The term “microaggression” was coined in the early 1970s, but its more recent use is owed to psychologist Derald W. Sue, who published Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race Gender and Sexual Orientation in 2010. Here is a definition offered by Dr. Sue:
"The everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people."
Microaggressions stem from the implicit biases we hold, to varying degrees, about people who differ from us in some way. Unlike explicit biases, implicit biases are unconscious constructs that underlie our attitudes to others. Very few people avoid taking on biases and stereotypes as they grow up; becoming aware of and admitting them can help eliminate microaggressive behaviours.
When the biases and stereotypes we hold impact our words and behaviour, they are microaggressions, and because biases may be unconscious, people are frequently unaware that what they have said is offensive or demeaning. A microaggressive comment may seem like a small thing, but the cumulative weight of hundreds or thousands of microaggressions experienced over years is crushing.
Consider this common example:
Questioner: “So, where are you from?”
Racialized Person: “Toronto”
Questioner: “No, I mean where are you REALLY from?”
Broken down, the first question assumes that the person is not “from here”, which in itself is a microaggression, but when the answer “Toronto” comes back, the questioner does not accept it and pushes again. This is a clear indicator that they do not view the person as being a “real Canadian.” The questioner’s bias could be based on the person’s race, the way they speak or dress, their gender, gender identity or sexuality, or some other visible attribute that differentiates them in the questioner’s eyes.
Another example: A co-worker expresses surprise when a gay male colleague says he’ll be doing some plumbing on the weekend. The co-worker’s surprise is based on the stereotype that gay men can’t or don’t want to fix plumbing. The assumption that all people in a group share the same characteristics is the essence of stereotyping and denies and dismisses their individuality and experience.
Both these examples may seem like minor miscommunications, but microaggressions are cumulative, so an apparently light comment or action can have a significant impact.
And microaggressions are not only verbal but can be social too. For example, a person who crosses the street when a young Black male is approaching is acting on the stereotype that young Black men are likely to be dangerous. It us insulting and demeaning and it doesn’t go unnoticed, it just joins the many previous occasions when the young man has experienced racism.
Apparent compliments can be micro aggressive as well. Telling an Asian person that they “speak really good English” assumes that English is not their first language. Asian Canadian families have been in Canada for generations, so such comments are ignorant and exclusionary.
Things you can do to reduce microaggressions
The fact we all have biases doesn’t make us “bad people” but becoming aware of our biases allows for more inclusive communication. This applies to everyone, but particularly to members of groups who have enjoyed the privilege of saying whatever they like without consequence because of their position in one or more hierarchies.
The work to change is not the responsibility of the receivers of offensive comments, it requires effort from those in the relatively powerful position. “What can I do?” one might ask.
The first step is to accept that you have biases and that you stereotype others, then the work on those biases can begin. If you sense a reaction to something you’ve said, try not to be defensive, (gently) ask the difficult question, “I’m sorry, have I offended you? I’m available to talk about it if you’d like to do that.” Willingness to talk about your own biases and their effects sends a message that you take responsibility and are serious about changing your words and behaviour. Reaching out shifts the onus to change to the more powerful party in the exchange, instead of the recipient of aggression who may be reluctant to challenge those higher up the organizational hierarchy. One thing to remember is that years of suffering microaggressions in silence are not wiped away by one or two instances of reaching out; building trust takes time.
If you generally go along with colleagues telling jokes that put people down because of their race, sexuality, gender, religion, or physical appearance, you can and should stop passively accepting them. A possible solution is to take the “joker” aside and let them know that those kinds of “jokes” are not funny and do not support a healthy work culture or environment. Do not allow behaviour that is bit consistent with your values to stand.
Lastly, look at the people you relate to at work and on the day-to-day, and reach out to people from different races, or cultures, or to those who are different from you in other ways. Meet the people, not the stereotype, and chances are that your words and behaviour will be less biased.
Beyond these suggestions, the absolute best move is to think before you speak. Running what you are about to say through your “inner bias detector” will give you a chance to rephrase and may spare the person to whom you are speaking from experiencing yet another microaggression.
 Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. John Wiley & Sons Inc.