpetrator a racist.
Others may choose to turn the microaggression back on the offender as a way to shine a light on the absurdity and rudeness of their comment. Implicit bias trainer and educator Denise Evans, a Black woman, told Yes! magazine writer Ruth Terry that when a white person tells her she’s “articulate,” she says, “Thank you very much, so are you.” She then asks the person why they called her “articulate” and suggests potential reasons, like if it’s because she’s a woman, she’s Black, or she’s a New Yorker.
“And I literally wait for [an] answer,” she told Yes! magazine. “I give people their microaggression and their implicit biases back in a pretty box with a nice bow on it. I hand it to you, and I wait for you to open it and tell me what you see.”
If you’d prefer to avoid confrontation, that’s OK, too.
“If someone chooses not to address the perpetrator, talking to your support system can help you cope and process what happened,” Lois Kirk, a licensed professional counselor, said.
As a white person or other non-Black ally, if you get called out for a microaggression, it’s your duty to apologize, listen to the criticism and be open to learning. It doesn’t matter if you meant well: Your intentions are irrelevant. And if you witness a microaggression occurring, you can step in to help lighten the burden placed on Black people.
“Our colleagues of color are constantly being taxed by microaggressions and the stress that goes with that,” Rev. Carolyn Helsel told CNN. “So it’s important that white people who are not operating under the same stressful conditions to be able to be bold and speak out, so that we can all be as productive and as fruitful in our work as we can be.”
Responses were lightly edited for length and clarity.