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Microaggressions: Hidden Harm

By Courtney Claffy, Sarah Sinclair, and Lauren Freeman

What is a Microaggression?

If you look up the term “microaggression” you will find many definitions, but the meaning is always the same. Microaggressions are day-to-day discriminatory statements or actions, intentional or unintentional, against any marginalized group of people. They can target people based on race, gender, socioeconomic status, sexuality, nationality, citizenship, ability, religion, political affiliation, etc. Microaggressions can be subtle, indirect, or completely unintended; nevertheless, they communicate a hostile or derogatory message to the targeted person or group. The nature of our society is such that we all carry inherent biases around with us every day, and so, we are all capable of engaging in microaggressions. Therefore, it is extremely important that we educate ourselves on this matter, so we know how to address microaggressions when we encounter them.

The Three Types of Microaggressions:

  • Microassault - intentionally behaving in a discriminatory way while not intending to be offensive (e.g. telling a racist joke and then saying, “I was just joking.”)

  • Microinsult - a comment or action that is unintentionally discriminatory (e.g. telling a woman “Wow, you’re a good driver.”)

  • Microinvalidation – a comment that undermines or invalidates the experiences of a group of people (e.g. a white person telling a black person that racism no longer exists)


Examples of Workplace Microaggressions
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Examples of Microaggressions in The Classroom

These are just some examples of microaggressions that can occur in the classroom:

  • Mispronouncing the names of students even after you have been corrected.
  • Assigning tests, quizzes, or other important assignments on religious or cultural holidays.
  • Calling or engaging with only one gender or race of students while not giving other students an equal opportunity to answer.
  • Assuming the gender of a student or failing to use preferred gender pronouns.
  • Assigning projects that may penalize students with fewer resources.
  • Utilizing classroom décor, lessons, or books that feature pictures or experiences of students of only one ethnicity or gender.
  • Highlighting students of only one gender or ethnicity on the school’s website, social media pages, or newsletters.
  • Complimenting students of color for speaking “good English.”
  • Creating seating assignments that lack inclusivity or separates students by race or gender.


The Impact of Microaggressions on Students:

There are three types of reactions that people may have when a microaggression is directed toward them:

  • Cognitive – A person may have an internal dialogue about whether to respond.

  • Behavioral – A person may alter or pay careful attention to their own word choice, tone, posture, and body language.

  • Emotional – A person may have an emotional response, often negative, including feelings of exhaustion, anger, and anxiety.

The three types of reactions can also interact to create a more complex reaction that may be easy to misinterpret and further damage relationships. For example, after hearing a microaggression, a student may feel uncomfortable and angry. They may not know whether or how to respond and may turn their body away from their teacher and classmates as they process the experience. While processing, they may begin to look distracted or become unavailable for learning as their thoughts are consumed by the experience. The student may decide ultimately not to respond because they fear their response may be unwelcome, and not responding may take considerable emotional regulation. Teachers or classmates may then make additional assumptions based on the student’s changed behaviors, such as the student is disinterested in school and putting in limited effort.

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The Damage of “positive” Stereotypes and Microaggressions

Stereotypes that are considered "positive" (e.g. black people are naturally athletic, Asian people are naturally good at math) can also create a negative impact on students and colleagues. According to sociology professor Jennifer Lee, when people don’t live up to positive stereotypes, they often feel like failures. When people do excel, their success is often attributed to innate racial difference rather than the hard work and effort they put in to achieve their goals.

Journalist Kumari Devarajan wrote in a 2018 article about her own experiences with the so-called positive stereotype that Asians are good at math. Devarajan said,

"During my senior year of high school, I started dreading calculus. Every time my teacher slapped our tests face-down on our desks, I would peel up the corner of the page just enough to see the score, circled in red. The numbers were dropping quickly: 79, 64, 56… when my friends asked me what I got on tests, I said, childishly, "I'm not telling." The other kids in the class would roll their eyes and mutter comments about how I "probably aced it." … Because I'm Asian. And math is easy for Asians ... right?..."

Devarajan points out that once you give credit to so-called positive stereotypes, it reinforces the connection between race and ability, which is what is also used to justify negative stereotypes. As educators, we seek to help every child to believe that with hard work they will learn, grow their skills, and achieve their goals. Positive and negative stereotypes both undermine this aim.

Citation: NPR article

Implicit Bias - The Heart of Microaggressions

To create an inclusive environment in your school and/or classroom, you must take steps toward preventing microaggression by reflecting on your own thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One of the most important steps to make is to understand the presence of implicit or unconscious bias. Implicit bias, as defined by the Kirwan Institute, refers to the “attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases, which encompass both favorable and unfavorable assessments, are activated involuntarily and without the individual’s awareness or intentional control.” In other words, they are attitudes or beliefs that you may not even know you have and/or act on, but are likely impacting those around you.

