Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life

Sue D.W., Capodilupo C.M., Torino G.C., Bucceri J.M., Holder A.M.B., Nadal K.L., Esquilin M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist62 (4), pp. 271-286.

“Microaggressions are unconscious manifestations of a worldview of inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority.  Thus our major task is to make the invisible visible.” -Derald Wing Sue

Racial microaggressions 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. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities. A taxonomy of racial microaggressions in everyday life was created through a review of the social psychological literature on aversive racism, from formulations regarding the manifestation and impact of everyday racism, and from reading numerous personal narratives of counselors (both White and those of color) on their racial/cultural awakening. Microaggressions seem to appear in three forms: microassault, microinsult, and microinvalidation. Almost all interracial encounters are prone to microaggressions; this article uses the White counselor – client of color counseling dyad to illustrate how they impair the development of a therapeutic alliance. Suggestions regarding education and training and research in the helping professions are discussed.

A less technical article is available from Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s Psychology Today blog



~ by Brendan Kober on November 29, 2011.

3 Responses to “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life”

  1. Thanks for sharing this important information as well as viable solutions to combat this. One question: how do you combat those individuals from the dominant society who, when confronted with an instance of micro-aggression, state the aggrieved party is “too sensitive” or “hyper-sensitive”?

    I know what I’ve taught in the past — that cumulative behavior has deleterious effects on the psyche — and am interested in your view.

  2. I would like to think that I would ask myself what my goal is. Am I trying to fix the other person’s worldview? Am I trying to stand up for myself or a person I value? Am I wanting the world to be a better place for myself and the person making the comment to live in? For our children to live in? My first reaction to your question was that if a situation is approached with combat and confrontation in mind that is exactly what you’ll get. I would avoid bringing the subject up with the person until it can be approached from a place of compassion for both yourself and the other person. I think that compassion for yourself is necessary for survival, and I believe that compassion for the perpetrator is key to successfully navigating this situation.

    If one can point out a microaggression with compassion in their heart and non-confrontational words on your lips and they are met with confrontational words such as “that person is too sensitive/hypersensitive” than it is clear to me that the person is hurting very badly. While you might have said, “when I heard you say ___ to me, I felt ___ because I feel that undermines my ___,” they might have heard, “You’re a racist piece of $#!%.” (NOTE: If that is what is in your heart than it is impossible to separate your stuff from theirs. That is why paragraph 1 is so important) The person may get defensive upon hearing these words (which weren’t actually spoken). Although this is an extreme thought I think that we can all see how a person who thinks they just heard this might get defensive. Surely it is easier to put the blame on someone else by saying they are “hyper-sensitive” than to feel the hurt of being seen as racist. Remember, while we were learning the worldview of superiority/inferiority we were also learning that being racist was bad. This creates cognitive dissonance and humans act unconsciously and decisively to avoid this kind of discomfort.

    I think the best thing that one can do at this point is to ask with compassion in your heart, “What if what was said was true? What would that mean?” This is a technique I learned from Lee Mun Wah (see websites on the Suggested Reading page). What if this worldview/experience that is different from your own was true? This avoids the struggle of demanding the person sees your truth and simply asks them the hypothetical “what if it was true?” This question allows the person to explore the topic from wherever they are at the moment. From this place perhaps they will reply, “if that were true it would be horrible, it would mean that I am racist, and I don’t want to be racist.” I think that is the start of an interesting conversation. Any learning in this context is done in self exploration and doesn’t require you to teach anything. Perhaps if they are open and want to know more you can offer materials and your own experience as you described above.

    As a white male I have more freedom than most to bring up these subjects, and I can see that a personal attack on me is likely a result of the pain that inevitably comes with realizations about racism. Perhaps for people of color finding a white ally would be helpful in approaching certain people. It is important that whoever broaches the subject does so for them self and speaks ONLY for themselves.

    I hope that no matter what you always hold compassion for yourself and your experience. You are not crazy to be hurt by other people’s words, and sometimes we need to protect ourselves by sitting out this battle. If you have to sit out too many battles I hope that you have the ability to change the situation you find yourself in.

  3. You are too sensitive. Hypersensitive. According to whom? The white person is assuming that he or she has the right to determine an appropriate level of feeling for the person of color. The white person is “moderating” the exchange, setting all the limits. Once again living in the barely visible veil of white privilege. “Too sensitive” is a “shut up” statement, dressed up in that “can’t you take a joke?” clothing. Sue has given us a gift with his analysis. I really appreciate that.

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