by Sophia Boutilier 

What’s the problem with microaggressions?

What makes microaggressions such a big deal? Aren’t they, by definition, micro in nature? Microaggressions are every day, routine, even unintentional, slights and exchanges that denigrate or single out individuals because of their group membership (Barthelemy et al 2016, Sue et al 2007). They are often ambiguous, subtle, and challenging to pinpoint (Jones et al 2017). Consequently, microaggressions end up as the quiet burden to bear of the people who are targeted (it’s just too much work to explain it to people who don’t get it), overlooked by others (who don’t get it), and left unchecked (because those in power can’t comprehend the problem). Yet this oversight directly contributes to the repeated incidence of microaggressions, a violence which is compounded by its invalidation as ‘no big deal’ by people who don’t have to experience it (a microaggression in itself!) (Sweet 2019).

The concept of death by a thousand cuts comes to mind, particularly if the doctor you went to see told you that you weren’t *really* bleeding. And it’s this insidiousness, this ability for microaggressions to fly under the radar of managers and supervisors, that makes them hard to diagnose and contributes to the perception that the aggressed are overreacting, hyper-sensitive, irrationally angry, or whining (Ahmed 2021, Jones et al 2017, Orelus 2013). The inability of members of the dominant group to identify a microaggression when it happens and to recognize the long line of similar slights to which a particular insult is just one more instance that further isolates the person coping with the aggression (Orelus 2013). Such an institutional environment makes reporting difficult, often protecting aggressors and causing targets of microaggressions to question their own perception of reality (Barthelemy et al 2016, Jones et al 2017, Solorzano 1998). It’s no wonder that repeated microaggressions negatively impact work performance for individuals on their receiving end and reinforce harmful and prejudicial stereotypes for the wider community (Sue et al 2007, Solorzano 1998).

What do they look like?

Because microaggressions can be difficult to spot from the outside, it is imperative to collect the stories and experiences of the people who experience them (Barthelemy et al 2016, Solorzano 1998). For example, three-quarters of women in a physics graduate program, a typically male-dominated field, experienced microaggressions including sexist jokes, sexual objectification, the assumption of their inferiority, as well as being ignored, passed over, or treated as invisible in their work environment (Barthelemy et al 2016). Although these instances were three times more common than “outright” or hostile sexism, women who reported sexist behavior were encouraged to overlook it or were ignored by supervisors. The denial of sexism dovetailed with the idea of science as neutral and having a ‘culture of no culture’, obscuring and perpetuating the ways women are sidelined in the field (Barthelemy et al 2016, Harding 1986, Des Jardins 2010). These women’s experiences are not isolated or unusual. They are common to male-dominated fields like STEM fields and speak to more general patterns of exclusion (Funk and Parker 2018).

A few other examples of microaggressions include:

  • Complimenting a scholar of color for being articulate as if it’s surprising that they are well spoken (Orelus 2013);
  • Assuming that people in fat or bigger bodies are unhealthy and/or being surprised that they are healthy or physically active (Gay 2017, Gordon 2021, West 2017);
  • Ignoring, interrupting, taking credit for, or downplaying the contributions of minority colleagues (Solorzano 1998);
  • Assuming that women or people of color know everything there is to know about women and people of color, and relying on them to educate others (Orelus 2013);
  • Asking a prospective female employee of childbearing age or who is currently pregnant what her “plans” are (Kitroeff and Silver-Greenberg 2018);
  • Referring to a male colleague as “assertive” while the same behavior by a female colleague is labelled as “loud” (Correll 2017);
  • Having lower expectations of minority students or co-workers (Solorzano 1998);
  • Asking someone who is not the visible norm where they are from (Wing et al 2007)

Why do they matter?

