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What are Microaggressions?

Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” First coined by Chester M. Pierce, psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University, the term has since grown from its initial classification of small barbs and dismissals aimed at African Americans, to encompass all subtle forms of bias, either conscious or unconscious, that send malignant, yet inconspicuous, messages of inferiority to already marginalized groups.

"Keeping Up With... Microaggressions," American Library Association, March 17, 2020.

Microaggressions can be classified under three distinct categories:

  1. Microassaults (otherwise known as “old-fashioned” racism, sexism, or heterosexism) are conscious and deliberate biased attitudes communicated to marginalized groups through environmental cues, verbalizations, or behaviors.
  2. Microinsults are subtle snubs and behaviors that communicate a belief in denigrating stereotypes against marginalized groups. For example, if a female technology expert appeared for a technology assistance request, and the person seeking help asked her, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?”
  3. Microinvalidations  are communications or environmental cues that exclude and/or negate the experiential reality of marginalized groups. For example, the “I don’t see color” assertion, intrinsically denies a person of color’s racial experiences by implying that those differences do not exist.

"Keeping Up With... Microaggressions," American Library Association, March 17, 2020.


Alien in One’s Own Land

When Asian Americans, Latino Americans and others who look different or are named differently from the dominant culture are assumed to be foreign-born

  • “Where are you from or where were you born?”
  • “You speak English very well.”
  • “What are you? You’re so interesting looking!”
  • A person asking an Asian American or Latino American to teach them words in their native language.
  • Continuing to mispronounce the names of students after students have corrected the person time and time again. Not willing to listen closely and learn the pronunciation of a non-English based name

You are not a true American.

You are a perpetual foreigner in your own country.

Your ethnic/racial identity makes you exotic.

Ascription of Intelligence

Assigning intelligence to a person
of color or a woman based on
his/her race/gender

  • “You are a credit to your race.”
  • “Wow! How did you become so good in math?”
  • To an Asian person, “You must be good in math, can you help me with this problem?”
  • To a woman of color: “I would have never guessed that you were a scientist.”

People of color are generally not as intelligent as Whites.

All Asians are intelligent and good in math/science.

It is unusual for a woman to have strong mathematical skills.

Color Blindness

Statements that indicate that a White person does not want to or need to acknowledge race.

  • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
  • “There is only one race, the human race.”
  • “America is a melting pot.”
  • “I don’t believe in race.”
  • Denying the experiences of students by questioning the credibility /validity of their stories.

Assimilate to the dominant culture.

Denying the significance of a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience and history.

Denying the individual as a racial/cultural being.

Criminality/Assumption of Criminal Status

A person of color is presumed to be dangerous, criminal, or deviant based on his/her race.

  • A White man or woman clutches his/her purse or checks wallet as a Black or Latino person approaches.
  • A store owner following a customer of color around the store.
  • Someone crosses to the other side of the street to avoid a person of color.
  • While walking through the halls of the Chemistry building, a professor approaches a post-doctoral student of color to ask if she/he is lost, making the assumption that the person is trying to break into one of the labs.

You are a criminal.

You are going to steal/you are poor, you do not belong.

You are dangerous.

Denial of Individual

A statement made when bias is denied.

  • “I’m not racist. I have several Black friends.”
  • “As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”
  • To a person of color: “Are you sure you were being followed in the store? I can’t believe it.”

I could never be racist because I have friends of color.

Your racial oppression is no different than my gender oppression. I can’t be a racist. I’m like you.

Denying the personal experience of individuals who experience bias.

Myth of Meritocracy

Statements which assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes, for example in issues like faculty demographics.

  • “I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”
  • “Of course he’ll get tenure, even though he hasn’t published much—he’s Black!”
  • “Men and women have equal opportunities for achievement.”
  • “Gender plays no part in who we hire.”
  • “America is the land of opportunity.”
  • “Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”
  • “Affirmative action is racist.”

People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race.

The playing field is even so if women cannot make it, the problem is with them.

People of color are lazy and/or incompetent and need to work harder.

Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles

The notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are ideal/”normal”.

  • To an Asian, Latino or Native American: “Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal.” “Speak up more.”
  • Asking a Black person: “Why do you have to be so loud/animated? Just calm down.”
  • “Why are you always angry?” anytime race is brought up in the classroom discussion.
  • Dismissing an individual who brings up race/culture in work/school setting.

Assimilate to dominant culture.

Leave your cultural baggage outside.

There is no room for difference.

Second-Class Citizen

Occurs when a target group member receives differential treatment from the power group; for example, being given preferential treatment as a consumer over a person of color.

  • Faculty of color mistaken for a service worker.
  • Not wanting to sit by someone because of his/her color.
  • Female doctor mistaken for a nurse.
  • Being ignored at a store counter as attention is given to the White customer.
  • Saying “You people…”
  • An advisor assigns a Black post-doctoral student to escort a visiting scientist of the same race even though there are other non-Black scientists in this person’s specific area of research.
  • An advisor sends an email to another work colleague describing another individual as a “good Black scientist.”
  • Raising your voice or speaking slowly when addressing a blind student.
  • In class, an instructor tends to call on male students more frequently than female ones.

