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Herzing University

Jessica Neddersen

Understanding Microaggressions

You might think microaggressions have less impact on people than other types of discrimination but they do add up over time and can cause a tremendous amount of stress and mistrust.


A lot of time and energy is spent examining, understanding and fighting the more obvious and wide-ranging examples of discrimination in society. However, we also need to recognize, discuss and eliminate lesser-known types of discrimination known as microaggressions.

You might think microaggressions have less impact on people than other types of discrimination but they do add up over time and can cause a tremendous amount of stress and mistrust.

In her latest T.R.U.E. Talk with Terri,Understanding Microaggressions,” Herzing Associate Vice President of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Terri Howard leads a discussion on microaggressions and how to understand them. 

She invited James Bennett, the Director of Instructional Design for Herzing University, and Alvin C. Hill Jr., senior director of diversity and cultural competence for the Milwaukee Center for Independence (MCFI), to discuss microaggressions and their impact. MCFI is an organization that's dedicated to developing innovative approaches to help and support people with disabilities, disadvantages, serious mental illness and employment barriers to a better life.

What are microaggressions?

Psychologist Derald W. Sue, who has written two books on microaggressions, defines them as "the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBTQ+ populations or those who are marginalized experiences in their day-to-day interactions with people."

The term racial microaggressions have been around since the 1970s although microaggressions have always existed. The term was first proposed by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, and psychologists and others have significantly amplified the concept since the 1970s.

In a study done by  Stanford University psychology professor Claude Steele, he tested how African Americans and women performed on academic tests when being primed with negative stereotypes. When the test groups were fed negative stereotypes about their race or gender before their test, they performed worse on their exam. For example, women who heard about women's poor math performance ended up doing worse on math tests. Additionally, African American intelligence test scores plunged when they were falsely told stereotypes about their inferior intelligence.

These microaggressions have an insulting message behind them, maybe intentionally or unintentionally, and they often cause severe psychological distress and harm.

Is there just one kind of microaggression?

Unfortunately, microaggressions are not just limited to a single type. They can be defined in three distinct categories.

  • Micro-assaults are conscious and intentional actions or slurs. These could include the use of racial epithets, displaying swastikas, or deliberately serving a white person before a person of color in a restaurant. Many times, the micro-assault will be “justified” by claiming that it was a joke or saying that it wasn’t serious.
  • Micro-insults are verbal or nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person's racial heritage or identity. An example of this might be an employee who asked a colleague of color how she got her job, implying she may have landed it through affirmative action or a quota system. Another example of this could be a person saying to an Asian doctor, “Your people must be so proud.”
  • Micro-invalidations are communications that subtly exclude or even nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color. For instance, white people often ask Asian Americans where they were born, conveying the message that they are perpetual foreigners in their own land. Another example of microinvalidation would be a white person telling a black person that “racism does not exist in today’s society.”

How do microaggressions impact people?

As you would imagine, microaggressions hurt those on the receiving end.

Research continues to show that racism and discrimination contribute to poor health among minorities and people of color. This results in a variety of mental health issues including increased rates of depression, prolonged stress and trauma and anxiety. It can even exacerbate other physical health issues like heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

One study looked at the racial climate and microaggressions at college campuses and found that African American students experienced more depression, self-doubt, frustration and isolation that negatively impacted their education as a result.

“I've seen microaggressions impact our clients when they don't feel appreciated or we don't understand them,” Alvin Hill commented. “We do satisfaction surveys every year at MCFI with our clients and will ask the question, ‘Do you feel that MCFI meets your needs?’”

It is vitally important that organizations create and promote an environment that embraces diversity and inclusion.

As a student, what are some activities I can engage in to prevent me from making microaggressions?

While many schools strive to push a healthier culture on campus, the heart of this movement is empathy. Schools can take the lead on ensuring both justice and humanity are part of everyday social transactions.

“I always recommend that everyone set a goal for themselves on interacting on a personal basis with somebody that's out of their cultural realm,” Hill recommended. “This could take place either in the workplace or on campus. It is incredibly important that we interact with people that are different from us.”

He challenged students even further, recommending they seek out environments that are perhaps outside of their usual comfort zone.

“I challenge everyone, including myself, to try to interact with people in their free time. That is the time that we're most comfortable and we most of the time go back to communities that we’re comfortable in,” he said. “I believe that when you stretch yourself, sometimes it's going to be uncomfortable, but I think that's one of the best ways that you can increase your knowledge about people that are different from you.”

How do I approach someone who has made a microaggression against me or if I am the target of a microaggression?

Although it can be a challenge, returning a microaggression with defensiveness or anger may not always be the best course of action.

“Personally, what I do in a case like that I would say to the person ‘Please clarify what you just said,’ or “I would like you to understand how what you say made me feel, so can you help me to really what you meant?’” Al explained.

By turning the conversation back on them, you don’t attack what was said but you open the door for a teachable moment. By asking for clarification, you attempt to get the offender to acknowledge what they said or did was wrong and open that dialogue. Then you are able then to be able to come back and say why that hurt you or why that you thought that was inappropriate.

Knowledge helps change behavior because we don't know where our blind spots are. We take on our values and the norms that we were raised in and the people with whom we are interacting regularly. By learning more from others on how our language and actions can affect them, we can prevent a cycle of microaggressions that you might unknowingly be perpetuating.

However, if you perceive someone to be hostile, please keep your safety at the forefront.


Although they might always seem like a big deal, microaggressions can take a real psychological toll on the mental health of their recipient. This toll can lead to anger and depression and can even negatively affect work productivity and problem-solving abilities.

Terri Howard advised in her closing, “If you felt like you were subject to a constant stream of insults or slights and were always either bracing for or recovering from an offense, think about that and ask yourself, ‘How might my words impact another person?’ before you say anything.”


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* Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment and Wage Statistics 2022 / Occupational Outlook Handbook 2022. BLS estimates do not represent entry-level wages and/or salaries. Multiple factors, including prior experience, age, geography market in which you want to work and degree field, will affect career outcomes and earnings. Herzing neither represents that its graduates will earn the average salaries calculated by BLS for a particular job nor guarantees that graduation from its program will result in a job, promotion, salary increase or other career growth.

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