Understanding Microaggressions

Although racism remains ubiquitous in U.S. society, expressions of racism have changed over the last 50-100 years. Once typified by the use of racial epithets, the maintenance of segregationist policies (i.e., Jim Crow), and the routine wielding of force (e.g., lynchings, cross-burnings), racism is often far more subtle–one might even say hidden, clandestine, or inconspicuous.

To address this subtler “brand” of racism, scholars have coined several terms including modern racism (McConahay, 1986), symbolic racism (Sears, 1988), aversive racism (Dovidio et al., 2002), and microaggressions (Pierce, 1970), a term that seems to have gained a great deal of momentum in recent years. Nonetheless, microaggressions remain a mystery to far too many.

As someone whose scholarly work focuses on racism, including racial and ethnic microaggressions, I feel compelled to shed some light on this critical issue. Below, I address the following questions with regard to racial and ethnic microaggressions:

  • What are racial and ethnic microaggressions?
  • What do these microaggressions look like?
  • Why should anyone care about microaggressions?

What are racial and ethnic microaggressions? 

One of the most commonly cited definitions of racial and ethnic microaggression comes from the scholarly work of Sue and Constantine. These scholars define racial and ethnic microaggressions as “brief everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong o a minority group.”

What do microaggressions look like?

Sue and Constantine categorize these “messages” in three ways: (1) microassaults are intentional and vicious; (2) microinsults are unintentional; (3) microinvalidations.

Why should anyone care about microaggressions?


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