Microaggressions are small, subtle, often subconcious actions that marginalize people in oppressed groups. Sue'73 defined it as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults ..."
There is a intentional/unintentional part so microaggressions may be due to lack of knowledge. Microaggressions cause damage and that does not depend on whether it was caused intentionally or due to ignorance or social conditioning.
- A black man is crossing the street. He hears the sound of door locks clicking closed from the cars stopped at the traffic light.
- A manager refers to the men in their department by their last names, but the women by their first names.
- A group of faculty members are sitting down for an unusual weekend meeting. The chair thanks everyone for showing up on their day off, and adds "I'm glad your wives let you get away for a few hours."
- A white technical lead seems comfortable and friendly when talking with white teammates, but seems uncomfortable, awkward or unwelcoming when talking with black teammates.
While a few microaggressions may seem insignificant when taken in isolation, the steady chorus of them that people in marginalized groups experience every day forms an unmistakable patchwork of othering and marginalization. They send a distinct message that you are not "normal"; that you are lesser-than.
All microaggressions are discriminatory, and they can be or not be hateful. Discrimination is making a decision polluted by prejudice - a misconception about a group of people.
It's also difficult for oppressed people to explain the significance of microaggressions, because it's difficult to convey their relative frequency compared to the experiences of privileged people, and easy for privileged people to come up with plausible alternative explanations for any one microaggression ("well, there's an Angela Smith and a Jane Smith, so obviously it makes sense to call you 'Angela' and 'Jane' rather than 'Smith'…"). Privileged people should familiarise themselves with the concept of microaggressions, and consider what seem to be minor or ambiguous incidents of oppressive behaviour in light of them likely happening over and over, and the oppressed person having the lived experiences necessary to correctly identify them.
To effectively deal with all types of micro-aggressions from mass-education perspective, it is important to categorize them and assign to relevant groups of people. The Microaggressions Project (see external links) tries to help with this, but a more conscious summarization would be useful for improved targeting. Towards this we have a few dedicated pages on this wiki to help on this (see below).
This following has been adapted from a discussion in the subreddit r/feminism on generalities of combating micro-aggressions.
Whether or not a micro-aggression was intentional may affect how you respond to the person, but it in no way mitigates the harm in the action itself. Think of it like someone accidentally stepping on your toe and breaking it, vs. someone stomping on it purposefully to the same end. You would probably not react too angrily in the first instance, but that person should have been more mindful, and your toe is not any less broken because it was an accident.
You may feel more inclined to forgive someone for committing a microaggression than for, e.g., shouting sexist slurs at women walking down the street. Deciding how to handle microaggressions is complicated: each individual microaggression may seem less significant than macroaggressions like rape, assault, and employment discrimination. On the other hand, the cumulative effect of all the microaggressions a marginalized person experiences in their life is potentially more harmful than a single overtly bigoted action.
The vast majority of racism and sexism are perpetuated through very subtle words and behaviors that go "under the radar". An example would be something like asking an Asian American or a Latino/a person what country they're from, automatically assuming they're immigrants. We're so used to seeing and hearing that happen that we don't even notice it. It becomes a deeply ingrained idea and an "acceptable" part of speech very quickly by being repeated by people who are mostly good, intelligent well respected people. You don't even have to be white to commit a microaggression like that, that's something that Obama could easily do on national television and get away with. There are other kinds of things that are very seriously racist or sexist, but are still so widely believed that even these can be "accidents". Some people believe that it is fair to not hire women in corporate jobs, because they think women are more likely to have kids and leave. This is pretty much the most blatant form of sexism there is, but the idea is so common that it could still be called a "microaggression". When we become better at noticing these kinds of things and speaking up about them, they won't be invisible anymore, people who really do care will be able to learn and do better, and this is what's going to actually going to change things.
So microaggressions should be taken very seriously, even though they're usually accidents. But you don't have to be a jerk when pointing something out. A simple "No hard feelings, I know you didn't mean it/ were just joking, but that's actually incorrect/ slightly hurtful, for xy and z reasons" can be very effective. Although sometimes people can be really intentionally dense and don't pay it much mind when people point out those things. Daniel Tosh has been told many times why his "accidentally sexist" rape jokes are a unacceptable, and he continues to tell them. So in instances like that, if you just wanted to tell Daniel Tosh to go to hell, I wouldn't call you a jerk for it.
- Katie Cunningham (The Real Katie): "Lighten Up"
- Dr Derald Wing Sue: Microaggressions in Everyday Life
- Shanley Kane: Microaggressions and Management
- The Microaggressions Project
- Primer on Micro-Aggressions - many of the cases indicated in this link are outright hate + gender discrimination against others based on sexual orientation.
- Tool for interrupting microaggressions: a table of common microaggressions along with ways for third parties to intervene.