On microaggressions

by Helen Morales, UC Santa Barbara

I am grateful to have this opportunity to think again about the subject of microaggressions, which I first discussed at the Feminism and Classics VII conference in Seattle in May 2016.¹ This article is a revised version of my presentation there and is an attempt to think through the question of microaggressions, an increasingly urgent yet polarizing issue on North American campuses.

Microaggressions are brief, casual exchanges, verbal and non verbal, that send denigrating messages to individuals because of their race, gender, sexual orientation and/or membership of another oppressed group. These slights are typically not intended to be such by the person who communicates them. The term ‘microaggression’ was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, the first African-American psychiatrist to join the faculty of Harvard Medical School, to describe slights given to African Americans on an everyday basis, and a few years later the term was extended to encompass similar slights towards women, members of the LGBTQIA communities, and any group that experiences systemtic oppression. According to microaggression theory, microaggressions constitute sexual and racial violence through the everyday iteration of casual assaults.

Universities and colleges are taking action and the stakes are high. A climate that fosters microaggressions can comprise a hostile environment, and that is legally actionable. Chairs of departments like myself are trained to detect and challenge microaggressions. Many universities now encourage students anonymously to report microaggressions in on-line forums. UC Santa Cruz is piloting an app that will allow students to report microaggressions immediately they occur. Although all members of marginalized groups can be affected by microaggressions, most of the discourse around microaggressions has faculty as the aggressors and students as the victims. Are you a professor and a woman of color whose student feedback questionnaires are full of microaggressions? There’s no app for that…

The response of the popular press has been scathing. Microaggression theory has been called a ‘farce’ and a ‘fad’, enabling students to be ‘special snowflakes’, part of a general cultural trend of political correctness gone mad and what an article in The Atlantic memorably called ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’ (Lukianoff and Haidt 2015). Never have universities and public opinion been so sharply divided in their approaches to a form of sexual and racial violence. The issue also threatens to divide young feminists from older. ‘Did first-and second- wave feminists march to the barricades,’ exclaims journalist Peggy Noonan, ‘so their daughters and granddaughters could act like Victorians with the vapors?’ (Noonan 2015).

For a time in the early ’70s everyday insults were called microinequities, not microaggressions. The power of the term ‘microaggression’ is that, unlike ‘microinequities’ it imports images of violence and harm. Derald Wing Sue and others have argued that microaggressions operate like repeated stabs and pinpricks; they are minor assaults that have a debilitating cumulative effect. This is a quotation from a 1998 report on minority law professors: ‘A respondent, the only black woman teaching at a major southern university, reported that many of the law students had never seen a black woman ‘out of uniform’ — outside of domestic service. She said that although she dresses impeccably, visitors to the law school often mistake her for a maid and call spills and messes to her attention’ (discussed in Wells 2013). It is a positive thing that we are able, through microaggression theory, to articulate and visualize the repeated exclusion and denigration that this kind of everyday treatment causes (although arguably this is macroaggression, and not a small slight). It is not being ‘coddled’ or a ‘special snowflake’ to recognize and try to prevent this kind of prejudice.

However, microaggression theory is unnuanced, and this presents problems. Some following Sue, argue that tangible physical harm may be caused by microaggressions. Others treat the image of small stabs as metaphorical for psychological damage. Frequently the language of physical violence is used: ‘microaggressors’ are described as ‘assaulters’ and ‘perpetrators’. Sometimes this language may be appropriate, but at other times it seems prescriptive rather than descriptive, and magnifies incidents with aggrandizing rhetoric. We are encouraged to see ourselves as harmed (‘assaulted’) rather than annoyed, or irritated, or exasperated. Microaggressions include saying, ‘America is the land of opportunity’ or ‘Good evening, Ladies and Gentlemen’. One is a crass statement that needs more reflection because it implies that structural racism does not exist, the other an address that is thoughtlessly cisnormative in that it fails to recognize people who identify as non-binary. Both suggest a need for consciousness-raising. However, thinking of them as assaults, even if they are encountered on a daily basis, dilutes the idea of assault and increases people’s sense of victimization. Moreover, grouping sexual microaggressions with harassment and rape under the umbrella term ‘sexual violence’, as Allison Surtees does in her Cloelia article ‘The Problem of Gendered Violence in Academia’ (Surtees 2017), risks trivializing harassment and rape. It is an example of what psychologist Nick Haslam has called ‘concept creep’ (Haslam 2016). Concept creep is when concepts like trauma and abuse are expanded resulting in increased sensitivity to the ways in which people are hurt, but also in disproportionate responses, unjustified accusations, and the excessive policing of behavior.

Part of the problem is that microaggressions are now determined by ‘the intensity of the grievance felt by the person asserting it, not by independent criteria’, as Conor Freidersdorf observes in his article ‘Why Critics of the ‘Microaggressions Framework are Skeptical’ (Freidersdorf 2015). In a nutshell, ‘the emotional experience of accusers is considered sacrosanct.’ This is Allison Surtees’ perspective when she writes, ‘Dismissing these actions as minor [she is referring to the microaggression of interrupting a woman while she is speaking] invalidates the victim’s lived experience and further continues the violence and the silencing’ (my emphasis). However, determining sexual violence by the person asserting a grievance rather than by independent criteria reflects a relatively recent shift in how we think about sexual violence. Until 2013, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights declared that speech must be ‘objectively offensive’ before it was considered actionable as sexual harassment. To be prohibited, the office wrote in 2003, allegedly harassing speech would have to go ‘beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.’ In 2013 the criteria changed: the Departments of Justice and Education greatly broadened the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply ‘unwelcome’.² Universities are now applying that standard — defining unwelcome speech as harassment — not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status also. This both has the potential to foster narcissism, and also risks diverting energies away from more urgent problems, like rape, racist crimes, and anti-semitic attacks on campus.

