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Microaggressions are the interactions and behaviors that communicate a certain bias toward historically marginalized groups. Often, the people who commit microaggressions have no knowledge that they have done something that could offend others.

However, because microaggressions most commonly target race, sexuality, and gender, it's essential to become aware of them. The behaviors can also involve religion, appearance, and health.

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Background and Origins

Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce first coined the term “microaggressions” in 1970. He used it to describe the insults and comments that non-Black Americans made towards African Americans. Eventually, the term came to refer to the casual degradation of any marginalized group as psychologists like Derald Wing Sue and Kevin Nadal further explored the topic.

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Everyday Microaggressions

Since microaggressions can be difficult to recognize, understanding a few common examples can help identify future ones.

  • A microassault is direct or deliberate action, though the perpetrator may not recognize their bias. It could involve a white parent ordering their children to leave a pool as Black children enter the water.
  • Microinsults are more complex and often masquerade as questions or compliments. Examples of this would be asking to touch a Black person’s hair or asking how a person in a wheelchair uses the restroom. While these might stem from a well-meaning place, they can often negatively affect the recipient.
  • Microinvalidations deny a person’s identity or experiences. These microaggressions are particularly common in the healthcare and education fields. For example, many healthcare providers still mistakenly believe that Black people have naturally thicker skin and feel less pain, regardless of the pain level a patient describes.
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Race and Ethnicity

Many social scientists believe that racism has shifted from clear expressions of hatred to more subtle and often unintentional expressions like microaggressions. Dr. Sue proposed several themes of racial microaggression:

  • Alien in own land: automatically assuming that people of different ethnicities are foreigners
  • Ascription of intelligence: assuming a person’s intelligence based on their ethnicity
  • Denial of racial reality: emphasizing that certain people do not experience discrimination
  • Pathologizing cultural aspects: portraying traits of a certain culture as less desirable
  • Refusing to acknowledge intra-ethnic differences: assuming all members of a race share traits or culture
  • Invisibility: ignoring certain races entirely, especially when discussing rights, equality, or racism
  • Second-class citizenship: treating people of other ethnicities as lesser
  • Exoticatization of non-white women
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Gender and Sex

Gender microaggressions include sexual objectification, second-class citizenship, sexist language or jokes, denial of sexism, restrictive gender roles, assumption of inferiority, and invisibility. Experts also recognize environmental microaggressions that have wide-reaching effects, such as pay variations based on gender rather than skill or work quality.

Transgender people face the same microaggressions as cisgender individuals, though sociologists acknowledge many trans-specific microaggressions.

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Sexuality and Sexual Orientation

People of all sexual orientations experience microaggressions, though the severity and reach often vary. Many people face invisibility and denial, where people with different sexual orientations do not believe in their existence (bisexual is a common example).

Microaggressions often involve prescribing certain traits to orientations, such as viewing bisexual individuals as promiscuous or asexual people as cold. Exclusion is a common microaggression that also affects many orientations.

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Mental Illnesses and Other Conditions

While the topic of microaggressions largely focuses on sexuality, gender, and race, other communities also encounter them. People with mental illnesses report receiving more overt forms of microaggressions, many of which come from friends, family, and authority figures. One study recognized five forms of microaggression: invalidation, fear of mental illness, shaming of mental illness, assumption of inferiority, and second-class citizenship. People with physical and other health conditions often experience similar microaggressions.

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Health Effects

Microaggressions can have a profound effect on a person’s physical and mental well-being. However, this area of study is quite new and difficult to research, resulting in largely anecdotal evidence.

Some experts believe that microaggressions can lead to lower self-confidence and a poor self-image. Certain people may face prejudice strong enough to elicit symptoms of depression, anxiety, and trauma.

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Other Effects

The effects of microaggressions do not stop at an individual level. What begins as a subtle but negative interaction can have effects on society as a whole.

For example, one study found that it takes four years longer for women to receive diagnoses than men, due in part to the diminishment of their symptoms and experiences. Another study observed that transgender people face microaggressions in formal healthcare settings to such a degree that they often develop a distrust of these spaces and people in these fields.

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Recognizing and Avoiding Microaggressions

Because microaggressions are usually subtle, the perpetrator may not be aware of their actions or may even be well-meaning. The first step to avoiding microaggressions is recognizing their existence and effects.

Consider words carefully and think about how an “innocent” question or comment might harm the recipient. Spending time learning about other cultures, religions, and lifestyles can result in greater empathy and fewer missteps that are, in truth, microaggressions.

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Managing Microaggressions

Each person who experiences a microaggression responds differentlyand manages the interaction in their own way. If the microaggression comes from a trusted person and the recipient feels comfortable, an open discussion can help resolve the issue. However, it is also problematic to presume that a person dealing with microaggressions must speak up in order for their discomfort to be valid or the comment to be inappropriate.

Finding a group of people with similar experiences can often provide a sense of support to people facing microaggressions in their larger community. Some people receive counseling to help them manage and safeguard themselves against microaggressions.

Ultimately, microaggressions highlight an ongoing systemic issue that entire populations should work toward correcting through discussion, research, and empathy.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.