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(p. 1) Understanding Racial Microaggressions 

(p. 1) Understanding Racial Microaggressions
(p. 1) Understanding Racial Microaggressions

Monnica T. Williams

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date: 08 July 2020

It has been more than 50 years since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the US, outlawing discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin; nonetheless, ethnic and racial disparities in access and use of mental health care stubbornly persist. These disparities have several causes, including differing cultural attitudes about mental illness, lack of access to appropriate services, and lack of culture-specific therapies. However, mental health disparities are also caused by clinician behaviors that have unintended negative consequences (Penner, Blair, Albrecht, & Dovidio, 2014). When clinicians lack needed skills and knowledge to effectively interact with those who are ethnoracially different, clients of color may be left feeling misunderstood, invalidated, or even traumatized. As a result, people of color may worry about what will happen in therapy or fail to return for treatment after just a single session.

Racial microaggressions have been described as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to people of color because they belong to a racial minority group” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 273), although additional types of microaggressions have since been described, such as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ); gender; religious; and other microaggressions. Microaggressions are probably the most common reason for dissatisfaction among clients with stigmatized identities, indeed a troubling cause for poor retention and inadequate treatment outcomes. In addition, microaggressions have been linked to numerous mental health problems. However, many clinicians are completely unaware of the presence of microaggressions occurring all around them or that they may even commit themselves. Microaggressions are common, automatic, and often unintentional. For these reasons, all clinicians can benefit from a better understanding of microaggressions to improve their clinical work and to help clients navigate the racial microaggressions they may be experiencing from multiple sources in their daily lives.

(p. 2) Understanding Stigmatized Racial and Ethnic Identities

There are many important ways that people may exhibit diversity. Recognition and appreciation of diverse identities have focused on categories such as race/ethnicity, culture, gender/sex, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status, age, disability, and religion. Included within each of these identities are varying degrees of social stigma or privilege. Stigmatized identities are more likely to be met with disfavor and ostracization, whereas privileged identities garner favor and respect. As a result, discrimination on the basis of these identities is common and, as noted previously, often prohibited by law. Almost all of the identities listed previously are ascribed and not acquired, meaning that people have very little control at an individual level as to which of these identities they possess. This holds true for privileged identities as well (i.e., able-bodied status, cisgender identity, etc.), which are also rarely chosen. Although some degree of change is possible, for the most part people are born with these identities or socialized into them from an early age, and therefore no one should be stigmatized or privileged on the basis of such identities alone.

Race and ethnicity are among the most highly stigmatized identities in our culture and as such are powerful determinants of many basic attributes, such as where one lives, where one goes to school, how much money one makes, who one will marry, and whether one will become incarcerated. Western culture places a high value on being nondiscriminatory; nonetheless, individuals do react to others based on their presumed racial and ethnic identity. No doubt, most clinicians would consider themselves unprejudiced and even committed to the well-being of people from all ethnoracial groups. However, to truly appreciate the struggles of people of color in America (and many other Western nations as well), a wide lens is needed to understand the hierarchical system that unfairly advantages some at the expense of others. Historically, nearly all of our country’s institutions, policies, procedures, laws, and statutes were, by design, crafted to advantage White people at the expense of people of color. These underpinnings continue to propagate inequality in everyday life. The expression of this system is termed structural racism because it does not require the actions of any one biased person to perpetrate discrimination against people of color. But rather than acknowledge the biased systems that produce these differences, society develops legitimizing myths to explain away disadvantage in a manner that blames the disempowered group. The resulting mischaracterizations about people in the disempowered group are termed pathological stereotypes (Williams, Gooden, & Davis, 2012). These stereotypes perpetuate the notion that out-groups lack desirable characteristics, which in turn provides justification for ongoing discriminatory treatment by the empowered group.

For example, when slavery was legal in the United States, the slave trade was legitimized with myths that Black Americans were docile, happy, simple, and childlike to rationalize their ongoing control by slave owners. After the Civil (p. 3) War, the legitimizing myths changed, with Black Americans stereotyped as hostile and violent to justify terror organizations such as the Ku Klux Klan to keep them “under control,” in conjunction with lynching and mass incarceration. When the civil rights movement started, resistance to removing inequalities was legitimized with myths that Black Americans were demanding, wanting things they did not deserve, and pushing too hard for too much (Hyers, 2006). Interestingly, the pathological stereotype of Black people having lower intelligence briefly waned during that time because it was more useful to portray Blacks as clever and crafty in order to motivate White resistance against efforts to change entrenched social systems. So pathological stereotypes arise from legitimizing myths that support the interests of the dominant group, and these may change with the shifting interests and concerns of a society (Sidanius, Pratto, & Devereux, 1992).

Can Terminology Be a Microaggression: People of Color or Ethnic Minority?

Many terms have been used to label various racial and ethnic groups broadly. The word “minority” is often used to describe non-White groups, but this term is problematic because it contains an implicit justification for marginalization of these groups. In a society in which we ascribe to “majority rule” (one might even argue this is one of our democratic values), the term suggests that “minority” needs, concerns, and place in society are less important due to being numerically fewer. It is important to understand that numerical minority status is not the cause of power imbalances between groups; rather, inequities are due to oppression and inequitable access to resources. In addition, the term minority is misleading because people of color are a numerical majority worldwide (“global majority”). Furthermore, according to the US Census Bureau, White Americans will be a numerical minority by 2045; thus, the term “ethnic minorities” as commonly used will over time become technically incorrect or meaningless.

Although I may occasionally use the term “minority” or “ethnoracial minority,” I prefer the term “people of color,” which should not to be confused with the outdated term “colored people.” Whereas the word “minority” has negative connotations surrounding disempowerment, the word “color” is often considered positive and bright. I think we should all embrace a more diverse and “colorful” society, which is another reason this terminology may be preferred.

It is important to note that these terms are used and understood differently in different cultures. For example, in Canada, there are two distinct categorization for people of color: indigenous people and visible (racialized) minorities. Indigenous groups used to be called “Indians” or, more recently, “Aboriginals” (but this term is falling out of favor), and “racialized minorities” includes all other non-Whites. In Germany, the term “colored” has been used, but it is falling out of favor, and there is currently a great deal of uncertainty regarding how to refer (p. 4) to people such as a Black German (e.g., Afro-deutscher). Germans recommend asking people how they would like to be identified.

What Is Whiteness?

To best understand issues related to race and racism, it is important to understand Whiteness as well. The concept of Whiteness was imported from Spain and Portugal in the 1600s during the slavery era. Whiteness was defined as way to contrast one’s identity as different from slaves. This was devised to create a deliberate hierarchy, to define who was privileged and who was property or a second-class citizen (Wood, 2015). The concept of race continues to define people in this way, socially although not legally anymore, albeit with stubbornly disparate outcomes (Salter, Adams, & Perez, 2018).

I have been asked by well-intentioned White Americans if it is appropriate to be proud of having a White racial identity. In the course of studying race and culture, it becomes evident that the concept of race is a destructive thing because it categorizes people into castes based on their appearance and presumed ancestry. Ethnicity and culture are good things because they are built by a group for the well-being of that group, whereas race is defined by the dominant culture and imposed upon nondominant groups. This is why we sometimes refer to certain groups as “racialized.” This is akin to words such as “marginalized” or “stigmatized”—generally a negative thing.

