What Are Microaggressions?

According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, microaggressions are common everyday slights, insults and indignities (whether intentional or unintentional) that communicate humiliating messages to a particular person or group. Some microaggressions may be so subtle that neither the victim nor the perpetrator may fully understand what is going on.  To learn more about microaggressions, I interviewed Danielle Murphy who is a recent graduate from the Silver School of Social Work at New York University.

While Danielle is only at the beginning of her social work career, she has already embarked upon an inspiring journey along with a number of her peers to encourage greater racial diversity and cultural competence at her school.


Danielle, could you tell us a little about your background and what led to your interest in social work?
I am from Pennsylvania and did my undergraduate studies in Psychology. During my Sophomore year, I did a spring break service immersion trip where we stayed in Philadelphia and did service.
It was tremendously eye-opening as we were just 2 or 3 miles away from campus. It really made me think about how sheltered my environment is at school and thus began a journey to really see the community and world that I live in.
I had the opportunity to go abroad to do service but really wanted to stay in the States to see and serve within our own country’s impoverished communities. 
The following summer, I accepted a position with The Pittsburgh Project that is a youth camp for middle and high school students who wanted to serve the most vulnerable population of Pittsburgh.
This organization identified the most vulnerable as the youth, elderly, poor and disabled. This summer continued to open my eyes to economic disadvantage and it also began to build a foundation for having discussions about these struggles.
As my college years waned on, I realized that Psychology did not really address the social concerns that I’d been witnessing. I had a mentor in the Psychology program who mentioned Social Work as a better alternative.
I checked into it and did an internship with an alternative middle school and realized that this really is the right direction. When I was applying, I’d say I had numerous reasons but it really all boiled down to a deep sense or really need to do something about poverty and how it impacts the communities I live within.

Your placement this year was at a victims’ crime unit within a hospital. What were your responsibilities as a social worker intern?
In this field placement, I co-led a group for sexual abuse victims, provided individual therapy for crime victims and occasionally family therapy.
I provided case management services like referrals and also assisted the victims in completing a Crime Victims Board Application which could provide compensation for things related to the victimization – like lost/damaged personal property, medical bills, stolen items, etc.

What was a typical day for you was like in this role?
A typical day in this role is hard to describe. We ended up doing a lot of crisis intervention work so each day was different. We took calls from the Emergency Department and also from the unit.
If we didn’t have any referrals then we would look through the database to see if there were any unreported crime victims on the unit- there usually was. We would see several victims a day, offering intervention and information.
I think the most important thing that we did was listen and believe the victim. Some of the things that I heard were truly incredible and even unbelievable but the trick was to suspend disbelief and do my best to really hear the victim’s story.
The Social Worker in this setting is often the first person who can offer to just listen for awhile. Aside from this aspect, a typical day probably involved 1-3 scheduled appointments and a lot of paperwork. Everything had to be documented twice- once for the hospital records and once for the grant sources record.

Moving onto the area of racial microaggressions, you and a peer presented this past spring a workshop on this topic. Could you explain the term and give a few examples of how/when this occurs?

Racial Microaggressions is a term coined by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University who has done extensive research on modern day racism. It means the every day racial slights and insults that accumulate to create a hostile environment for People of Color.  
They are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.
There are three different kinds of microaggressions which are microinsults, microassaults and microinvalidations.
·      An assault might look like a white woman clutching her purse or crossing the street when she sees a black man walking towards her.
·      An insult could be an Asian American being complimented on their good English.
·      An invalidation might be someone saying that they don’t see color.
Below is a brief video with Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. discussing Microaggressions.

What led you to take on racial microaggressions or racism as a cause and when did you start?