Another problematic area in the debate around microaggressions (and the related subject of trigger warnings around texts that may constitute ‘unwelcome’ speech) concerns the idea of being ‘safe in the classroom’. Columbia University students, complaining about being taught Ovid’s Metamorphoses by a professor who, they said, focused on Ovid’s style and ignored sexual politics in his descriptions of rape, wrote in an article in the Columbia Spectator: ‘Students need to feel safe in the classroom and that requires a learning environment that recognizes the multiplicity of their identities.’ The main response to the furore was not, disappointingly, to plaster Columbia with copies of Amy Richlin’s 1992 chapter, ‘Reading Ovid’s Rapes’ which would explain why this sounds like poor pedagogy and why the students were right to complain, instead it was to echo the words in a report by The American Association of University Professors: ‘The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual’ (www.aaup.org). But this is missing the point. Students need to be safe in the sense of feeling included and their experiences recognized, and also unsafe in the sense of being challenged and provoked intellectually. Two different meanings of ‘safety’ are at play here. The two are not mutually exclusive — indeed the one enables the other. We need to stop speaking at cross-purposes about ‘safety in the classroom’.

I want to end by proposing that sometimes (not always, but sometimes) we should change the register in our responses to microaggressions, and by suggesting two ways in which we might do so. Universities are in danger of becoming environments of hyper-vigilance, where students and administrators in particular are primed to pounce on perceived transgressions and to shame and punish the perpetrators. Shame-based approaches are rarely as successful as loving ones, as the work of the Texan psychologist Brené Brown has shown. Following her insights we might put our energies into performing ‘microaffirmations’, small everyday acts that create inclusive, respectful, and positive environments. In addition, as Mary Beard has said, in a different context (about responding to on-line trolling) ‘only having your rhetorical register as outrage is always going to be unsuccessful. You’ve got to vary it. Sometimes, some of the things that sexist men do just deserve to be laughed at’ (Schneier 2016). Changing the register will help us imbue students, and ourselves, with what Beard elsewhere calls ‘a cheery and self confident sense of unbatterability’ (Beard 2015). Finding ways to laugh at the crass and the clumsy, and to dispatch everyday prejudices with wit and verve, where we can and when appropriate, can only be empowering.


  1. Thanks to the organizers of and participants at the conference and to the editors of Cloelia.
  2. This came in a 47 page ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent to the University of Montana by the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) at the Department of Education and the Department of Justice in May 2013, described by the OCR as a ‘blueprint’ for universities nationwide (www.justice.gov). The part that redefines sexual harassment is as follows: ‘Sexual harassment is unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature, and can include unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal, nonverbal, or physical conduct of a sexual nature, such as sexual assault or acts of sexual violence’ (emphasis mine). The spirit of the document is a good one, and the qualifying phrase ‘such as sexual assault or acts of sexual violence’ makes it clear that the intention is prevent crimes of substance. However, the wording of the letter creates opportunities for any actions that are perceived by someone to be ‘unwelcome conduct of a sexual nature’ to be considered sexual harassment. The University of New Hampshire gives as an example of a sexual microaggression a female job candidate noticing that a female committee member is frequently looking at the candidate’s chest. Although the committee member seems unaware of her actions, the candidate is discomforted: (www.unh.edu).


Brown, Brené, (2004) Women and Shame. Austin, Texas.

Delgado, Richard, and Derrick Bell, (1998) ‘Minority Law Professors’ Lives: the Bell/Delgado Survey’, Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review, 24 Harv. C. R.-C.L.Rev. 349.

Friedersdorf, Conor, (2015) ‘Why Critics of the ‘Microaggressions’ Framework are Skeptical’, The Atlantic Sept 14, 2015.

Friedersdorf, Conor, (2016) ‘How Americans Became So Sensitive To Harm’, The Atlantic April 19, 2016.

Haslam, Nick, (2016) ‘Concept Creep: Psychology’s Expanding Concepts of Harm and Pathology’, Psychological Inquiry 27.1.

Lukianoff, Greg, and Jonathan Haidt, (2015) ‘The Coddling of the American Mind’, The Atlantic Sept 2015.

Noonan, Peggy, (2015) ‘The Trigger-Happy Generation’, The Wall Street Journal 2014, updated May 22, 2015.

Richlin, Amy, (1992) ‘Reading Ovid’s Rapes’, in Amy Richlin ed. Pornography and Representation in Greece and Rome. Oxford: 158–79.

Schneier, Matthew, (2016) ‘Mary Beard and Her ‘Battle Cry’ Against Internet Trolling’, The New York Times, April 16, 2016.

Sue, Derald Wing, ed. (2010) Microaggressions in Everyday Life. Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation. Hoboken, New Jersey.

Sue, Derald Wing, ed. (2010) Microaggressions and Marginality. Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. Hoboken, New Jersey.

Surtees, Allison, (2017) ‘The Problem of Gendered Violence in Academia’, Cloelia, March 16, 2017.

Wells, Catharine, (2013) ‘Microaggressions in the Context of Academic Communities’, Seattle Journal for Social Justice vol. 12.2, Article 3.