Whiteness can be defined as an unfairly privileged exclusionary category, based on physical features—most notably a lack of melanin. So, although one can be proud of one’s German heritage, American culture, or African American ethnicity, one should not be proud of one’s Whiteness. Whiteness is forced group membership that originated by oppressing people of color. It leads to unjust benefits at the expense of others, which is antisocial and unethical. In this way, it causes psychological damage to White people just as it damages non-Whites.

People may then ask why it is okay to be proud of being Black. This is because pride in Blackness represents pride in the accomplishments and resilience of a racialized people group in the face of continual oppression. It is healthy for Black people to celebrate these small victories to maintain their self-esteem, despite pervasive social messages of inferiority. Furthermore, most Black Americans were forcefully deprived of their original diverse African identities and had no choice but to forge a new ethnic identity as a single group (African Americans).

Generally, Americans who identify as Black can be of any skin shade and ethnicity, even if mostly of European ancestry. This is not the case with Whiteness, which, as noted previously, is an exclusionary category. The term “White” is in fact a euphemism because White people have a range of skin shades. White people do not have actually white skin unless they have an extreme medical melanin deficiency (e.g., albinism). So, rejecting the construction of Whiteness has nothing to do with whether or not a person likes their actual skin color. A person can like light-colored skin and still dislike Whiteness.

(p. 5) Defining Microaggressions

The term microaggression was first used to describe the more common types of racial maltreatment experienced by African Americans (Pierce, 1970), but many racial and ethnic groups are subject to frequent microaggressions as well, including Asian Americans (Lin, 2010; Ong, Burrow, Fuller-Rowell, Ja, & Sue, 2013), Hispanic Americans (Huynh, 2012; Yosso, Smith, Ceja, & Solórzano, 2009), Native Americans/American Indians (Jones & Galliher, 2015; Walls, Gonzalez, Gladney, & Onello, 2015), and others. Arab Americans also experience microaggressions, but because individuals of Middle Eastern descent are not officially recognized as a minority group, research is sparse and many instances of discrimination are not documented (Awad, 2010). Although, as noted previously, there are other types of microaggressions, the focus of this book is on microaggressions connected to the target’s presumed racial and ethnic group, and so use of the term microaggressions herein should be taken to mean ethnoracial microaggressions, unless otherwise indicated. This is because microaggressions against people in groups that are stigmatized differently have a unique history that changes the nature of the construct in ways requiring a different understanding than how it is described here. However, some of the concepts presented may apply to these other groups as well.

Pierce (1970, 1974) explains microaggressions as emotionally damaging “offensive mechanisms,” a type of opposite or analogue to the Freudian concept of defensive mechanisms that, like microaggressions, often occur outside conscious awareness. Furthermore, Pierce (1970) likens the delivery of microaggressions to an offensive maneuver one might observe in the sport of football, and as such he urges people of color to have ready defenses to counter these attacks. Therefore, the term offender is used to refer to those who commit microaggression, in homage to Piece and also in recognition of the fact that microaggressions are by nature offensive because they are a form of racism (Kanter et al., 2017), making offender an apt description. Some people prefer terms such as “deliverer” or “perpetrator.” I find the term deliverer awkward and believe it also understates the harms done. I also prefer not to use the word perpetrator because it may imply conscious malevolence on the part the offender, although microaggressions are not always unintentional.

Some have argued that microaggressions are best defined as the target’s subjective feeling about an interaction. Although the subjective experience is certainly of paramount importance, the foundational perspective of this book is that microaggressions can be well defined and are not simply a subjective experience (Williams, 2020a). As such, an offender directs a microaggression at a specific person or group of people, but it may or may not land on a victim causing harm (e.g., the target may not perceive the microaggression). Thus, the term target is used to refer to the intended recipient of the microaggression, although the term victim is appropriate if the target is harmed by the microaggression. In addition, observers may also witness a microaggression and be harmed by it, even if it was not aimed at the observers. For example, a non-Hispanic White person might hear (p. 6) someone repeat a pathological stereotype about Hispanic Americans. And let’s suppose that non-Hispanic White observer is married to a Puerto Rican woman who has suffered greatly due to such stereotypes. The hearer may feel distress that a person he loves is being mischaracterized in such a thoughtless manner. So even people from privileged groups can be harmed by microaggressions if they care deeply about people of color.

The Connection Between Racial Microaggressions and Racism

It may be tempting to consider microaggressions as simple cultural missteps or racial faux pas, but in fact microaggressions are a form of oppression that reinforces traditional power differentials between groups, whether or not this was the conscious intention of the offender. As such, there is an underlying connection between the message embedded in the microaggression and its relationship to pathological stereotypes about the target that mirror existing power structures. Therefore, one can predict that microaggressions will indeed reinforce unfair pathological stereotypes about people of color (Sue et al., 2007). Because these stereotypes are pervasive, any person can commit a microaggression.

Some have wondered if the commission of microaggressions is related to racially biased attitudes on the part of the offender. Research on this topic to date seems to indicate this to be the case. In my own lab, we collected data from White students about racial prejudice using several validated measures, which included color-blind, symbolic, and modern racist attitudes (Kanter et al., 2017). We also collected data on affinity toward out-group members (allophilia), which we expected to be negatively correlated to racism. Finally, because it has been noted that some measures of racism may be confounded with political views, we administered a racial feelings thermometer, a more pure measure of racial bias, where White participants are simply asked to indicate their attitudes toward Blacks on a scale ranging from 0° (extremely unfavorable) to 100° (extremely favorable). Even after controlling for social desirability, the likelihood of students engaging in microaggressions across several common contexts was robustly correlated with all five of our measures of racial prejudice. Specifically, White students who reported that they were more likely to commit microaggressions were more likely to endorse the color-blind, symbolic, and modern racist attitudes, and they held significantly less favorable feelings and attitudes toward Black people. These data were obtained from a sample of students at the University of Louisville in Kentucky; we have since collected data from students in Seattle and New England with similar findings (Parigoris et al., 2018).

The aforementioned study provided some important empirical support for something that diversity researchers knew all along—that microaggressive acts are linked to racist beliefs and underlying feelings of hostility that are not simply the subjective impressions of the target. However, even if we had found no correlation between racism and microaggressions, subjective perceptions of targets are (p. 7) still important, and if targets agree that microaggressions are offensive, this still constitutes an important problem that needs to be addressed.

Readers may wonder if this means that all people who commit microaggressions are racists. In common discourse, we generally think of a “racist” as perhaps someone who gets sadistic pleasure out of abusing people of color. We may think of skinheads, neo-Nazis, or White supremacists running around at night with tiki torches, chanting threats or wearing white robes. However, in contrast to what the term means colloquially, we use the term racist rather differently in academic contexts. There are many types of “racists” (e.g., old-fashioned racists vs. aversive racists) and also many racist ways people can act (e.g., explicit or implicit) while still eschewing racism in general. Furthermore, individuals may hold such biases toward all people of color or only those from certain ethnoracial groups. People of color may have biases toward those from different minority groups, their own group, or even themselves (internalized racism). In addition, people can knowingly or unknowingly comply with structural racism and be perpetrating racism indirectly. So if we examine the many different ways racism is perpetuated and the degree of individual compliance with these norms, just about everyone could be considered a racist to some extent.

