The term ‘micro-aggression’ can be defined as ‘a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)’ (Merriam-Webster, 2019).
Similarly, ‘micro-aggression’ can be defined as a ‘subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a member of a marginalized group, especially a racial minority, that is often unintentionally offensive or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype e.g. microaggressions such as “I don’t see you as Black.”’ (Dictionary.com, n.d.).
Essentially, microaggressions are comments that are usually seen as harmless by the commenter however can actually be considered discriminatory towards the person being spoken to. Although microaggressions may not appear to be as severe as prejudice or racism, it can still affect the self-esteem of a victim.
For example, the racial microaggression of a ‘Black man noticing that a white woman flinches and clutches her bag as she sees him in the elevator she’s about to enter, and is painfully reminded of racial stereotypes’ (Desmond-Harris, 2015). The white woman would not have pressed the button and waited for the lift to arrive in the first place if she believed that it was an unsafe environment, therefore indicating that when she saw the physical appearance of the man, she automatically wanted to guard herself. If this had been a white man, would she have had the same reaction? Probably not. Another example could be when a Black female employee is told that she is confrontational or aggressive when reporting an issue at work. If a white female employee reported an issue as such, it is more likely to be taken seriously and raise concern than be seen as an act of aggression.
The term microaggression was coined in the 1970s by Harvard Medical School psychologist Chester Pierce as a reaction to observing insults exchanged between White and Black students. Later in 2007, Columbia University psychologist Derald Sue further popularized and defined the term (Cuncic, 2021). It is interesting that the two examples given above were race-related microaggressions and the origination of the word was based on racist behaviours. The point that microaggressions are usually associated with race should be alarming to individuals because it illustrates how biases find a way to sneak up whether the person causing this is unconscious or conscious about this.
Later, ‘the use of the term became more widespread, relating mostly to how college students of color were navigating these subtle everyday putdowns, insults, or offensive remarks from well-meaning white peers and faculty’ (Tulshyan, 2022). It is comprehensible that not all students will realise that their remarks are not always kind simply due to being unaware. This is why research is really important in order to ensure that everyone understands the correct way to speak to one another. It may be innocent for a white person to ask a person of colour where they are from however it should be communicated properly e.g. ‘what is your ethnic background?’ Rather than ‘but where are you actually from?’ The difference here is that the former acknowledges that the person’s ethnicity is not White English (should this encounter take place in England, for example), therefore they are asking what country their ancestors are from. This is a polite way to ask. However, to simply question someone’s origin, as shown in the latter question, based on blatantly making them aware that they do not physically look like English people, is not respectful and simply ignorant.
The term in relation to higher education in the UK
The UK is becoming more and more multicultural, in fact ‘in 2020-21 there were 605,130 international students studying in the UK. 152,905 of these were from the EU and 452,225 were non-EU’ (Universities UK, 2022). The large number of international students gives an indicator to how diverse the UK has now become however, although this should be celebrated as it invites a whole world of new cultures for others to learn about, it is not always received in this way. As innocent as a remark to an international student from a local student such as ‘your English is much better than I thought’, may be intended in a good way to make the international student feel proud about their English language skills, it may not be best communicated in this way. They may feel insecure about speaking English because the local student thought they would be incapable of understanding them – a sort of prejudged thought. Thus, as mentioned in the previous section, the tone of asking questions or making statements, should be carefully considered before speaking.
The list of microaggressions has largely expanded since it was first established as a term. Other minority groups e.g. ‘ethnic minorities, women, people with disabilities, LGBTQ, and those affected with mental illness’, are among the list of the common groups to experience microaggressions today (Cuncic, 2021). For example, microaggressions aimed towards the LGBTQ+ community such as statements questioning the validity of their sexual orientation. This could be small insults such as ‘you don’t sound/look gay’ or ‘how did you turn gay?’ (The University of Edinburgh, n.d.). These are known as microinsults, and are essentially inappropriate comments or questions that people may ask that they do not consider to be offensive (whether this be consciously or unconsciously). People should become more sensitive towards the power of language as it can really have a detrimental effect on a person’s mental health and sense of identity. In relation to HE, universities should make it a priority to educate their students on topics such as microaggressions and how to avoid/manage them.
Literature to suggest
Midgette, A.J., Mulvey, K.L. (2021). Unpacking young adults’ experiences of race- and gender-based microaggressions. 4th ed. London, England: SAGE Publications (an article based around the experiences of race and gender-related microaggressions)
Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K.E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S. and Rasmus, M. (2014). The Impact of Racial Microaggressions on Mental Health: Counseling Implications for Clients of Color. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92(1) (an article explaining the effects of microaggression on contributing towards mental illnesses)
Williams, M.T. (2019). Microaggressions: Clarification, Evidence, and Impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1) (a journal explaining a detailed meaning of microaggression and the different types of it)
Imperial College (n.d.). Examples of Microaggressions. [online] Available at: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/faculty-of-engineering/public/Resource—Examples-of-Microaggressions.pdf (detailed microaggression examples)
TEDXTalks (2019). Why Microaggressions Aren’t So Micro | Whitney Grinnage-Cassidy | TEDxYouth@UrsulineAcademy. [online] www.youtube.com. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Z7l194OXxYo&t=7s (a woman explaining her experience of working at the school she works for to reduce racial microaggressions towards students of colour by White students)
Questions to ask
- Can you think of three examples of microaggressions?
- Do you think that certain people are more prone to experiencing microaggressions? If so, what types of people are these?
- If you are a student, what could your university do to prevent the existence of microaggressions in your university environment?
Cuncic, A. (2021). What are Microaggressions? [online] Verywell Mind. Available at: https://www.verywellmind.com/what-are-microaggressions-4843519
Desmond-Harris, J (2015). What exactly is a microaggression? [online] Vox. Available at: https://www.vox.com/2015/2/16/8031073/what-are-microaggressions
Dictionary.com (n.d.). Definition of microaggression | Dictionary.com. [online] www.dictionary.com. Available at: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/microaggression
Imperial College (n.d.). Examples of Microaggressions. [online] Available at: https://www.imperial.ac.uk/media/imperial-college/faculty-of-engineering/public/Resource—Examples-of-Microaggressions.pdf
Merriam-Webster (2019). Definition of MICROAGGRESSION. [online] Merriam-webster.com. Available at: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/microaggression
The University of Edinburgh (n.d.). Common Sexuality-based Microaggressions. [online] The University of Edinburgh. Available at: https://www.ed.ac.uk/equality-diversity/students/microaggressions/lgbtq-microaggressions/sexuality-based-microaggressions/common-sexuality-based-microaggressions
Tulshyan, R. (2022). We Need to Retire the Term ‘Microaggressions’. [online] Harvard Business Review. Available at: https://hbr.org/2022/03/we-need-to-retire-the-term-microaggressions#:~:text=In%202007%2C%20Derald%20Wing%20Sue
UK Universities (2022). International student recruitment data. [online] Universities UK. Available at: https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/universities-uk-international/explore-uuki/international-student-recruitment/international-student-recruitment-data#:~:text=In%202020%2D21%20there%20were