This is something new for me. I had not really given racism a lot of academic level thought prior to graduate school. I knew that I experienced many things that made me uncomfortable but never wanted to confess to myself that racism was the underlying issue.
When I came to NYU, the lack of diversity made me more uncomfortable than I had ever been in my own skin. I was surprisingly aware of my skin color. 
I was usually the only person of color (POC) in the room and thus became the voice for all POC. I found the curriculum to be lacking in matters of racial diversity. 
I found professors to be woefully ignorant and often times so were my peers. Some of my peers began a movement to address the racial diversity concerns at Silver and my second year here, I jumped on board with as much energy as I could muster.
We held townhalls to give voice to this issue and we wrote a proposal to the administration on how to attempt to increase racial diversity. 
One of the other things we did was start a Common Day, which is a day where students teach their peers about issues that are not otherwise being addressed.
During the Fall semester of 2010, we held several workshops for first year MSW students and one was on racial microaggressions. 
The racial diversity coalition (the student group responsible for the community organizing efforts) collaborated to make a workshop and I was given the opportunity to facilitate this workshop. I really enjoyed the work and wanted to continue doing it.

How prevalent are racial microaggressions ? 

I think racial microaggressions happen every day and frankly everyone is responsible for committing them. It’s ingrained in who we are to be racist as we are socialized this way from birth. 

How do racial microaggressions affect people of color?

Racial Microaggressions have a cumulative affect. As many tend to occur in any given week, over time, people of color tend to become hyperaware of racism.

This can lead to physical and mental health concerns. Oftentimes it can lead to a sense of helplessness and rage. It also impacts the way that people of color interact with others.

Environmental microaggressions create hostile and threatening places which decrease the likelihood that people of color will stay there. For instance, a university with primary white students, faculty and administration will be a hostile place for a person of color.

Are there some things people of color may do to avoid getting hurt by racial microaggressions?

Not really. I would say that educating oneself on socialization helps to create an intellectual shield, but ultimately it still hurts.

Community organizing and finding safe spaces where one can talk about these indignities also can help to ease the emotional suffering. In the end, each occurrence still hurts and takes their individual toll though.

What are some steps that we can do to minimize our chances of making racial microaggressions?

I’d say the best way to minimize the likelihood of using racial microaggressions is to get educated on the matter. Learn about the things that are offensive. Most of the time, people don’t know that what they are saying and doing are hurtful and are racist. If someone calls you out on something you’ve said, even if they are angry, try to just apologize.

Don’t rationalize or try to minimize what has transpired, because this diminishes the impact of the apology. Becoming educated will help and practicing humility will help even more.

Additionally, I think it is important to know that education alone will not help, especially for mental health practitioners. It is key that we take time to understand our own biases and that we force ourselves out of our comfort zones. 

It is not easy to discuss race and especially to acknowledge one’s own privilege and racism. However, if it is not done, than all attempts at understanding will fail.

So I’d say that exploring your personal biases, engaging in activities and conversations that broaden your horizons and getting your education about different cultures both from professional sources AND people from the community you are trying to understand will help you to gain the necessary information to be more culturally competent and less likely to commit microaggressions. 

Do other socially marginalized groups like women, the obese and LGBQTs also experience microaggressions?

Yes! There is additional research on gender and sexual orientation microaggressions. I have not heard much talk about size-ism but I’d venture to say that it happens.

Now that you have graduated, how do you feel about having finished school? And what are your hopes/plans in terms of next steps?

Graduating is bittersweet. I’ve been a student for most of my life so this is definitely a time of identity loss and change. I am excited to begin a new job in a mental health clinic for adults with persistent and severe mental illness.

I also am launching a consulting business where I will continue to provide training on matters of diversity, especially around race. I hope to continue to have these discussions and educate folks on how race and racism affect our society today. Eventually I plan to pursue a PhD in Social Justice Education and may find myself working in higher education.

I’ve often times dreamed of going back to my alma mater, Temple University, to help the school community and neighboring community to improve their relations. I think race has a lot to do with the poor relationship, as well as other factors.

Lastly, you had great success at securing a position within a only a couple of weeks after graduation in a tough job market. What advice would you offer your MSW cohorts looking for employment?

Utilize your network! I am employed because my old supervisor had a job opening. Yes, I have many awesome qualities, but when it boiled down to it, I knew the right person at the right time. People prefer to hire people they already know/have personal recommendations, instead of taking a wild chance.

The other thing that guided my short search was: Be realistic! As recent graduates, no matter your work history, we are at an entry level position in a field that is looking for experience. Definitely apply for things that interest you, but try to have a broad sense of interests.