Racism is everywhere, and given the biased messages about people of color that we are subjected to in the media and life in general, it would be difficult to be completely unaffected. As a result, almost everyone has some ethnic and racial biases. Correspondingly, people can commit racist acts without being reprehensible human beings. Good people unknowingly do racists things all the time, myself included. Like everyone else, I have committed my own share of microaggressions against people who are different, propagated pathological stereotypes, and judged people based on their appearance even when I tried not to do so. My students have sometimes pointed out unintentional racist things I have said or done, and I appreciate it. Although it is embarrassing and hurtful at times to be called out, it is much more functional to apologize, learn, and grow than to get angry and defensive.

Stereotypes of Some Common Ethnic and Racial Groups

As previously discussed, microaggressions are a form of racism, linked to pathological stereotypes that are the product of legitimizing myths. In order to be able to identify a microaggression, one must have an awareness of how various groups are stereotyped. It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge these stereotypes, knowing that they are largely untrue and cause hurt to others. Some people may even deny knowledge of pathological stereotypes to avoid appearing racist to others (or even themselves). However, if we shy away from learning about these problems, it impedes our ability to overcome them. Forrest-Bank and Jenson (2015) studied microaggressions among Asian, Hispanic, Black, and White American young adults (N = 409). Although microaggressions were experienced (p. 8) at similar rates among the different non-White groups, there were a number of significant differences in types of microaggressions based on ethnoracial group, and these were in alignment with pathological stereotypes. So I now review some of the most common North American ethnic and racial groups and the types of false stereotypes and subsequent microaggressions they typically experience. It is worth noting, however, that nearly all societies have some system whereby groups are advantaged or disadvantaged based on skin color or ethnicity, so what is presented here may have relevance to people in other societies as well.

African Americans

African Americans are defined as those with ancestry from any of the darker skinned (Black) racial groups indigenous to Africa. Because the economy of the United States was driven in part by African slave labor for more than a century, racism in America is a deeply entrenched system of oppression, rooted in the institutionalized subjugation of disempowered groups, creating castes of people based on heritage and appearance. These classifications determined who could enjoy the rights and privileges of citizenship outlined in the Constitution and who were considered slaves or some other form of second-class citizen. This system of classification persists today, with those having any discernable African ancestry classified as “Black” and those who appear wholly European in ancestry classified as “White.” In general, White people prefer not to interact with people of color, with Black people being the most highly stigmatized among all ethnoracial groups (Cox, Navarro-Rivera, & Jones, 2016). As a result of historical and current ostracization, Black people in America have developed their own culture around their African heritage, shared history, and the experience of being stigmatized in America. This group of people is referred to as African American, which is an ethnic specifier that includes most Black people in the United States but not all. It used to be that Black people in the United States were almost always descended from enslaved Africans who had survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. However, as the number of African and Caribbean Black people immigrating to the United States has increased, so have the chances that someone who identifies as Black or African American is a first- or second-generation immigrant. Such people may include those with Caribbean heritage (e.g., Jamaican American) and recent immigrants (e.g., South African comedian and commentator Trevor Noah). So not all Black people are African American (ethnic group), but all African Americans are considered Black (racial group). Pervasive negative stereotypes about Black people include notions such as being antagonistic, lazy, poor, unintelligent, criminal, and sexually predatory/deviant, which function to explain educational disparities, deny job opportunities, and deprive Black Americans of their liberty. Black women may also be stereotyped as mammies or caretakers. These stereotypes can contribute to feelings of stigma and shame in African Americans. As a result, Black American immigrants may be reluctant to identify with the African American label. However, Black people (p. 9) in America suffer from microaggressions related to these themes, no matter where they are from.

Asian Americans

Asian Americans are composed of very heterogeneous subgroups—including Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Pakistani, and Indian Americans. Taken as a whole, they are one of the fastest growing racial groups in America. Traditionally, Indians and other South Asians were categorized separately, but in the 2010 census they were grouped in one combined category along with those having East Asian heritage. In addition, many researchers have studied these populations together because of similar cultural views in comparison to those of their Western counterparts. However, there remain very distinct differences among the various subgroups that make combining them into a single group problematic. Also, there are different stereotypes ascribed to these different people groups, which will result in some different types of microaggressions being levied against them.

A century ago, East Asian Americans were unfairly perceived in negative terms, not unlike those ascribed to African Americans historically. They were considered unassimilable members of the human race, denied the right to become US citizens, and segregated to ethnic enclaves. But a change in the US immigration law in 1965 that gave preference to well-educated and highly skilled applicants gave rise to a new wave of Asian immigrants that forced a change in the stereotype. The new immigrants came to be considered “model minorities”—perceived to be studious, productive, quiet, agreeable, hard-working, enlightened, and good at math and science (Lee, Wong, & Alvarez, 2009). But even positive stereotypes can be damaging: Stereotypes of being technically competent and quiet make Asians less likely to be promoted into management and leadership positions and less likely to be identified as in need of special services or financial assistance. They also experience negative stereotypes such as having poor interpersonal skills, poor English, and being passive.

In the United States, South and Southeast Asian Americans are also likely to be stereotyped as intelligent, but not to the same extent as East Asians. They may be unfairly cast as convenience store owners, cab drivers, or motel operators who are uneducated, greedy, or living in crowded homes. Alternatively, they are stereotyped as snobbish, upwardly mobile doctors and computer engineers, who speak poor English. Sometimes they are stereotyped as terrorists as well. As a result, microaggressions may include these themes.

Hispanic Americans

The US Census Bureau defines Hispanic or Latino as “a person of Cuban, Mexican, Puerto Rican, South or Central American, or other Spanish culture or (p. 10) origin regardless of race” (Ennis, Ríos-Vargas, & Albert, 2011, p. 1) and states that Hispanics or Latinos can be of any race or ancestry. Generically, this definition of Hispanic or Latino is intended for people from Central and South America and the Caribbean, although sometimes it includes those who are Spanish or Portuguese. Latino can refer to males or females, whereas Latina refers to only females, and Latinx is now often used as a new gender-inclusive term. Because of the technical distinctions involved in defining “race” versus “ethnicity,” there is confusion among the general population about the designation of Hispanic identity, even among those who identify as Hispanic. When forced to choose a racial category that does not include Hispanic, 47% of Hispanic Americans identify as White, whereas over 40% do not identify with any race (Ríos, Romero, & Ramírez, 2014). So perhaps the Census Bureau might want to reconsider its categories for “race” in the future. Pathological stereotypes about Hispanics include being aggressive, lazy, criminal, intellectually inferior, traditional, foreign born, and undocumented. Also, it should not be assumed that all Hispanic Americans speak Spanish; although most do, approximately one-third do not. Hispanic Americans who do not speak Spanish are often subject to disparaging remarks by other Hispanics for losing touch with their culture, leading to feelings of guilt, shame, and defensiveness. Therefore, assuming a Hispanic person speaks Spanish when they do not can be particularly hurtful to targets.

