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Microaggressions: What Are They and How Can We Prevent Them?

Ianni Le

What exactly are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are part of the experience of any marginalized group of people and are often hidden messages that imply “otherness,” or that the person doesn’t belong.

In an email interview with CollegiateParent, Dr. Beverly Tatum, President Emerita of Spelman College and an expert in race relations (find her complete biography below), provides a succinct definition: “Microaggressions are the daily slights and insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that convey hostile, derogatory or negative messages toward a person of a targeted group. Often involving the projection of stereotypes, they can occur at any moment of the day, a constant potential source of stress.”

Microaggressions can be communicated through words, a gesture, tone, laughter. It might be an action or the omission of action. We can commit microaggressions against a neighbor, coworker or friend (or our child's friend). If we're an educator, the person might be our student; if we are a student ourselves, it might be our classmate or even our teachers. It might be someone we barely know that we interact with in a public space, or a person we see regularly, perhaps at church or in a social group. Microaggressions can take place in any location or situation.

Why are they so damaging?

It is equally important to understand why microaggressions are so damaging to individuals. Because they are less overt, it can be difficult to comprehend how harmful they are. Dr. Tatum stresses that “the persistent sense of 'otherness' that results takes a psychological and physiological toll. Social science research has shown that the cumulative effect of microaggressions can result in anger and frustration, anxiety, depression, lowered self-esteem, physical symptoms, and shortened life expectancy.”

What should I keep in mind when having a conversation about microaggressions?

If the person on the receiving end of a microaggression takes the time to try to explain why something is hurtful or offensive, try to be patient rather than defensive. They aren’t trying to attack you, but they may feel that it’s important for your relationship moving forward to make sure you understand the impact of your words.

Because the long-term effects of microaggressions can make it difficult for a marginalized individual to continue interacting with you, it’s important for your relationship that you keep working towards a mutual understanding.

As Dr. Tatum says, “Because [microaggressions] can be quite frequent, it would take a lot of time and energy to always respond. Many people of color have learned to ignore all but the most egregious of microaggressions, and simply avoid those people who are frequent offenders.”

The cumulative effect and overt nature can make it difficult for individuals to feel supported or validated enough to explain why the experience is so damaging.

Help facilitate an environment and relationship between the two of you that invites conversation and education — this will do wonders for helping the individual feel more open to explaining their feelings.

If you can, it’s also extremely helpful to embody a mindset of understanding and a willingness to change. As microaggressions can often build up over a long period of time before a person decides to say something, they may already be frustrated and use a less gentle approach to correcting you. Though ideally they would raise the issue in a non-combative way, to be the best ally you need to understand how difficult and exhausting these conversations can be for them.

How can I prevent future microaggressions?

It’s important to understand the implications of the microaggression in order to keep it from happening again. To get closer to the root of the issue, ask yourself questions like, “What did I mean by saying that?” or “How did I come to think that?” Take the opportunity to self-reflect and examine your personal biases — we all have them, and they play out in our everyday thinking.

Something as simple as "You're so articulate" or "But where are you really from?" showcases implicit biases in that you think the person speaks well compared to other people of their minority or that you simply think they must have come from somewhere else because they do not look like you. Both of these examples highlight the "otherness" of the receiving individual and, even if given as a compliment, microaggressions cause an indisputable amount of stress for the receiver.

Of course, there is no comprehensive list of everything to stay away from just as there are no clear boundaries around what constitutes offensive behavior. Microaggressions are difficult to pin down because they are most often implicit, and are largely identified based on the meaning behind the words. The only way to make sure you’re fully aware of the implications of your words is to educate yourself on the issue and be mindful of other people’s experiences.

Dr. Tatum suggests that “reading books and articles written by people of color will inevitably enlighten the reader about examples of microaggressions.”

Somebody else’s worldview and life experiences will inevitably be different from yours, and it’s a fantastic opportunity to further your education and understanding of others.

“If a friend or co-worker is willing to tell you that they have been offended by something you said or did, listen carefully to the feedback without getting defensive or trying to minimize what the person is telling you,” Dr. Tatum advises. “Take in the information and be grateful that the person was willing to help educate you.”

Though microaggressions are indisputably harmful, they can be avoided if people on both sides work together compassionately to find mutual understanding.

Coming at these conversations with aggressive or defensive undertones will make it that much more difficult to find middle ground and have a productive conversation. It is the responsibility of both parties to build a comfortable environment for dialogue surrounding appropriate language and behavior.

At the end of the day, we all have a common goal to respect and love one another, and there are things everyone can do to help foster a more inclusive workplace, neighborhood, community and world.

Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President Emerita of Spelman College, is a clinical psychologist widely known for her expertise on race relations and as a thought leader in higher education. Her visionary leadership as president of Spelman College (2002-2015) was recognized in 2013 with the Carnegie Academic Leadership Award. Author of several books including the best-selling “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” and Other Conversations About Race (updated for the 20th anniversary edition in 2017), she was the 2014 recipient of the American Psychological Association Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology. She holds a B.A. degree in psychology from Wesleyan University, and M.A. and Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Michigan as well as an M.A. in Religious Studies from Hartford Seminary. She has served as a faculty member at the University of California, Santa Barbara, Westfield State University, and Mount Holyoke College where she also served as dean and acting president. In Spring 2017 she was the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at Stanford University. In addition to serving as the Board Chair of the Westside Future Fund, she is on the boards of Achieve Atlanta, the Tull Charitable Foundation, Smith College, Morehouse College and the Educational Testing Service. 

Ianni Le is a freelance writer and content creator. She attended the University of Colorado at Boulder, graduating with a degree in Media Design and English Literature. Ianni grew up in Shanghai, China and enjoys her dogs, books and food equally.
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