Understanding and Addressing Microaggressions

November 28, 2018

In order to guide our community’s children, we need to know our community. We need to know what builds our community up and what tears it down. I believe that microaggressions threaten relationships between members of a community. According to the English Oxford Living Dictionary, a microagression is a “statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”

“Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life” is an article that helps us to understand that it’s important to believe someone when they say they’ve experienced a microaggression.

“[T]he most accurate assessment about whether racist acts have occurred in a particular situation is most likely to be made by those most disempowered rather than by those who enjoy the privileges of power.”

I’ve included a few examples of microaggressions for context. Imagine a White man or woman clutches their purse or checks their wallet as a Black or Latino man approaches or passes them. Maybe you’ve heard a straight person say that they “don’t mind” gay people. They then say they’d prefer gay people didn’t “flaunt” their sexual orientation (Sue, 2010). I want to use this month’s blog to talk about why microaggressions like these happen and what to do when we notice they have happened.

Why Do We Commit Microaggressions?

This blog series prioritizes conversations about cultural competency because oppression and bias exist in the world. We live in a society that says cisgender people are normal and transgender people are not. Our society believes White people are the standard and people of color must meet that standard. We grow up learning that to be queer is to make a lifestyle choice, and that it’s the wrong choice.

The article “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice” mentions that, whether we want to or not, we take on the biases of our society. The authors, Sue et. al., remind us that microaggressions are as likely to happen between a therapist and client as between strangers in a neighborhood.


Imagine a guardian talking to a teacher at their child’s early care center. The guardian explains that she is a single parent experiencing poverty. The teacher tries to relate to the guardian by sharing that they are late on their electric bill due to taking a summer vacation.

In an attempt to relate to the guardian, the teacher actually wound up alienating her. The teacher was trying to say their experiences are similar. This was an attempt to build the relationship or to feel connected, but the attempt fell short. It pushed the guardian away instead by showing the guardian that the teacher really doesn’t understand the nuances and impact of poverty. However, the teacher has the opportunity to reconcile and amend the situation through an empathetic exchange.

Hard to Notice

Another reason why microaggressions happen often is that they’re sometimes hard to notice. While people who commit microaggressions may have done so unintentionally, as seen above, the act itself can still affect an individual. For example, a person who receives negative commentary about their hair may feel it was made because of their race.. A lot of people know what overt racism looks like but microaggressions can be hard to recognize.

If you are not sure how your comment to someone is received, check in! Your words matter as can be seen in Lisa Thompson’s blog, Words Have Power. It is important to recognize how your actions and words have impact someone, and reconcile. It is better to build people up rather than put people down, especially children. This is a way towards building better communication, and healthier relationships and communities.

How to Notice if You’re Committing Microaggressions

A simple way to notice microaggressions is to think about how the person you’re referring to will feel. One question you might ask yourself is: What does this person have to consider in their day-to-day life because of oppression? Is what I’m doing or saying reinforcing that oppression? For example, you see a tall, Black boy and think he should be playing basketball. Stating this to him may be intended to encourage him. The impact, though, may be reminding him that the world limits his options and expects him to meet certain stereotypes.

The authors of “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life” remind us that another way to notice microaggressions is to pay attention to context. An example in the article is about five men on a very small plane. Two men of color board first and get comfortable in their seats in the front of the plane. Three White men board later and sit in the front as well. The stewardess asks the two men of color to move to the back of the plane to make the weight of the passengers even throughout the plane. The context is that the White men were not asked to move, but the men of color were even though they boarded the plane first.

The narrator of the story further describes the frustration that built up in him after being asked to move on the plane. When he expressed his feelings to the stewardess, she denied race being relevant in her request. The stewardess reported that she had asked the two men of color to move in order to give them more comfort and privacy. Even when the context of the microaggression was pointed out to her, the stewardess ignored the words of them men.