I feel that once I get a few years of experience under my belt, I will have more say so over the exact place that I work. For now, it is easier to look for the ideal job while having the security of an income. Good luck!

Thanks so much, Danielle, for enlightening us about microaggressions and what we can do to start becoming more aware of our behaviors so as not to inadvertently offend others.

What questions and/or thoughts come to your mind following this interview?

Reference: (Sue, Derald Wing, 2010). Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual OrientationWiley, CA.


  1. says

    I do not consider myself as a person of color, although I have been called that by people who are unquestionably persons of color. However, I teach a population that is ove 95% people of color and amongst the courses I teach is General Sociology. We have many opportunities to discuss discrinimation and people’s personal experiences. Micro-agressions are common and often discussed, even without that label. However, due to these experiences I need to voice a disagreement with the idea that nothing can be done to avoid getting hurt by these acts. Especially since most of them are unintentional and certainly not fueled with animosity. If one does not want to be hurt by acts of micro-aggression the target person can see these acts in a braoder social perspective. In other words, within the process of racial and ethnic stabilization and equalization there still remains a bit of work to be done even though the amount of progress that has been achieved in the past 50 years has been more than any other time or place in history. The major garbage is gone, and now we need to clean up the dirt that not everybody notices. That can be difficult and long process, but, as a society, we are doing a good job.

    This perspective is mostly helpful for the people of color who are feeling hurt, and need to avoid the hurt. The people who see the dirt need to focus on the progress. On the other hand, the people who are causing the problem becasue they are unaware that they are being hurtful need to focus on and recognaize the problems. It would be helpful even if those that are the recievers of the micro-aggressions can point out the issues without feeling victimized.

    Ari Hahn

  2. says

    Hi Ari,

    I appreciate your feedback. I agree that it would be helpful if receivers of the Microaggressions could understand the larger sociological concerns. I see a few key issues with this tactic, though.

    Primarily,telling the POC that they could avoid hurt by just intellectualizing the experience, is ultimately putting the fault on the victim. While this defense may work for some, it definitely does not work for all. I do think using this coping mechanism could be useful for some. I also think everyone has the right to acknowledging their victimization, even if the Microaggression was unintentional.

    It would also be great if everyone was able to point out the issues but unfortunately a vast majority of people do not have the language to handle this kind of task. Also, even those who do have the language, often are not empowered to speak out.

    Again, I do think your perspective could be helpful for some people, but it can also be a dangerous and covert way to blame the victim.

    Danielle Murphy

  3. says

    Thank you for posting this content on your blog, dorleem. I think in our “post-racial/post-racist” 21st century American society it can be easy to ignore the relevance of microagressions for not only people of color,but other “groups” who have been historically oppressed


    I also wanted to say that while I respect your opinion, Ari, I would have to disagree in terms of POC being required to “intellectualize” their experience as Danielle pointed out. Did I interpret it, right, could you clarify?

    Yet, I don’t think any of us want to live in a world that attempts to be “culturally-sensitive” instead of culturally competent.

    I think the failure of diversity training and awareness training is that it can easily be based on a deficit model of the “agressor” being evil and the person experiencing the aggression being a “victim” engaging in a passive discussion. I think we need to shift the level of intimacy and engagement when it comes to cross-cultural relationships and not be afraid of entering into conflicts with compassion. Too many of us desire a world where we can “arrive” at cultural competence, instead of a world we can face and grow from issues in increments of time building a relationship(s).

    Thank you, Danielle, for your courage doing this work. It is important work.

  4. says

    I surely appreciate these comments. Actually I agree with them. My post was answering how to avoid being hurt by micro-aggressions, not how to avoid or stop them. I am not blaming the victim, rather empowering the victim. This is possible because of the uninentionality of the affront and because it doesn’t cause physical damage. Blaming the victim is a useful comcept to protect people from being blamed for intentional acts or acts that cause unavoidable harm.

    Additionally, I am not saying that my “suggestion” is the only way of dealing with this issue. I am sharing a solution that is offered by a population who has a life time of both micro and macro aggresions. Many of my students are inner city minorites and range from successful gifted students to gang members struggling to rebuild their lives. I learn from them.