Native Americans

Native Americans, also known as American Indians or Indigenous Americans, are the original people of the United States. Native Americans were very much impacted by European colonization of the Americas, which began in 1492, and their population declined precipitously due to introduction of deadly diseases, warfare, and slavery. After the founding of the United States, many Native American groups were subjected to genocide, relocation, and one-sided treaties, and they continue to suffer from discriminatory government policies. Many Native Americans were forced to assimilate into White culture through adopting English, converting to Christianity, and attending special boarding schools away from their families. Those who could pass for White had the advantage of White privilege, and today, after generations of racial whitening, many Native Americans are visually indistinguishable from White Americans. There are currently more than 5 million Native Americans in the United States and more than 500 federally recognized tribes, with approximately half associated with Indian reservations. Approximately 22% of the country’s 5.2 million Native Americans live on tribal lands, often under poor living conditions. Native American identity has historically been based on culture and not just biology. Stereotypes about Native Americans include being noble savages, bloodthirsty savages, teary-eyed environmentalists, alcoholics, nonexistent people, and having an oversimplified homogeneous (pan-Indian) culture. Perhaps no other group is as vulnerable to unchecked racism because it remains socially acceptable to use derogatory (p. 11) epitaphs and stereotypical depictions of Native Americans as sports team names and mascots.

Indigenous Canadians, also known as Aboriginal Canadians, are the original inhabitants within the boundaries of present-day Canada. They comprise the First Nations, Inuit, and Métis, although Indian is a term still commonly used for legal purposes in Canada for First Nations people. Many bands are the same as American Indian tribes but happen to live north of the US border, whereas others are indigenous to arctic regions. Currently, there are 1.6 million Indigenous Canadians, and 56% live in urban areas. For First Nations peoples, rules regarding who has “Indian status” are complicated, dictated by federal law, and, until recently, subject to revocation. Historically, any First Nation person who obtained a university degree, became a professional, served in the armed forces, or any First Nation woman who married a non-status man would lose their Indian status and become an “enfranchised” full Canadian citizen. When this occurred, they lost ties to their ancestry and communities and were unable to pass Indian status and rights to their children. The Métis and Inuit do not have federally recognized Indian status. Inuit, who are arctic bands, are sometimes referred to as “Eskimos,” which has pejorative connotations in Canada.

The media tends to portray Indigenous Canadians as what has been described as angry warriors, pathetic victims, or noble environmentalists (Harding, 2005). They are often stereotyped as alcoholics and savages unfit to raise children, which may be a reason for the widespread problem of coerced sterilization for Indigenous women and increased intrusions of child protective services into the lives of Indigenous families. As late as 1996, Indigenous children were required to attend boarding schools, which were frequently abusive, to erase their culture in an attempt at forced assimilation. Microaggressions are a pervasive problem reported by Indigenous Canadians today; these include ostracization and “othering” (Canel-Çınarbaş & Yohani, 2018; Clark, Kleiman, Spanierman, Isaac, & Poolokasingham, 2014). Othering means any action by which a person or group becomes mentally classified as “not one of us.” Indigenous Canadian experiences with racial microaggressions include expectations of primitiveness, exoticization, jealous accusations, and elimination or misrepresentation of their contributions from history, which results in living with daily cultural and social isolation (Clark et al., 2014).

Middle East and North African Americans

In 2014, the Census Bureau announced that it would consider a new category for populations from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The population of Middle Eastern Americans is at least 10 million, which includes 3.7 million Arab Americans and 6.5 million Jewish Americans. Arab Americans experience a great deal of prejudice in the United States, but there is little research on this topic because MENA Americans were previously classified as White on the census, which has limited study of this problem (Awad, 2010). Among Arab Americans, the (p. 12) majority are Lebanese in heritage, but this also includes many other groups as well, such as Egyptian and Syrian Americans. Arab Americans are a group that is largely misunderstood and much maligned in the media. Arab women may be stereotyped as silent, burka-clad, and submissive or as exotic belly-dancing harem girls. They may also be stereotyped as terrorists, fanatical Islamists, or wealthy billionaires. Arab Americans are often assumed to be Muslims, although only approximately one-fourth of Arab Americans are Muslim, with more than half identifying as Christian and the remainder belonging to another religion or no religion. They may feel embarrassed about their ancestors and homeland due to negative stereotypes (Suleiman, 1988), and many have experienced discrimination and acts of outright racism.

Biracial and Multiracial Americans

As US society has become increasingly diverse, the number of people who identify as biracial and multiracial has increased, and indeed this appears to the fastest growing ethnoracial grouping with more than 9 million individuals, according to the US census (Parker, Horowitz, Morin, & Lopez, 2015). Most Americans of mixed race ancestry (61%) self-identify with just one group culturally and socially, although they are generally proud of their mixed race ancestry. The largest of these subgroups is White in combination with some other race (Black, Asian, Native American, or other). Multiracial Americans may experience microaggressions from multiple sources, including questions from strangers about their heritage, microaggressive statements from their own family members, and pressure from friends who question their allegiance to one group or another (Nadal, Sriken, Davidoff, Wong, & McLean, 2013). White–Black biracial adults are much more likely than adults with a biracial White and other backgrounds to say they have been treated badly by a family member (Parker et al., 2015). Johnston and Nadal (2010) proposed a taxonomy of microaggressions experienced by multiracial individuals that includes five categories: exclusion or isolation, exoticization or objectification, assumption of monoracial or mistaken identity, denial of multiracial reality, and pathologizing of identity and experiences. Multiracial individuals report experiencing microaggressions just as frequently as monoracial people of color, and these microaggressions appear to be equally distressing (Nadal et al., 2013; Williams, Printz, & DeLapp, 2018).

Types and Classifications of Microaggressions

In proposing categorizations of microaggressions, Sue et al. (2007) described three classes: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. The main difference between these is that microassaults are considered intentional behaviors, whereas microinsults and microinvalidations are not consciously intended to be harmful. Regarding latter two, microinsults denigrate the target for simply being (p. 13) a person of color, and microinvalidations are hurtful because they invalidate the thoughts, feelings, or experiences of the target as a person of color.

It has been argued that microassaults do not capture the true definition of microaggressions because they are intentionally meant to cause harm, whereas the others are not (Lilienfeld, 2017; Wong, Derthick, David, Saw, & Okazaki, 2014). However, all microaggressions are meant to cause harm, either by the individual or by society at large, and this is what makes them all forms of aggression. A microaggression can be unintentional at the individual level but still advance the larger intentions of dominant culture and thus be intended by the group even though not by the individual. It generally cannot be known how much of a given microaggression was intentional (the offender wanted to harm the target purely because he or she was a person of color) versus quasi-intentional (the offender came up with a reason other than race to aggress, although it was actually motivated by racial hostility) versus “good intentions” (the offender meant to be helpful but was actually being patronizing). Inferences about harmful intent are not particularly useful because even people who are overtly racist in their behaviors may claim to have good intentions. In all cases, whether intentional, quasi-intentional, or unintended by the individual, the microaggression is racially offensive, conveniently explained away as valid, and frustrating to victims. Therefore, microaggressions cannot be defined purely in terms of conscious intentionality.