If a marginalized person talks about their identity, their words may be dismissed. This is another way to notice microaggressions. Maybe I am self-conscious about the server at a restaurant not making eye contact with me because I’m Black. Then the person I’m eating dinner with tells me I’m being too sensitive. Maybe a teenager tells you they feel alone as the only Trans kid in their school. Then you tell them they’re not alone because a lot of their peers are tomboys. If the way we respond to someone’s comment about their marginalized identity is dismissive, we’ve committed a microaggression.

Reconciliation after a Microaggression


Now you know what microaggressions are and you know how to recognize them. However, you can’stop there! After a microaggression is committed, the person who experienced it may be having self-doubt, anger, or broken trust. One helpful way we reconcile broken trust at ChildSavers is by admitting when a microaggression happens. We also validate our client’s feelings by recognizing what the microaggression may have brought. Here’s a way that could look.

Example One

Tuesday, 11/20/18

Black Client: This is the first school I’ve been to with so few students of color. I stand out like a sore thumb.

White Therapist: You’re all just students trying to get an education. I’m familiar with that school. They focus on unity and diversity.

Tuesday, 11/27/18

White Therapist: I’ve been thinking about our last session and some of the things I said. I realized what I said was harmful because it dismissed what you were sharing. I also know what I said reinforced the myth that students of color and White students are treated the same when we know they aren’t. I’m sorry for what I said and how it may have made you feel.

Sue et. al. remind therapists to consider the power we hold in the therapeutic relationship. This may make it hard for clients to let us know when we have committed a microaggression. Even if the client doesn’t say so, our microaggressions may break down the trust in our relationships. This is why it’s helpful for us to keep track of our microaggressions and apologize when we notice them.

Example Two

In a scenario in which someone tells you about a microaggression you weren’t aware of, here’s how you might respond.

Straight teacher to queer student: Thank you for telling me how what I did made you feel. I know we come from different backgrounds. I know my intentions don’t always come through in what I say. What’s important is how my words impacted you because of homophobia in our society and my role in it. If you want to talk about it, later we can discuss what I can do differently next time.

Sue et. al. remind us that many times when a person points out a microaggression, often they are not believed or they are told to let it go. Just by taking the person at their word and believing their experience, you can make progress toward healing the relationships. Need some guidance on how to reconcile with someone? USA Today cited the following examples of how you can navigate these conversations and change your behavior:

  • Drop the defensiveness
  • If someone says you offended them, listen
  • Think before you speak
  • Seek out books, podcasts and other media to learn about current and historical behavior and policy

Additional resources and sources:

Daniel Wing Sue also wrote a blog post on Psychology Today describing microaggressions outside the context of race https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race

USA Today published an article about the impact of microaggressions on our mental and physical health https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/2018/02/28/what-microaggressions-small-slights-serious-consequences/362754002/Microaggression. (n.d.). In English Oxford Living Dictionaries online dictionary. Retrieved from https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/microaggression

Sue, D.W. (2010, November 17). Microaggressions: More than just race. [Web blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.62.4.271

Coauthored by CasSandra Calin and Lindsey Leach

CasSandra Calin is a Mental Health Clinician who serves on the Immediate Response/Crisis Intervention Team at ChildSavers. Before coming to ChildSavers, CasSandra worked as an Intensive In Home and Mental Health Skill Building service provider.

CasSandra received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology from University of Richmond and her Master’s in Clinical Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University.

CasSandra is passionate about the empowerment of marginalized communities through mental health support and psycho-education.


Lindsey Leach is the Interim Development Manger at ChildSavers. She manages ChildSavers’ marketing, grants, and oversees fundraising and communications.

Lindsey received her Bachelor’s in Arts in Sociology with an Anthropology concentration and English with a Journalism concentration from Christopher Newport University in 2008. She earned her Master’s in Nonprofit Studies from the University of Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies in 2016. In 2017, she earned a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) credential.

Her philosophy is that work in the nonprofit sector should be enjoyable, challenging, inspiring, humanitarian, and community focused.