Microaggressions: We Can Do Better

Posted on October 24, 2016

Recently, I’ve had some epiphanies about microaggressions. Microaggressions are “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”* They can be expressed toward any marginalized group in our society and be based on gender, sexual orientation, class, religion, or ability. This post explores the impact of race-based microaggressions and how we can do better.

Note: You can skip the rest of this post and go read Phoebe Robinson’s book “You Can’t Touch My Hair (And Other Things I Still Have to Explain)”. [If you don’t have her book, let me know and I’ll send you one!]


tl;dr? Microaggressions are Real, Constant, and Continual

Three examples from Robinson’s book:

1. Shopping While Black (being followed around the store because it’s assumed you are shoplifting)

2. Angry Black Woman stereotype (designed to keep Black women “in their place”)

3. The Black Friend (when a White person only hangs out with you to show they aren’t racist)

Two from recent news, thanks to Delta Airlines:

‘Are you a doctor?’ ‘Yes’

‘Are you a doctor?’ ‘Yes’

‘Are you a doctor?’ ‘Yes’

– Discrimination 30,000 Feet Above – Dr. Ashley Denmark, D.O.

‘Oh no, sweetie put your hand down; we are looking for actual physicians or nurses or some type of medical personnel. We don’t have time to talk to you.’

– Facebook post – Dr. Tamika Cross

And one from the world of tech:

Sarah Mei‘s recent Twitter Moment addressing the talk track that there is a lack of diversity in tech because Women & Minorities Don’t Apply included how important it is for women and minorities to find a workplace that is NOT full of microaggressions, but how hard it is to tell in the interview process.


The Research Shows

Robinson, Denmark, Cross, and Mei are not alone in noticing these microaggressions. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, has been studying them for years and has experienced microaggressions his whole life:

“Where were you born?” “Portland Oregon.”
“You speak good English.” “Um, thanks?”

Last week, along with other (mostly White) local parents and educators, I attended a talk by Dr. Sue titled MICROAGGRESSIONS: Toxic Rain in Classrooms, on Campuses and in Everyday Life. Dr. Sue, like Robinson, has a way of delivering, with a sense of humor, what daily life is like for people of color and how White people can do better. (Hmmm, maybe they should team up?)

“Ordinary people are more dangerous than the clan.”
– Dr. Sue
Microaggressions can be intentional or unintentional, and it’s the hidden unintentional forms that are most damaging. Disparities in education, employment, and healthcare for people of color are not due to overt racism, they are due to individuals unaware of their biases. So, folks, that’s us. Regular people who think we’re not racist. The thing is, none of us are immune to inheriting the racist attitudes of our society. White supremacy is the enemy, not White Americans. So, White Americans, we must unlearn what we have learned.

PBS News Hour spot with Dr. Derald Wing Sue

What Can We Do?

Sitting in the audience at Dr. Sue’s talk, it hit me: unlearning institutional biases is hard work, but we can do it. We can read, listen, and internalize what it would be like to experience microaggressions every day, multiple times a day, from the time we were born. Then, we can think before we speak/react (think, “is what I’m about to say/do an ingrained reaction to a false stereotype?”). Let’s start by treating everyone with respect. Don’t touch anyone’s hair, or follow them in stores, or make assumptions about their occupations. We can do better.


*Dr. Derald Wing Sue in Paludi, Michele A. (2012). Managing Diversity in Today’s Workplace: Strategies for Employees and Employers. Praeger. ISBN 0313393176.

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