However, research on the types of behaviors and statements deemed personally likely by potential offenders has borne out that microassaults do appear to represent a discrete category of microaggressions, characterized by verbal aggression and hostility. Examples of microassaults include statements such as “Black people should work harder to fit in to our society” and “A lot of minorities are too sensitive” or using the N-word in a song over the objections of others (Parigoris et al., 2018).

Microaggressive Behaviors

Sue et al. (2007) proposed nine categories of racial microaggressive situations, described as (a) assumptions that a person of color is not a true American, (b) assumptions of lesser intelligence, (c) statements that convey color-blindness or denial of the importance of race, (d) assumptions of criminality or dangerousness, (e) denial of individual racism, (f) promotion of the myth of meritocracy, (g) assumptions that one’s cultural background and communication styles are pathological, (h) being treated as a second-class citizen, and (i) having to endure environmental messages of being unwelcome or devalued. Since that time, numerous researchers have examined these categorizations, finding generally similar groupings based on qualitative and factor analytic studies.

Our own lab’s examination of our data combined with a review of the current literature arrived at 16 final groupings. Focus group participants were recruited from one private and two public predominately White institutions of higher (p. 14) learning located in Kentucky and Seattle, Washington. Study eligibility criteria were self-identification as Black, African American, biracial (with Black), or Continental African. Next, I describe each of the categories and provide a sample statement from focus group participants to help readers understand the potential impact of these experiences on people of color.

  1. 1. Not a True Citizen: First described by Sue et al. (2007) as “alien in own land,” this form of microaggression reinforces notions that people of color are not legitimate citizens nor a meaningful part of the larger society. It is typically leveled against those who appear Asian or Hispanic, those who may speak with an accent, or people who have a non-Anglo name; however, any person of color may be a target for this microaggression. Microaggressive statements in this category may include “Where are you from?” or “Where is your family from?” Although showing interest in a person’s background is not necessarily a microaggression, such questions are often asked in order to help the offender determine the race of the target. This type of microaggression can serve as a form of “othering”—a means of reinforcing notions that non-Whites are not real Americans and not a meaningful part of the social tapestry. It communicates lack of belonging and exclusion. Repeatedly making a person feel alienated can be psychologically damaging.

    My head is shaved, actually. I hear a lot of things. It’s really annoying . . . “Oh, do you shave your head for a religious thing? Or like an African ritual or something? . . . Oh, where are you from? Are you from, like, Africa?” —Female respondent

  2. 2. Racial Categorization and Sameness: This describes the situation in which individuals are compelled to disclose their racial group to others, often leading to the expression of pathological stereotypes based on that identity (see also the next category). Microaggressions of forced racial categorization may be experienced by people of color as being squeezed into a one-size-fits-all box that overlooks complexity of a person’s identity. Individuals who do not have stereotypical features connected to a major racial group are often targeted for this sort of microaggression. Although offenders may defend this behavior as “simple curiosity,” it is generally done for the purpose of establishing the unspoken social hierarchy. People who have multiple ethnic identities—that is, those who consider themselves mixed or biracial—are frequently targets, and such individuals may feel pressure to choose one group over another (Williams, Printz, et al., 2018).

    Sometimes my friends are like, “You’re so White,” or something like that. And I mean, I’m half-White. But I’m just like annoyed with it. I know I’m (p. 15) mixed, I understand that I am Black and White. I don’t have to act a certain way. —Female respondent

    This category also includes the assumption that all people from a particular group are all alike in various ways. Targets may find such comments to be frustrating or annoying because of the underlying assumptions that everyone from a specific ethnic group can relate to the same experiences (Nadal, Vigilia Escobar, Prado, David, & Haynes, 2012). This results in the harmful ascription of stereotypes that may disconnect an individual from their actual heritage or lived experience, incorrectly ascribe attributes to one’s heritage or experience, or force unwanted attributes or group responsibility to an individual. Intersectionality due to characteristics such as gender, sexual identity, or religion may also be overlooked.

  3. 3. Assumptions About Intelligence, Competence, or Status: Similar to the category termed “ascription of intelligence” by Sue et al. (2007), this is when a person indicates that they have made an assumption about another’s intelligence, competence, knowledge, or social status based on racial stereotypes. It can include statements that may indicate surprise about a person’s achievements—for example, saying to a Hispanic person, “I would have never guessed you were a valedictorian”—or it could include just a look of disbelief on one’s face at hearing some information that is counter stereotypical about that person’s aptitude based on their group membership. Many African Americans in our focus groups reported they encountered disbelief when they demonstrated academic excellence or expressed professional career ambitions. However, reverse assumptions are often made about people of Asian heritage, with others assuming they are smart, studious, and good at math and science (Poolokasingham et al., 2014).

    We were deciding where we wanted to go to college, and [the school counselors] were supposed to help us. I went in there, and I was like, “Oh, here are the places I want to apply to and I’m interested in.” And she’s like, “I think you should look at community colleges.” I’m like, “What are you talking about?” I had a 3.7 GPA—What do you mean I should look at community colleges?! I was like, “Well, I’m not really interested in community college, this is my list I’ve already decided.” She was like, “No, let’s look at this,” and it was some random college I had never heard of like in the middle of nowhere. I got really upset. I went home, I cried. —Female respondent

  4. 4. False Color-Blindness/Invalidating Racial or Ethnic Identity: As described by Sue et al. (2007), “color-blindness” is the idea that an individual’s racial or ethnic identity should not be recognized or acknowledged. When people say this, they often mean that they are not racially biased, but it is often said as a way to avoid discussing race because racial (p. 16) discussions feel uncomfortable to the offender. This sort of statement can function to silence targets when they want to talk about race, making them feel invalidated. Furthermore, it can seem disingenuous to targets because they know their race is apparent despite what others may say. People of color typically welcome the idea that they could be treated equally by others rather than being racialized, but false color-blindness communicates just the opposite. For people of color especially, race, ethnicity, and culture are important parts of one’s identity, and these should be considered in positive terms rather than something that needs to be avoided. Membership in various groups is critical to defining identity, and so it deserves to be recognized, even if it may be a source of pain or challenge.

    I told my roommate that I was going to a Black Lives Matter event, and he said, “No bro, it’s all lives matter.” And I was like, “Ah, come on man. Where are all of the All Lives Matter events? Who is doing the All Lives Matter protests?” —Male respondent

  5. 5. Criminality or Dangerousness: This is based in stereotypes that people of color are dangerous and likely to commit crimes or cause bodily harm to others (Sue et al., 2007). It could also include concerns about being treated badly by people of color (i.e., verbal aggressions), leading to emotional harm. This category is very strongly represented in the literature, especially as it applies to Black, Hispanic, and Native Americans. People with darker skin of any race and males are more likely to be feared and stereotyped in this way, which sometimes involves profiling and harassment by law enforcement (Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2007). For example, when people of color are seen in predominately White spaces, police may be called to investigate a person who “doesn’t seem to belong” in a given area (e.g., a college campus, affluent neighborhood, or coffee shop), and law enforcement disproportionally stop, frisk, pull over, question, and search people of color with alarming regularity. Examples of microaggressions in this category include people locking their doors when a dark-skinned person walks by or a person not entering an elevator when a Black male is inside.