Interested in learning how to reflect on your own implicit biases? Consider taking an Implicit Attitude Test (IAT) or viewing the world through a different lens with Look Different: Different Day. When reflecting on your personal bias, it is crucial to examine any aspects that may cause feelings of discomfort. It may be beneficial to reflect on aspects of your life childhood experiences, familial social norms, peer groups, etc.

Kirwin Definition:

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A Microaggression Has Occurred, What Now?

So, now you have a better idea of what microaggressions are and the negative and lasting impact they can have, and you want to do something about it. Whether you witnessed a colleague or student engage in a microaggression, or you caught yourself engaging in a microaggression, these dos & don'ts can help you navigate the situation more comfortably, reduce any possible tension, and increase the likelihood that your message will he heard.


  • Remain calm. Take breaths and pauses as needed.
  • Resist the microaggression. This shows the target of the microaggression that you are an ally, communicates why the behavior is offensive, provides a preferred replacement to the act, and empowers and supports the victim. Use these tactics when resisting:
  1. Ask for clarification (“Could explain what you mean by that?”)
  2. Separate intent from impact (“You may not realize, but what you said was hurtful because______. Instead you could say _______.”)
  3. Share your own process (“I noticed what you said, and I wanted you to know I used to say that too, until I learned how hurtful it was.”).
  • Acknowledge all those involved. Hold everyone, including yourself, accountable, and validate those who have been targeted.
  • Practice humility. If you have caught yourself engaging in a microaggression, acknowledge what you did. Be aware that despite your best intentions, you may make errors. Remember that you may not always be fully aware of the circumstances of others or the way your words impact others, and strive to do better.
  • Use your resources. If you do not feel comfortable addressing the microaggression yourself, consider contacting a nearby university’s office of diversity and inclusion to see if someone would be willing to come speak to the staff about microaggressions. Or ask an administrator to include a short video about microaggressions in the next staff meeting to start a discussion.


  • Apologize afterwards. This can be insulting and sends the message that it’s not appropriate or acceptable to confront the microaggression.
  • Ask the target of a microaggression to fix the problem. This puts blame on the target and demands that they fix something that they have no control over.
  • Take a passive response approach. Avoid staying silent, dismissing the topic or incident, and/or ignoring the target of the microaggression.
  • Name-call and or use insulting language when approaching someone. Microaggressions are wrong, and witnessing them may make you angry, but your message will not be heard if you respond in a confrontational manner and the person you are talking to gets defensive and/or shuts down.
  • Expect perfection from yourself. Focus on authenticity in your response to microaggressions, and as you gain more experience, your level of comfort and skill will grow.

What to do if you didn't address the microaggression in the moment:

If you had a difficult time addressing the microaggression in the moment, it is not too late. Here are two helpful scripts to get the conversation started:

If another student committed the microaggression, start the conversation by saying, “Class, [ten minutes ago/this morning/last week], a remark was made in our classroom that I did not acknowledge in the moment, but would like to take the time to discuss it now.”

If you committed the microaggression, reflect and offer a sincere apology. “[Student], I would like to apologize for the statement I made to you [yesterday/this morning]. My intention was to say [this]. I took time to reflect and recognize that my statement was harmful and insinuated incorrect assumptions about you. Please know I am taking steps to be more mindful in the future.”


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Continuing Education on Microaggressions

This newsletter only scratches the surface of microaggressions. Below is a list of books, articles, and websites, most written/created by people who have firsthand experience, that each dive deeper into the topic for when you want to learn more. This is not a comprehensive list, but it is a good place to start.

  • The Downside to Positive Stereotypes - Brief article that concisely explains the damage of positive stereotypes

  • How to Respond to Microaggressions - This New York Times article contains several explanations, anecdotes, and additional resources for learning about microaggressions. It also includes important questions to ask yourself (including the prepared statements to use when responding to microaggressions mentioned in the “What to Do” section).

  • Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation by Derald Wing Sue – Very comprehensive book on microaggressions based on race, gender, and sexual orientation that includes a section at the end of each chapter on how to move forward with what you’ve learned (including some specific guidance for teachers and mental health practitioners)


Devarajan, K. (2018, February 17). 'Strong' Black woman? 'Smart' Asian man? The downside to positive stereotypes. Code Switch; Race in Your Face. National Public Radio.

Eberly Center (2020). Handle difficult moments with respect & sensitivity. Carnegie Mellon University.

Fusion Comedy (2016, October 5). How microaggressions are like mosquito bites.

The Kirwin Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity (2015). Understanding implicit

bias. The Ohio State University.

Look Different (n.d.) Different day. MTV.

Portman, J., Bui, T., Ogaz, J. & Treviño, J. (n.d.). Microaggressions in the classroom. University of Denver Center for Multicultural Excellence.

Project Implicit (2011). Implicit association test. Harvard University.

Smith, A. (2020, June 11). What to know about microaggressions. Medical News Today.

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Center for Faculty Development (2020). Microaggressions in the classroom.

University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning (n.d.). Addressing microaggressions in the classroom.

Yoon, H. (2020, March 3). How to respond to microaggressions. The New York Times.