Experiencing the inconsiderateness of a colleague is of course not limited to the experiences of minorities. Anyone can be on the receiving end of rudeness (Fleming 2019). In contrast, microaggressions are chronic, repeated instances of deep social divisions. Although they might seem small, one-off events, situating them in a historical and contemporary context reveals longstanding patterns of discrimination (Solorzano 1998). By way of particularly stark example, both female scientists and university professors, and graduate students of color, report being treated like ‘second class citizens’ who didn’t belong in their institutions (Barthelemy et al 2016, Orelus 2013, Solorzano 1998). In both cases this treatment is rooted in a history where members of these groups were not just treated as second class citizens, but actually were second class citizens and accordingly denied human, civil and legal rights (Orelus 2013). In other words, microaggressions are simply the tip of an iceberg of historically and socially entrenched animus from which minorities endure a steady drip.

The concept of death by a thousand cuts comes to mind, particularly if the doctor you went to see told you that you weren’t really bleeding.

Despite their name, microaggressions have *macro* effects. Targets of microaggressions are more likely to experience symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (Berg 2006). In the face of routine slights and dismissals, women and people of color report constantly having to prove themselves at school and work and facing higher penalties for making mistakes than their colleagues (Madsen et al 2015). Consequences include reduced performance, lower satisfaction, and higher rates of burnout for individuals (Krivkovich et al 2018, Jones et al 2017, Martell et al 1996), as well as reduced profits, innovation, and productivity for organizations (Ferrary 2013, Funk and Parker 2018). When organizational norms and leadership fail to prevent microaggressions, their cultures discourage diversity and place an unfair burden on minority groups to cope silently with the stress of discrimination ((Jones et al 2017, Orelus 2013). Often these aggressions fail to meet legal thresholds for discrimination, leaving targets vulnerable to repeated abuse, and even contributing to the fiction held by some that racism and sexism are no longer common problems (Ferber 2012).

What can be done?

Discriminatory cultures are dynamic and interpersonal products which include targets, perpetrators, bystanders, and allies—all of whom have roles to play to change a biased climate (Jones et al 2017). More space needs to be made for marginalized groups to identify microaggressions and access channels to hold aggressors accountable (Barthelemy et al 2016). Shifting the culture to take seriously the experience of the person feeling aggressed, regardless of the intent of perpetrators is essential to challenge gaslighting and invalidation and to prevent aggressions before the point that reporting needs to take place (Applebaum 2010, Oluo 2017, Sweet 2019). Incentives and accountability can reduce the social costs associated with reporting (Sue et al 2017), especially in ambiguous situations which are both more common and harder to pinpoint (Shelton and Stewart 2004, Correll 2017). Restorative paradigms that emphasize addressing the harm rather than adjudicating if a policy was violated can reduce the adversarial nature of reporting and associated retaliation (Ahmed 2021, Hamad 2020, Wemmers 2017). Establishing dialogue and group problem-solving may also reduce barriers as research shows that women who have experienced bias are more likely to recognize bias directed at other women than directed at themselves (Jones et al 2017). Bringing employees together to share stories and solutions is often more effective to identify microaggressions than leaving targets to speak up for themselves individually (Summers-Effler 2002).

Even when targets call out racism, sexism, and other forms of prejudice, reporting will only work if aggressors can listen to and believe their colleagues and appreciate their experience of the exchange. This should also include equipping privileged persons (regardless of their history of perpetration) with the tools to deal with defensiveness, fear of being wrong, or disappointment that might result when they learn they have, perhaps unwittingly, participated in bias against a colleague. Bystanders may be effective at intervening and sanctioning the perpetrator, but such action does not guarantee higher levels of acceptance toward the target (Jones et al 2017). A multi-pronged approach is necessary. Training and actions for acknowledging and interrupting implicit bias (Perry et al 2015, Yen et al 2018) and revising workplace conventions for bias that may be ‘baked in’ (Correll 2017) are also important. The latter could be transformed through equitable and transparent distribution of opportunities and tasks, and intentional review of how work is assigned and evaluated (Blickenstaff 2005).


About the Author

Sophia Boutilier is a PhD candidate in the Department of Sociology at Stony Brook University. Her research focuses on the international development industry, inequalities, and social justice. She is particularly invested in scholarship that engages privileged groups to challenge their dominance in support of social change. In addition to her academic work, Sophia has authored policy documents on gender inequality and sexual violence prevention. She draws inspiration from her field experience as a development worker, and from the writing of critical race and feminist theorists.

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