    I was coming down the stairs, and this really tall White guy was going up [the stairs] and I was in his way. He flinched! I’m 5’3”, I’m not going to injure you. —Female respondent

  6. 6. Denial of Individual Racism: This is when a person attempts to make a case that they are not biased. It can take the form of attacking the other person (e.g., “You just see racism everywhere!”), or it may be more defensive (e.g., “I am not a racist!”). It may include talking about anti-racist things the offender has done, describing friends of color, or (p. 17) describing their own stigmatized identities. Although described at length by Sue et al. (2007), very little research has been done on these types of microaggressions. Minikel-Lacocque (2013) describes this as “the contested microaggression.” When employed as a response to criticism, it can be invalidating to people of color who are trying to draw attention to a problematic behavior. This is typically done to deflect perceived scrutiny and shut down conversations about where the offender may have committed an act of racism (Sue et al., 2007). Sometimes as a way to ward off criticism or manage White guilt, individuals may give to charities that help African children, vote for people of color, or even adopt internationally. However, these behaviors impose a danger of acting out a White savior complex, which only reinforces the harmful stereotype that people of color need Whites to save them.

    When I bring it up to them, about something, they kinda say, “Well, it’s not anything offensive.” Well some of them think of themselves as being Black, like some girls I know really have this identity crisis, where they just think they can relate so much to our culture that they are like. . . . They want to be Black, like they date the Black boys and stuff like that, so they feel like the comments they make don’t matter, because they feel like they already are within our culture. But they don’t understand like, if you understood what it meant to be us, you wouldn’t make comments like that towards us. —Female respondent

  7. 7. Myth of Meritocracy/Race Is Irrelevant for Success: This is when a person makes statements about success being rooted in personal efforts, which typically include denial of White privilege and placing blame on struggling people of color for the negative impact of racism. This includes denying the existence of ongoing systemic racism or harmful discriminatory behavior, specifically in regard to personal achievement or barriers to achievement. Such individuals embrace the myth of meritocracy and the notion that determinants of success are rooted in personal efforts alone. It refutes that White privilege is an unearned benefit resulting in tangible differences in outcomes at a personal or societal level (Sue et al., 2007). These sorts of statements are extremely invalidating to people of color who have struggled to succeed but have been hindered by individual or structural racism.

    I’ve had a mixed girlfriend of mine sit there and say . . . “Black people are just blaming the system, and they just need to take advantage of, you know, the opportunities they have.” And it’s like, well really, how many opportunities do we have? Can you sit up here and put on a list of how many opportunities we as African Americans have compared to all the opportunities that Whites have, or you know, Asian Americans or Mexican Americans? Because if you sat up there and compared the list, our list is going to be pretty short. (p. 18) You know, can you explain to me why it is that we have [so many] African American men in prisons, a lot of African American women in prisons who still haven’t gone through trial, and it’s two years later that they’ve been sitting in jail. I know friends who have seen their friends sitting in jail awaiting trial for two years. —Female respondent

  8. 8. Reverse Racism Hostility: This microaggression includes expressions of jealousy or hostility surrounding the notion that people of color get unfair advantages and benefits due to their race, often coupled with the assertion that Whites are being treated unjustly and are suffering as a result. Often embedded in this sentiment is the idea that people of color are undeserving of success. This category is represented by Smith et al.’s (2007) description of White resentment and hostility about affirmative action. It has been elucidated in a measure of White bias—for example, “Latinos receive lots of unearned benefits just for being minorities” (Mekawi & Todd, 2018). This type of microaggression also occurs cross-culturally, with Clark et al. (2014) describing the theme of withstanding jealous accusations in relation to indigenous people in Canada.

    Then he said that Black on White crime is also very prevalent and that we should stop killing them because of their race, and that I have Black privilege. At that point . . . I didn’t want to know what he meant by that. If there is Black privilege, I haven’t seen it. I would like some. —Male respondent

  9. 9. Pathologizing Minority Culture or Appearance: This is when people criticize others based on real or perceived cultural differences in appearance, traditions, behaviors, or preferences (Sue et al., 2007). This may occur when others make remarks about cultural practices or traditions as if they are odd, abnormal, or irregular. Nadal et al. (2012) describe a situation in which a woman was asked to speak her native Filipino language and then was told it “sounded like a bunch of drunk chicken.” It can also be present in the environment, such as pictures for charities that only show impoverished children of color and no White children, implying that only children of color are poor. Pathologizing comments may take the form of a backhanded compliment, such as when a person says, “You know, you’re not that Black. You seem pretty White to me.” Embedded in this sentiment is the idea that Whiteness is preferred, and consequently there is something negative or shameful about a non-White identity. Hence, these microaggressions may include statements that advance pronouncements of apparent Whiteness and White culture as superior.

    I went to a predominantly White school and lived in a predominantly White town in western Kentucky and one of my really close friends told me, “You would be the perfect girlfriend if you were White.” —Female respondent

    (p. 19)

  10. 10. Second-Class Citizen/Ignored: This microaggression captures situations in which people of color are treated with less respect, consideration, or care than is normally expected or customary. This category is meant to include both the experience of being treated as a “second-class citizen” (e.g., the preferential treatment of White individuals; Sue et al., 2007) and the experience of being ignored, unseen, or invisible. Much has been written about this type of microaggression because it seems to be common across racial groups. Examples include people refusing to learn a non-Anglo-sounding name, getting worse service at dining establishments, being passed over for promotions at work, having one’s comments ignored at meetings, and having one’s contributions not considered as valuable as those of a White person. For example, despite being one of the most visible women in the world, Michelle Obama is rarely recognized when not in the limelight, such as when grocery shopping or jogging. She said, “Oftentimes I think African-American women are invisible . . . We are discounted and we are not relevant to some people’s frame of reference” (Ryan, 2016).

    With all the shootings that have been happening in the Black community, I kind of felt a certain way when I didn’t hear anything from my school that there was some kind of support for us—to just acknowledge that there are people that are here that can be affected, but with the Orlando shootings there was a different response. There were emails, there were ceremonies,. . . . The first thing I said to myself was like, “They’re not allowed to probably bring politics and other things into schools. That’s why they didn’t send an email.” But then there was such an overwhelmingly, overwhelming response to the Orlando shootings, I was like, “That’s not the case.” —Female respondent

  11. 11. Tokenism: This is when a person of color is included simply to promote the illusion of inclusivity and not for the qualities or talents of the individual. An example is hiring one person of color in an academic department so that others do not think the rest of the faculty are racists. Another example is the placement of one person of color on a committee to make it appear as if diverse concerns are being addressed. In both cases, the unique perspectives and knowledge of the tokenized person are not valued—only what they may represent to others. Niemann (1999) provides the following example from a graduate student of color:

    I had not yet even been hired, and already I was stigmatized and tokenized by the perception that the department was forced to hire me. The reality was that the department faculty did not take the time and effort to widely solicit ocher candidates for the position. I was the one paying the price for their reliance on convenience . . . the department faculty felt a sense of benevolence for having offered me the tenure track position. . . They were (p. 20) incredulous that I would consider postponing working with them to work with the ethnic studies program for one year. —Female respondent

    In a more blatant example, one is reminded of an embarrassing attempt by the University of Wisconsin–Madison to promote the appearance of diversity by using an altered photograph to adorn the front of its 2001–2002 undergraduate application booklet. The picture was of a cheering crowd at a university football game, and the image of a Black student had been added to the sea of White faces. When the alteration was discovered, the university had to reprint more than 100,000 application booklets. Ironically, the photoshopped individual was a prominent African American student activist who had never attended a University of Wisconsin football game and was deeply involved in efforts to promote campus diversity (Durhams, 2013).