    BTW. Great discussion.

  5. says

    Mozart- Thank you for your comment. I tend to agree that straying from the evil/victim dichotomy would benefit the overall movement of racial equality. I think it is a tough goal, though not impossible. Although, the truth is that there is an act of victimization occurring. The aggressor often times can not hear past the accusation of being racist. That word is so taboo, and most people do not realize that most people commit acts of racism regularly due to a system of socialization of which they did not choose to learn from. I think your point is well taken though, that it is the conversation that moves us towards equality. It really does require a willingness to work through and talk through something so taboo. I think there is room for people to feel the pain and voice their pain though. To ask someone to not feel this can be a Microaggression itself.

    Ari- I appreciate your voice in this discussion and also the work that you do. It is crucial that we have people out there allowing space for these discussions.

    I think the idea of something being unintentional and therefore not causing physical damage is a dangerous assumption. Dr. Sue discusses some of the very real physical and mental health results of these continual onslaughts of covert racism. In fact, the additional stress can lead to very serious physical ailments and the mental impact can easily lead to a sense of hopelessness, depression and anxiety.

    Also, I wonder if it is important to focus on how to avoid being hurt? For me, avoidance alludes to the idea of covering up a true feeling. Doing this does not solve anything and perhaps even keeps us from the very honest and real discussions that can educate others and eradicate racism.

    Finally, I’m not sure that blaming the victim is ever a useful tactic, though I am not overly educated on the possible benefits. The way I see it though, blaming the victim furthers the existence of racism, by not providing the perpetrator with the opportunity to own their mistake and grow.

    Perhaps this is a solution for some, but I wonder if the people who offer this solution might be challenged to dig a little deeper. If given the safe space, is it possible that we would discover this method is only a band aide?

  6. Anonymous says

    Hey Danielle, thanks for your prompt reply. I really don’t think “equality” is the goal of what I’m discussing as much as “harmony”. Not to split hairs, but equality has turned into a word that means “we don’t see anything” instead of harmony which speaks more to “we see something, we feel something, we will confront this issue, compassionately”

    As you stated on the matter of avoidance. Equality to often smells like things being thrown under the rug instead of truly discussing feeling and issues.


  7. says

    Hi Mozart,

    Good point. Perhaps equality and harmony are the goal. I definitely see how equality has taken on a certain blindness, but nevertheless I think economic equality, education equality, employment equality, etc. are still worth striving to achieve. Your point is well taken!

  8. says

    I love the dialogue that is going on here. This is a very interesting topic. I believe that each person has the right to feel whatever emotion is brought out by micro-aggressions. As an African-American female I have been hurt by them and have felt victimized. However, I also take time to process what is happening and choose not to internalize it. I feel the hurt and then move on. Depending on my relationship with the person, I may explain how that comment impacted me in hopes that they would think twice before repeating it. I have come to accept that some people “just don’t get it”, and that is okay with me. We cannot control other human beings. It certainly does not mean that I accept that micro-aggressions are okay. I think people can get competitive about cultural competency thinking that one person is more competent than another (better than), when in reality we all fall short of every truly understanding what its like to be in someone else’s shoes. I truly respect people who can say “I don’t know what it’s like to be you, but I would like to listen to what you have to say about your experience.”

  9. says

    Thanks so much for being willing to share some of your feelings and experiences vis a vis microaggressions, LovEternal

    Danielle will jump in later…but in the interim, I admire your courage and use of judgment as to how and when to share the impact of a hurtful comment.

    While some people may not (yet) get it, I think/hope more and more people are becoming open to learning, listening and trying to understand.

    It is also wonderful that you have learned how not to internalize the negative comments…


  10. says

    Hi LovEternal,

    I’m glad you joined the dialogue. It sounds like you have a very level headed way to deal with every day racism that really works for you. That is fabulous and I appreciate your openness.

    I think your point about being competitive is well taken. Cultural competency is a life long journey of humility and one that is riddled with obstacles and changes. It is easy to get caught up in this idea of being “better than” though, which may just be a sort of denial of ones own mistakes/biases.

    Thanks for your contribution!


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