Microaggressions: A Sensitive and Complicated Campus Challenge

Microaggressions Defined

Posted on 1 December 2015 |

campus microaggressionsWhere are you really from?

Wow, you’re really articulate.

You’re a much better driver than I expected.

Are these questions and statements completely innocent or passive aggressive or even unintentionally hurtful?

The answer may depend on your skin color, gender identification or any number of contextual factors. For example, the subtext of the first question may be, “you don’t look like me, so you’re not really part of this community.” And the tough part is that the speaker may not be totally aware of what they are implying while the recipient may feel he or she is being categorized as an “other.”

And that’s the difficult essence of microaggressions.

The idea of microaggressions has struck up some big debates across many college campuses and in the media, which will no doubt continue for some time. Let’s take a closer look at what constitutes a microaggression, how they impact recipients and how students are responding to microaggressions and the issues surrounding them. 

Microaggressions on Campus

 Columbia University Professor Derald Wing Sue, who’s written two books about microaggressions and their impact on recipients, explains microaggressions as follows:

Microagressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations and others who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people. Microagressions appear to be a complement but contain a metacommunication or hidden insult to the target groups that it’s delivered. People who engage in microaggressions are ordinary folks who experience themselves as good moral, decent individuals. Microaggressions occur because they are outside the level of conscious awareness of the perpetrator.1

Microagressions can also be broken down into more specific forms, including microassaults, microinsults and microinvalidations. At high level microassaults can be visual or verbal communications that specific groups may see as hostile, such as displaying a confederate flag. Microinsults are statements or actions that imply preferential treatment or snap judgments. And microinvalidations are conscious or unconscious attempts to disregard others’ circumstances.2 To better understand microaggressions and their potential impact, let’s look at a few examples.

Microaggressions in Action

Although microaggressions take many forms, the key to recognizing them is considering the potential subtext of a statement based on the situational and relationship context.3 To help with this, some schools have put together tools that breakdown themes and messages of specific microaggressions. Here are some examples:4 


Potential Subtext

“I don’t see color.” 

There’s no problem with the dominant culture and I’m not interested in your experiences.

Asking a student of color walking through a research
building after hours if he or she is lost.

You don’t belong here and/or you are a criminal.

What are you, a man or a woman?

People are uncomfortable around you and you need to be more “normal.”

Men talking only to one another and over a minority or woman in a group.

You’re not one of us/your ideas don’t matter as much.

“It’s unfair that the position/job/scholarship didn’t go to the most qualified person."

There must be a reason other than merit (racial or ethnic) that the person got the position/job/scholarship.

“Have you thought about when you plan to have children?”

I’m not sure this is worth our time/when are you planning to assume your traditional role in society?

“Wow, your English is surprisingly good.”

You aren’t from here and you won’t ever totally fit in.


Over time, micoraggressions have a cumulative effect on recipients, which can lead to stress, energy depletion and feelings of powerlessness.5

How Students and Campuses are Responding to Microaggressions

For several years now, students and student groups across U.S. college campuses have taken up raising awareness of and stamping out microaggressions as a cause. The goal of many of the groups is to make people think twice about potentially hurtful words or statements.

For example, a student group from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee put together a list of words that could be potentially interpreted as microaggressions, hoping it would raise awareness of hurtful language.6  Blogs are a popular forum for discussion and debate across many campuses. And some schools, such as the University of California, now hold trainings for faculty about understanding and addressing microaggressions.7

Critics of these types of efforts counter that fighting microaggressions can lead to limits on free speech. They point out how difficult it is to have a discussion or debate about hot-button topics, such as affirmative action, when phrases and ideas that are often open to interpretation are suddenly branded as offensive. Some critics also contend that the efforts against microaggressions have more of a shaming than educating effect and that they create a “culture of victimhood.”8 

What Can College Campuses Do?

Microaggressions are a complex issue that will no doubt continue to spark lively debates and discussions for years to come. For institutions looking for ways to begin addressing microagressions, the key is to help people start recognizing unconscious and implicit biases and reducing disrespectful language as they become more aware of things they are saying that could be interpreted as microagressions.

Diversity training programs are a great start. Let us know if you’re interested in learning about how our respectful language and implicit bias/unconscious bias training programs could help your school deal with the complicated issues around microaggressiosn.


1What is a microaggression?, PBS Newshour, November 13, 2015. 

2Many small microaggressions add up to something big, The Conversation, November 17, 2015.

3Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send

4 Examples based off of ideas gleaned from the Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages they Send tool. 

5 Sue, Derald Wing; Capodilupo, Christina M.; Holder, Aisha M. B., Racial microaggressions in the life experience of Black Americans, Professional Psychology: Research and Practice, Vol 39(3), Jun 2008, 329-336.

6 Derica Williams, “Just words?” Student group at UWM drafts a list of words believed to be microaggressions, Fox 6 News Milawaukee, October 26, 2015.

7 Tyler Kindkade, Universities Are Trying To Teach Faculty How To Spot Microaggressions, Huffpost College, July 9, 2015.

8 Fred Barbash, The war on ‘microaggressions:’ Has it created a ‘victimhood culture’ on campuses?, The Washington Post, October 28, 2015. 

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