  12. 12. Attempting to Connect Using Stereotypes: This occurs when a person tries to communicate or connect with another person through use of stereotyped ethnic speech or behavior, believing that it will help them be accepted or understood (Harwood, Huntt, Mendenhall, & Lewis, 2012). Endo (2015) describes situations in which Asian Americans were asked to teach their friends Vietnamese words or asked what to order in a Korean restaurant. This category can also include racist jokes and epitaphs used as terms of endearment for people of color. These types of microaggressions may be more frequently committed by people who think they are accepted by members of a non-White ethnic group and therefore have license to take liberties that would be clearly offensive when done by “outsiders.” For example, many Black students have complained that their White friends think it is ok to use the N-word.

    He just came up to me, and he was like so “Wassup?” And he’s like talking with his hands and doing all these [gestures]. Just like “wassup,” like trying to talk to me but using like things that he thinks like—I guess to connect with me . . . I don’t know what it was, but it was just weird and made me feel uncomfortable. Um, so I just asked him. I was like, “What, like, what are you trying to say? What are you doing?” And basically I just had to end the conversation. . . . Why try to use like this hip cool language to try to connect when we could have had like a conversation just as well? —Female respondent

  13. 13. Exoticization and Eroticization: This is when a person of color is treated according to sexualized stereotypes or attention to differences that are characterized as exotic in some way. These types of microaggressions were not described in Sue et al.’s (2007) original taxonomy but are represented in most of the validated measures of microaggressions and many qualitative studies (e.g., Nadal, 2011; Torres-Harding, Andrade, & Romero Diaz, 2012). For example, women of color are often fetishized and viewed as sexual objects or part of an exotic fantasy. Asian men (p. 21) are frequently demasculinized, whereas Black men are viewed as hypersexual. Black women often share how they are exoticized when they wear their hair in curly styles, and they describe how many White women violate their personal space by touching it, as shown in Figure 1.1.

    I’ve actually been to a few frat parties, and I stopped going because every time I go they’ll be like, “Hey, the Black girl’s here!” They’ll be like, “Hey, can you twerk on me or something?” And I always get that, and I’m just like, ugh. And it’s really sad, because like White women will come up to me and ask, “Can you teach me how to twerk?” —Female respondent

  14. 14. Avoidance and Distancing: This is when people of color are avoided or measures are taken to prevent physical contact or close proximity—for example, when a cashier at a store puts change for people of color on the counter instead of in their hands. People of color have often described situations in which other people will not sit next to them on public transportation or in class. This includes the exclusion of members of targeted groups through physical distancing that prevents them from participating in shared activities, such as parties or other social events (Poolokasingham et al., 2014). It also applies to situations (p. 22) in class in which groups are picked and the person(s) of color is selected last, which can be a lasting source of low self-esteem. It can even include avoiding close or emotionally intimate relationships with people of color or difficult discussions about race.

    We were alternating group leaders to lead discussions about a paper we read for the week. And it was kind of like this random thing, so I was excited when it was my turn to be the group leader because I was interested in the subject. I had spent hours thinking of, you know, thoughtful questions to talk about, and then nobody showed up to my group. . . . There was like five different group leaders, and so everyone kind of dispersed to the other four groups and no one showed up to my group, and I was just in tears because this has happened my whole life. Like no one has ever wanted to hear what I had to say. —Female respondent

  15. 15. Environmental Exclusion: As noted by Sue et al. (2007), someone’s racial identity can be unintentionally minimized or made insignificant through the omission of decorations, depictions, or literature that represent their racial group. For example, it can describe situations in which representations of people of color are not present in the classroom or workplace and people color are not depicted as leaders or innovators. Common examples include buildings and classrooms named after White men only, an absence of people of color from textbooks, and art that only depicts White people. Native Americans report that they are often omitted and ignored because there is a general misperception that they no longer exist. Examples in mental health include trainings that only focus on issues common to White families or the experiences of White therapists, descriptions of mental health disorders with symptoms most common to White people, or generalizing the results of research studies as universally applicable even though the studies did not include people of color.

    [In medical school] we’re learning about what happens to White people when they get sick for instance. So, a White person is pale when they get anemia. Well, how do you tell if a Black person is anemic? I mean there is a way to tell, but they don’t ever talk about that. So I think that it is mostly geared towards White people, treating White people and not people of color. —Female respondent

  16. 16. Environmental Attacks: This category is intended to describe situations in which decorations or depictions pose a known affront or insult to a person’s cultural group, history, or heritage (e.g., buildings named after slave owners, Confederate monuments, and Columbus Day). This category is intended to capture particularly hurtful and often frightening depictions (Desai & Abeita, 2017; Murty & Vyas, 2017) that (p. 23) have been an ongoing source of consternation, public attention, and institutional resistance (Crowe, 2018). For example, many Black people report feeling afraid and uncomfortable when others display Confederate flags, although people doing so deny they are a symbol of racism and note they are simply honoring their heritage. Native Americans are often depicted in hurtful and degrading ways as sports mascots. Stereotypical caricatures of people of color have been used to advertise household products and eating establishments. Such denigrating depictions appear even in classic Disney films, including Peter Pan (e.g., Indian Chief), Dumbo (e.g., Jim Crow), and Moana (e.g., demi-god Maui). These or other potentially offensive characters may be used in the form of dolls, toys, or storybooks that therapists use with children and families.

    If you were to see a swastika or any other symbol of somebody who went through a similar situation they would immediately take it down, but anything that has to do with pertaining to the Black struggle, what we went through, they don’t really seem to acknowledge it. Just like they arrested that lady, I think it was in South Carolina, when she went up and took that [Confederate] flag down and she got arrested for it. That really makes me mad. —Female respondent

Figure 1.1 Many Black women are made to feel uncomfortable when others try to touch their hair.

Figure 1.1 Many Black women are made to feel uncomfortable when others try to touch their hair.

Are Microaggressions Always Offensive?

Because microaggressions are common, many people are so used to them that they do not regard them as offensive or even notice them. In fact, there has been some question as to whether or not most people of color find microaggressions objectionable at all (Lilienfeld, 2017). To answer this question, we conducted our own study of microaggressions. My research team developed several racially charged scenarios along with a series of microaggressive behaviors that people might commit in these situations. The scenarios were created based on the reports of the Black students who participated in focus groups about their experiences on various campuses at different predominately White institutions. Participants had been provided with the definition of microaggressions from Sue et al. (2007) and asked to discuss incidents in their lives consistent with that definition, but they were not recruited on the basis of prior knowledge of the microaggression construct.

