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A microaggression is a relatively minor act of bigotry, discrimination or other harassment, whether real or imagined, usually unconscious or unintended, against a person, usually (but not always) towards someone in a marginalized group. Examples include conspicuously treating somebody differently from others (because of their gender, ethnicity, looks, size, sexual orientation or some other factor) or making casual comments to or about them which aren't actually hateful but which do carry judgemental or stereotypical implications.

Microaggressions like this are often seen (especially by those not on the receiving end of them) as "not that big a deal", and objections to them are sometimes interpreted as deliberate offence, but they can be uncomfortable, tiresome or upsetting for those who experience them repeatedly. Plus they tend to reflect (and reinforce) wider patterns of privilege, prejudice and stereotyping within society.


What a microaggression feels like.
From the "I, Too, Am Cambridge" campaign, 2014.[1]
  • Race: "Can I touch your hair" or "You don't sound black". The first one is just rude, while the second is based on a stereotype that black people all speak the same way.
  • Gender: Street harassment and pseudo-ironic kitchen jokes. The first one reduces a woman to the status of a sexual object which can be commented on and criticized by random strangers. To get a good idea of what it's like from a woman's perspective, imagine walking down the street where half of the adults are homeless people, constantly begging for change, and many refusing to leave you alone when you tell them no, insisting that you have an obligation to respond to them. Now imagine that's every day of your life for years, and not just the street but virtually everywhere you go, and then insist that it shouldn't get to you at all.
  • Sexual orientation: "How do you have sex" or "Who is the man and who is the woman?" The first one is an invasion of boundaries and the second one attempts to force heterosexual roles on a couple where it a) isn't wanted and b) can't apply.
  • Disability: "You don't seem [insert disability here]" or "why can't you just be 'normal'?" "I couldn't do that," These are attempts to reassure the disabled person that they are normal (read: non-disabled), when they probably didn't want that. The second is an attempt to pressure them into somehow acting normal when they may not necessarily be able to do so. The last implies it would not be worth living with the disability, and when said in terms of a person performing basic tasks ignores the work the disabled person, and any teachers, therapists, etc, have done on basic living skills and how high "miracles" a.k.a. life skills are in physical and occupational therapy. The last is also among the items heard from random strangers in public.
  • Transgender status: "Have you had / will you get bottom surgery?" or "When/why did you decide to become a man/woman?" The first one invasively ignores the fact that someone else's private parts are, you know, private, while the second is insulting as it frames being transgender as a choice.
  • General: "You're not like the rest of them." or "Stop overreacting, it's just X." or "I've always wanted to have an X friend!" The first implicitly insults the person's demographic; the second is an attempt to pretend the oppression isn't happening and dismisses the person's feelings; and the third is Tokenism.
  • Celebrity: While people making millions of dollars to look pretty on camera are hardly a disadvantaged group, they do suffer from a very well known form of "microaggression"; constant harassment from Paparazzi and so forth. One person interrupting you at dinner is hardly a case of assault, but years of constant stalking by cameras and the inability to go anywhere in public (or even in many private places) without worrying about someone forever immortalizing some accident will obviously take their toll on the human psyche. The reactions of the stalkers photographers when confronted are usually ones of the worst sort of entitlement, as if they have the "right" to constantly flash bright lights in someone's eye and disseminate embarrassing images of that person without their permission.

The "I, Too, Am Harvard" campaign in 2014,[2] and the many spinoffs it inspired at other universities,[3] explore black and other minority students' experiences of patronizing attitudes and stereotyping within a university culture where they are frequently treated as outsiders.


Sometimes claims of "microaggression" are questionable. On one occasion a professor corrected a student who capitalized the word "indigenous", and the student interpreted this orthographic correction as having "ideological implications."[4] Other incidents involved a teacher joking that he was on a "killing spree" while reviewing difficult material and a student being threatened for mocking the concept of microaggressions. The student government at Ithaca College passed the creation of an "anonymous microagression-reporting system" and some form of punishment for those who engage in the speech of "oppressors".[5]

The social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested that microaggressions can contribute to unhealthy thinking habits in the form of magnification, labeling, catastrophizing, and negative mental filtering.[6]

The word microaggression has been criticized for being easily misinterpreted by those that are not already informed about its meaning. Since aggression usually is thought of as requiring intent, some falsely presume the term refers to a small, but still intentional, attempt to demean a minority group without understanding that microaggressions can be, and often are, unintentional. This can lead to someone getting offended or defensive when they're challenged about a microaggression since they view it as an attack on them. An honest attempt to help someone recognize and correct unintentionally hurtful comments or behavior is taken to imply that they are racist or bigoted. This sadly has made the term microaggression a very tempting term to intentionally misuse when creating a straw man 'social justice warrior' who believes every action is a microaggression that proves everyone is racist.

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