Microaggressions: Part 1 of 3 – Definition and Origins

Lucie Rivière and Edgar M. Rivera, Esq.

This blog is the first section of a three-part article discussing microaggressions and their effect in the workplace. This first section covers the development of the term “microaggression” and the different types of microaggressions that exist. The second section covers practical examples of microaggressions and their impact on those subjected to them. The third section covers the application of microaggression to employment discrimination law.

As more brazen forms of workplace discrimination slowly become less common, employees may experience more discrimination through microaggressions. Chester Pierce, M.D. of Harvard University, who developed the concept of microaggressions in the 1970s, describes microaggressions as “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.”

Although microaggressions were first described in the context of racial hostility against African Americans, academic’s have since extended the theory to include remarks made against individuals from socially “disadvantaged” identity groups, which are groups of people who face special problems or are politically deemed to be without sufficient power or other means of influence, such as disabled people, members of racial minority groups, and undocumented immigrants. Today, many academics define a microaggression as an “everyday slights insults, indignities and denigrating messages” aimed at socially disadvantaged groups by people who are usually unaware of the hidden messages that they send. In other words, microaggressions are the “small act[s] of non-physical aggression based on stereotypes” or “the negative assumptions we make about people that limit their humanity and value.”

Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D of Columbia University classified microaggressions based on their degree. According to Dr. Sue, there are three types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are conscious and intentional discriminatory actions; the speaker intends to harm his or her victim. Examples include calling someone of color by a racial epithet, discouraging interracial interactions, and deliberately serving a white client before a client of color. This is the most explicit and violent form of microaggression. A microinsult is more subtly aggressive; it is where an individual, consciously or not, conveys rudeness and insensitivity that demeans a person’s heritage or identity. An example is an employee who asks a co-worker of color how he or she got his or her job, implying that he or she may have landed it through an affirmative action or quota system. A microinvalidation is a communication that subtly excludes, negates or nullifies the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person. For instance, white Americans asking Latinos where they “really” come from, which conveys the message that Latinos are perpetual foreigners in the United States.

Although these three types of microaggressions vary in severity, all three cause minority or otherwise disadvantaged individuals to feel excluded and maintain a discriminatory status quo.

The next section in this article will discuss microaggressions as they arise in day-to-day life, at work, and in the world.