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What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults targeted towards people from marginalized groups based on race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, religious affiliation or other perceived characteristic.

Whether intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages that demean a person or a group’s humanity. 

Read further to better understand everyday interpersonal microaggressions, some of which are related to broader policies and environmental cues.

What are the types of microaggressions?

Type of microaggressions Example
Microinequities are overt and discriminatory. They can be explicit verbal or nonverbal attacks intended to hurt a victim based on their identity or identities shown through name calling, avoidant behaviour or purposeful discriminatory actions. Deliberately servicing a White patron first before a racialized person.
Microassaults are subtle forms of rude or insensitive communication–usually not recognized as such by a perpetrator–that demean a person’s identity or identities. They can be considered as back-handed compliments. Telling a racialized person born in Canada that their “English is really good.”
Microinvalidations are communications that discredit the thoughts, feelings or experiences of people from marginalized groups.  They can also be actions that result in exclusion and a lack of belonging.

A racialized person tells their White friend about a situation where they felt discriminated against and are told to “stop being so sensitive.” 

The absence of Black narratives in curriculum.

The themes of a specific microaggression vary depending on the targeted group or person. Here are some examples of common microaggression themes against specific groups of people:

Theme Microaggression Message
Alien in one’s land
  • “Where are you from?”
  • “Where were you born?”
  • “You speak good English.”
  • You are not Canadian.
  • You are a foreigner
Ascription of intelligence
  • “You are a credit to your race.”
  • “You are so articulate.” 
  • Asking an Asian person to help with a math or science problem.
  • Racialized people are generally not as intelligent as White people.
  • It is unusual for someone of your race to be intelligent.
  • All Asians are intelligent and good in math/sciences.
Colour blindness
  • “When I look at you, I don’t see colour.”
  • “There is only one race–the human race.”
  • “I don’t believe in race.”
  • You should assimilate to the dominant culture.
  • Your racial/ethnic experience and history are not important. 
  • You don’t have any particular racial or cultural identity.

Criminality–assumption of criminal status

  • A White person clutching their valuables as a Black or Latino person approaches or passes by.
  • A store owner following a racialized person around the store.
  • A White person waiting to ride the next elevator when a racialized person is on.
  • You are a criminal.
  • You are going to steal.
  • You do not belong.
  • You are dangerous

Denial of individual racism/sexism

  • “I’m not racist. I have several Black friends.”
  • “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”
  • “Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can’t believe it.”
  • I am immune to racism because I have racialized friends.
  • Your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression. I can’t be a racist. I’m like you.
  • “You are so resilient. Look at what you’ve accomplished despite your disability.” 
  • “I don’t know how you do it. I could never deal with that.”
  • “You don’t look ill or disabled.”
  • You are not normal or competent enough to overcome hardships.
  • You must be suffering because you are living with a disability.
  • You don’t look the way I think people with long-term health conditions should look.
Myth of meritocracy
  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
  • “Everyone can succeed in this
  • society if they work hard enough.”
  • You have been given extra unfair benefits because of your race.
  • The playing field is even, so if you are from a marginalized group and haven’t “made it,” you are lazy.
Pathologizing cultural values and
communication styles

  • Asking a Black person, “Why do you have to be so loud and animated? Just calm down.”
  • To an Asian or Latino person: “Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal. Speak up more.”
  • Dismissing an individual who brings up race or culture in a work or school setting.
  • You should assimilate to the dominant culture.
  • Leave your cultural baggage outside.
  • There is no room for difference.
Second-class citizen
  • Racialized person mistaken for a service worker.
  • Being ignored at a store counter as attention is given to a White customer further behind in line.
  • As a racialized person, you are subservient and couldn’t possibly occupy a high-status position.
  • White people are more valued customers than racialized people.
Sexist/heterosexist language
  • Use of the pronoun “he” to refer to all people.
  • Being forced to choose “male” or “female” when completing basic forms.
  • A heterosexual man who often hangs out with his female friends more than his male friends is labeled as gay.
  • Male experience is universal.
  • Female experience is invisible.
  • 2SLGBTQ+ categories are not recognized.
  • 2SLGBTQ+ partnerships are invisible.
  • Men who do not fit male stereotypes are inferior.
Traditional gender role
prejudicing and stereotyping
  • Upon learning a woman is 31 years old, a person quickly examines her ring finger. 
  • An assertive female committee chair/dean is called a derogatory term while her male counterpart is called a “decisive leader.”
  • You should be married, since you are at a childbearing age. 
  • Women are out of line when they are assertive.

How can microaggressions cause harm?

Microaggressions create inequities in society that leave people from marginalized groups at a disadvantage. They are not just simple comments that put another person down. They are targeted comments or actions in response to someone’s perceived identity.

Microaggressions are a form of constant and continual harm against people from marginalized groups that occur throughout their lives.

Microaggressions are cumulative and create conflict and dilemmas for people from marginalized groups. Because they occur so often, they create labour as they are continually deciphered. Studies have shown that this impacts people’s productivity, concentration and well-being.

How can we address microaggressions?

  • Assume that you have your own biases. None of us were raised without inheriting some racial, gender or sexual orientation biases from the previous generations.
  • Speak out when microaggressions occur. Simply acknowledging a microaggression does not delegitimize it.
  • Acknowledge and understand your own privilege. Some of us hold and yield power differently based on our social location, and those with more power over others must move towards systemic action that helps combat these inequities. 
  • Recognize the importance of education. Whether through self-education or by promoting education for children and teens in school, preventing implicit biases can be done through intentional, anti-biased and multicultural curriculums.
  • Do not shy away from discomfort when listening to the lived experiences of people who are different from you. 
  • Acknowledging, understanding and supporting other people’s differences from you will help legitimize their experience and also help you achieve insights about yourself that will strengthen your solidarity.

How can we confront microaggressions? 

Safety comes first. So before confronting microaggressions, ensure that you are safe and that it is safe to do so. 

  1. Make the invisible visible

    • undermine the offender’s action
    • point out the offender’s action
    • challenge the stereotype
    • broaden the ascribed trait to a universal human behaviour
    • ask for clarification
  2. Disarm the microaggression

    • express disagreement
    • state values and set limits against the offender
    • describe what is happening out loud
    • interrupt and redirect
  3. Educate the offender

    • point out the commonality
    • appeal to the offender’s values and principles
    • differentiate between intent and impact
    • promote empathy
    • point out how the offender benefits
  4. Seek external validation

    • alert authorities
    • report the act
    • seek therapy/counselling
    • seek support through spirituality, religion, community or support group
    • set up a buddy system

Self-educate to learn more

Microaggressions in Everyday Society with Dr. Sue

Watch this event: Microaggressions in Everyday Society with Dr. Sue (February 2015)

In, Dr. Derald Wing Sue joined Dr. Denise O'Neil Green for an interactive conversation about best practices and strategies for disrupting microaggressions in postsecondary education and society.

About Dr. Sue

Dr. Sue is Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University. He is one of the foremost authorities and scholars in the areas of microaggressions, multicultural counselling and psychotherapy, psychology of racism and antiracism, cultural diversity, cultural competence and multicultural organizational development.

Unpacking microaggressions series in TMU Today

Books for kids 

Books for teens

Resources for adults


Rini, R. (2021). The ethics of microaggression. Routledge.

Sue, D. W., & Spanierman, L. (2020). Microaggressions in everyday life (Second; 2nd; ed.). John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo C.M., Torino G.C., Bucceri J.M., Holder A.M., Nadal K.L., Esquilin M. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. Am Psychol. 2007 May-Jun;62(4):271-86. doi: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271. PMID: 17516773.