What are microaggressions? And how should you deal with them?

Microaggressions are seemingly small slights that, whether intentional or not, communicate bias towards another group.
photo illustration of a women dealing with Microagressions in square
People who routinely experience microaggressions suffer from a range of negative emotions, experts say. TODAY illustration / Getty Images
By Julie Compton

For five years, Margo Gabriel, 34, worked as an administrator for a prestigious university in Boston, where she was the only Black person in her department. Often, when she wore her hair braided or out in its natural texture, white colleagues would walk up to her and touch her braids or pat her head without permission. While she felt violated, she didn’t know how to respond, so she would nervously laugh and shift the conversation.

“I just felt like, whenever things like that would happen, I couldn't stand up for myself because then they would assume, ‘Oh wow, she's just like an angry Black woman,” Gabriel told TODAY.

Gabriel is far from alone. Routine offenses that people experience across race, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, class, and even regional divides are so commonplace that they have a name. Microaggressions: the seemingly small, daily verbal, behavioral or environmental slights that, whether intentional or not, communicate bias towards another group.

“A microaggression is a trigger that reminds you that you’re inferior or not in the in-group,” said Dr. Tara Swart, a neuroscientist, medical doctor and author of “The Source: The Secrets of the Universe, the Science of the Brain.”

Microaggressions can be difficult to expose because they often come cloaked in supposed compliments or jokes, but are actually quite harmful and derogatory, according to Lisa Orbé-Austin, a psychologist, diversity and executive coach and co-founder of Dynamic Transitions Psychological Consulting, an executive coaching and organizational consultancy.

“They kind of vary in their intensity, but they very much send the message that you don't belong, you’re not like other people,” Orbé-Austin said.

For example, a white person tells a Black professional who has just given a speech that he sounded “very well spoken.” During meetings, a man routinely talks over his female colleagues and dismisses their ideas. A straight person tells a gay person, “You don’t sound gay.”

Microaggressions can be difficult to expose because they often come cloaked in supposed compliments or jokes, but are actually quite harmful and derogatory.

Lisa Orbé-Austin, Ph.D.

The more layers there are to a person’s identity, the more powerful microaggressions can be. For example, to get to her office every day, a Black female executive has to walk down a hallway lined with portraits of prior executives — all white men — signaling that she is an extreme outsider in her workplace.

As a Black woman, Orbé-Austin says she has experienced countless microaggressions in the workplace, from white colleagues who tell her she is “particularly articulate,” to a former male boss who routinely made slights aimed at women. “It's an emotional weight that you're carrying, you're constantly dealing with these kinds of things that are coming at you.”

How do microaggressions affect us?

People who routinely experience microaggressions suffer from a range of negative emotions, according to Swart. Their brains are flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. As a result, life can feel more like a fight than a journey. They may become always on guard and more risk-averse, which can impact their performance at work and in other areas of life, she said.

Gabriel said that experiencing routine microaggressions made her not want to be at work. “It got to a point where it was just like I didn't care for the job and I wasn’t motivated, and I just withdrew,” explained Gabriel, who is now a freelance writer.

But she says she has since started to stick up for herself. “Specifically, for my hair, I tell people it's inappropriate to just come up and touch my hair, like I'm not a pet,” she said.

Microaggressions affect more than individuals; they are felt across marginalized groups, and the anger and resentment they often trigger can lead to social unrest. For example, Swart said microaggressions found in social and political rhetoric can contribute to protests and social upheaval.

“I think if somebody thought about it hard enough, you could say microaggressions are involved in all of the major crises that are happening in the world today,” she said.

Nicole Martin, 28, who is Laguna Pueblo, a Native American tribe in New Mexico, said that indigenous communities frequently experience microaggressions within medical settings, a problem that is particularly troublesome during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately impacting people of color. Recently, when her mother, who has diabetes, went to a local hospital for a second leg amputation, she said hospital staff frequently complained that her mother was “too emotional,” often neglected her, and spoke to both Martin and her mother in ways that insinuated they were incompetent. Martin said her mother observed other indigenous people in the hospital receiving similar treatment, which further traumatized her.