People of color are servants to Whites. They couldn’t possibly occupy high status positions.

Women occupy nurturing positions.

Whites are more valued customers than people of color.

You don’t belong. You are a lesser being.

A person with a disability is defined as lesser in all aspects of physical and mental functioning.
The contributions of female students are less worthy than the contributions of male students.

Sexist/Heterosexist Language

Terms that exclude or degrade women and LGBTQIA+ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer and/or Questioning, Intersex, Asexual and/or Allied) persons.

  • Use of the pronoun “he” to refer to all people.
  • Being constantly reminded by a coworker that “we are only women.”
  • Being forced to choose Male or Female when completing basic forms.
  • Two options for relationship status: married or single.
  • 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.

LGBTQIA+ categories are not recognized.

LGBTQIA+ partnerships are invisible.

Men who do not fit male stereotypes are inferior.

Traditional Gender Role

Prejudicing and Stereotyping Occurs when expectations of traditional roles or stereotypes are conveyed.

  • When a female student asks a male professor for extra help on an engineering assignment, he asks “What do you need to work on this for anyway?”
  • “You’re a girl, you don’t have to be good at math.”
  • A person asks a woman her age and, upon hearing she is 31, looks quickly at her ring finger.
  • An advisor asks a female student if she is planning on having children while in postdoctoral training.
  • Shows surprise when a feminine woman turns out to be a lesbian.
  • Labeling an assertive female committee chair/dean as a “b____,” while describing a male counterpart as a “forceful leader.”

Women are less capable in math and science.

Women should be married during child-bearing ages because that is their primary purpose.

Women are out of line when they are aggressive.

Adapted from:

  • Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010
  • Wing, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, Esquilin (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist, 62, 4, 271-286

There are three primary areas where individuals can work to mitigate and prevent microaggressions in librarianship.

  1. Support: Providing support can mitigate burn-out, the feelings of exclusion and isolation commonly described by the targets of microaggressions, and other negative effects. Support can take different forms and be as simple as checking in on your colleagues to ask how they are doing. Showing that you care is especially important when there is a workplace or political climate that is likely to create strain for your colleagues. Support can also be active and require intervention in hostile situations. When we remain silent while witnessing a microaggression, we become complicit in that action. 
  2. Listen: Believe colleagues when they tell you about their experiences. Being dismissive of your colleagues’ accounts and feelings, or claiming that they have been too sensitive, are in themselves microaggressions that invalidate their experiences and cause harm. Suspend judgment and excuses and listen to what is being told to you before you react. Understand that this confidence is not an attack, but a gesture of trust. If you are the person who committed the microaggression, listen to the impact that your words or actions had so that you can understand how to change.
  3. Act: The following strategies have been identified as opportunities to build our resilience as allies and to lighten the burdens that our colleagues from marginalized groups bear.
    • Develop stamina to tolerate discussions about racism and other axes of oppression.
    • Stop asking our colleagues to take on the emotional and workplace labor of outreach and inclusion efforts alone.
    • Replace microaggressions with microaffections

"Keeping Up With... Microaggressions," American Library Association, March 17, 2020.

If a microaggression occurs, ask yourself a series of questions: Did this microaggression really occur? Was it deliberate or unintentional? Should I respond to this microaggression, and, if so, how should I respond?

In order to diminish the harm when individuals are confronted with their microaggressive acts, the perpetrator usually believes that the victim has overreacted and is being overly sensitive and/or petty. However, we know that research has proven otherwise, and avoidance is not the answer. If you become a recipient of a microaggression, there are several steps in which to respond:

  • Pause and take a deep breath. Do not act with anger as it will not help the situation.
  • Decide when and if you want to respond. Perhaps you would not engage in a conversation about the comment if it came from a public patron, who is not a regular user of the library. If it is coming from a colleague, perhaps you would want to address it.
  • Assume there is no malicious intent. Approach the situation with a positive attitude and give the individual the benefit of the doubt.
  • Focus on the event and not the person. The goal is not to win a point or to make your colleague feel bad. It is about helping them understand how their comments or actions are hurtful.
  • Discuss your feelings about the impact of the incident. Use emotional intelligence to help diffuse the situation. Try to understand the situation and be empathetic.
  • Actively listen.
  • Document the incident(s). If this behavior becomes a pattern, you may have to take formal action. Human resources may request specifics (date, time) of each incident.
  • If you choose not to address the interaction directly, you should process your experience with an ally, who will help validate your experience. Or do something creative to express your feelings about the experience (i.e., write your feelings in a journal).

Colleagues who have witnessed microaggressions, can also take a proactive role in ensuring that the workplace is healthy. Speak up when you see inappropriate behavior directed at a colleague. Avoid being sarcastic, mocking, or arrogant with your colleagues. Employ the Platinum Rule—treat others the way they want to be treated.

Dalton, Shamika, & Michele Villagran. "Minimizing and addressing microaggressions in the workplace: Be proactive, part 2." College & Research Libraries News [Online], 79.10 (2018): 538.

Resources on Microaggressions