Microaggressions have had a collective impact on her community, Martin said: Many no longer trust medical professionals.

“And it’s kind of a shame, because we have relatives that don’t trust doctors, that don’t trust nurses, or they don’t want to address their health issues, then they would just rather not go into the hospital at all, and then they experience the repercussions of not staying on top of their health, whether it’s your physical or your mental well being,” said Martin, a co-founder of Indigenous Women Rising, a grassroots collective that advocates and provides support for pregnant indigenous people.

The psychology of microaggressions

Microaggressions have deep roots in our brains, which makes them difficult to overcome, according to Swart. For thousands of years, our ancestors lived in small homogenous tribes, and interacting with competitor groups could get them expelled, she explained. For this reason, the human brain is acutely fixated on difference, especially physical differences, Swart said. As a result, she says humans have a natural tendency to form biases and stereotypes that are so subliminal we often don’t recognize them.

“They’ve been wired into our brains throughout so many millennia that they are still there,” said Swart, who explores the topic in her TEDx Talk “Neuroscience and Nationalism.”

What’s more insidious, she added, is that we often internalize stereotypes and microaggressions leveled against us, which can cause us to doubt our own self-worth and abilities. But she says there are ways we can fight back against microaggressions.

What can we do about microaggressions?

According to Orbé-Austin, for every microaggression, there is a committer, a receiver, and sometimes, witnesses.

“I think all of those three roles really matter, and how you participate in that situation is really important,” she said.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of a microaggression …

If the microaggressor is an authority figure or someone you work with, you may need to be strategic about how to react, Orbé-Austin says.

“Stop, take a second — and not try not to be reactive — breathe, find a way to regulate, and then think about what's happening, and think about what you want to do about it,” Orbé-Austin advises.

Don't internalize it

Whether you decide to take action, you’ll want to prevent yourself from internalizing the microaggression, she says, “because there's a message in it, and you do not want to take that message in, because that messaging is completely unhealthy for you and your identity.”

According to Swart, the best way to shield your brain from a microaggression is to immediately counter it. For example, if someone suggests that a particular job wouldn’t be a good fit for a woman: “I would immediately say ‘I don’t agree with that, I think I can get that job,’” she said. “And that has an impact on both your brain and the brain of the person that you say it to.”

Swart added: “Even if you just in your own mind said ‘I don’t agree with that, I think I can get that job,’ that’s going to have a positive impact on your brain, that protects you from the microaggression.”

It’s also important not to exhaust yourself by arguing with someone who isn’t listening, she said, “because that’s just going to drain your brain power and in some cases, it’s not going to change the person’s view, so it’s not productive.”

Use “I” statements

When called out, microaggressors will likely get defensive, Orbé-Austin said. When you use “I” statements to explain how the microaggression was received, it can help them see things from your perspective, she explained. For example, you can say: ‘I understand you meant (blank), but from my perspective, this is what it was experienced as.”

If you’ve committed a microaggression …

If someone has accused you of a microaggression, your first reaction might be to defend yourself and say they are overreacting. You may try to focus on what you intended rather than how you made them feel, but this is a big mistake, according to Orbé-Austin.

“It doesn't really matter your intention, what matters is how it was experienced,” she explained, “and you need to be able to validate someone's perspective.”

Rather than try to explain yourself, stop, wait, and listen, she said.

“You have to work to manage your defensiveness and listen to what's being said, and hear the person out,” she said. “Be curious and open to learning and getting feedback, reflect on what you've heard and check that you do understand what they're saying, and take responsibility.”

If you’ve witnessed a microaggression …

So you just witnessed a microaggression. Should you say something? According to Orbé-Austin, witnesses are so often shocked in these situations that they don’t know how to react or are too afraid to take action. But she says it’s important to speak up, especially if you are part of a privileged group.

“The bystanders are also important in this and need to take responsibility,” she said. “And if they see something as a microaggression, they can call it out and address it, or validate that person's experience.”