Their experiences spanned a range of statements, actions, omissions, and environmental assaults, and these were not unlike experiences reported by students of color who participated in similar focus groups at other institutions (Harwood et al., 2012). This aided us in the development of eight scenarios involving cross-racial individual or group interactions. For example, Scenario 1 was the following:

A friend of yours has wanted you to meet a friend, saying they think you will like the person. You meet this person one-on-one. He turns out to be a tall, (p. 24) fit-looking Black man who says he is a law student. He seems very smart and he has a very sophisticated vocabulary. You like his personality.

Participants were also provided with a picture of the purported individual to aid in visualizing the encounter.

The eight scenarios included (a) having a conversation with a Black law student at a get-together, (b) meeting a young Black female with African-style dress and braided hair, (c) a discussion about White privilege at a diversity training, (d) a study session talking about racial current events and political issues, (e) a lost Black man asking for directions in the respondent’s neighborhood, (f) doing karaoke with friends and a song with the N-word comes up, (g) watching the news about police brutality with diverse friends at a sports bar, and (h) talking to a racially ambiguous lab mate about a science project.

After each scenario, White participants were provided a series of potential actions or statements one might make in that situation, including those that would be considered microaggressive (e.g., “Did you get into school through a minority scholarship?”) and not microaggressive (e.g., invite the Black student to a future social engagement such as a lecture, group lunch, or party). Respondents were asked to report how likely they would be to think or say each response (or something similar) on a 5-point scale. To explore the degree to which the items would be experienced as microaggressive, Black students were given the same scenarios and items and asked to rate how racist they would experience each item on a similar scale.

Out of 51 items that we predicted Black people would deem microaggressions, 96% were in fact considered potentially or definitely racially objectionable by 30% or more of the Black students. Although not all the Black participants found all the items to be racist, a behavior does not have to be offensive to everyone or even most people in order to be problematic. For the purposes of that study, we considered any comment or behavior that was objectionable by 30% or more of Black participants to be problematic and best avoided for the sake of maintaining a harmonious, functional environment. (This is, of course, assuming there is no important need to commit the offensive behavior.) We found that most White students found the microaggressions objectionable as well. In a related study, we found a very strong correlation between the Black student scores on what they considered racist and whether or not the White students would say or do the microaggression (r = .93, p < .001), with White students denying they would commit most microaggressions (Michaels, Gallagher, Crawford, Kanter, & Williams, 2018). That tells us there is some degree of agreement between Black and White students as to what microaggressions are. This also shows us that it is not particularly difficult to identify microaggressions by consensus, and many or most people of color (and White people) do interpret them negatively.

Listed in Table 1.1 are the microaggressions included in our shortened, 20-item measure of microaggression propensity, the Cultural Cognitions and Actions Scale (CCAS). The findings are based on nationwide survey data collected from a large number of Black (N = 226) and White (N = 312) adults throughout the United (p. 25) States using Amazon Mechanical Turk (Williams, Muir, Ching, & George, 2019). Included are the percentage of Black participants finding the microaggressive statement objectionable in the context of the scenarios listed (i.e., rated as “a little racist” or “very racist”) and the percentage of White participants who reported that they were “unlikely” or “very unlikely” to say or do each item. It is clear that (p. 26) despite some variability, there is much agreement on the unacceptability of most items (r = .43).

Table 1.1 Opinions of Microaggressions by Race


Microaggressive Item

Blacks Rating as Racist (%)

Whites Unlikely to Say/Do (%)

1. Meeting a Black female with African-style dress and braided hair

“I’ve always wanted to go to Africa.”



“Why do Black women wear their hair in these sorts of styles?



“Can I touch your hair?”



2. Discussion about White privilege at diversity training

“Everyone suffers. Not just Black people.”



“I am not a racist.”



“A lot of minorities are too sensitive.”



3. Study session talking about various current events and political issues

“All lives matter, not just Black lives.”



“I don’t think of Black people as Black.”



“Stay quiet so you don’t offend anyone.”



“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”



“Black people should work harder to fit in to our society.”



4. A lost Black man asking for directions in neighborhood

Check that your wallet/purse is secure.



Make sure not to make eye contact and just keep walking.



Cross the street to avoid him.



5. Doing karaoke with friends and song with N-word comes up

Say the N-word loudly every time you hear it.



Leave the room to avoid an uncomfortable situation.



6. Watching news about police brutality with diverse friends at sports bar

“I would be pretty scared—that guy looks like a thug.”



“The real problem is a lack of good role models in the Black community.”



7. Talking to racially ambiguous lab mate about science project

“Where are your parents from?”



“I’m not racist, but I really want to know what race you are.”



Why Are Microaggressions Offensive?

In our culture, “Where are you from?” is generally considered a normal and reasonable get-to-know-you question when interacting with new people. However, such a question may also be a microaggression depending on the context. To determine if the question is actually a microaggression, we can examine it to find out if it reinforces pathological stereotypes or communicates exclusion. Often, people of color are asked questions about their origins because the offender wants to know what “category” to place the target in to ascertain where that person stands on the socioracial hierarchy, and so the question may not really be about where the person is from at all. Because our culture places so much importance on race, people are very uncomfortable not knowing how to classify others, and so rather than asking what race they are (the question they really want answered), they ask it in coded language: “Where are you from?” For example, I am often asked this question in various ways, and when I answer “California,” the other person is often not satisfied. If I want to avoid a long game of 20 questions, I might just tell the other person that I am African American to bring the conversation to a quicker end. Often, this reply is met with astonishment, if I do not look like what the other person thinks an African American should look like or the person is not used to meeting a Black academic. Remember, Black people are stereotyped as unintelligent, and being a professor runs counter to this expectation. If I do not volunteer my race right away, offenders will often keep asking questions to figure out how to classify me. And sometimes, even when I assert that I am Black, they may not believe it. Often, people stop asking me questions only after I explain that I was born in the United States, my parents both are African American, they were born and raised in two southern US states, and both of them had Black parents. Occasionally, I have been compelled to show pictures of my parents as proof. In these cases, rarely do offenders want to have a discussion about my heritage or want to learn about my cultural experiences growing up. They just want to know what “box” I belong in so they can attach their stereotypes to me. It is not until they are convinced I am truly Black that they stop asking questions. That is what makes this a microaggression and probably why so many people of color find this sort of questioning unsettling. But a genuine interest in my culture would not be a microaggression—it would actually be quite welcome.

As another example, when someone asks an Asian American where they are from, it is often a microaggression because the assumption is that the person is foreign-born. Many Asian Americans were born in the United States and have lived here for generations. It is tiresome to be constantly asked, “Where are you from?” and have the answer “Cincinnati” be unsatisfying to offenders. We can, however, imagine a situation in which it might not be a microaggression. For example, if someone is asking an Asian American woman where she is from because (p. 27) that person has been to Korea, wants to discuss Korean culture with her, and has a non-racist reason to believe she is familiar with Korean culture (because she has a Korean name, Korean art in her home, cooks Korean food, etc.), then that might not be a microaggression. But if the person is asking based on the simple fact that the woman has Asian physical features and he wants to know how to categorize her to attach his stereotypes to her, then it would be a microaggression. As previously noted, microaggressions are context dependent, and as such the same statement may or may not be microaggressive depending on the circumstances. However, the question may still be problematic, even if there is a non-racist reason for asking. A better query might be, “I am very interested in Korean culture, and I’m wondering if you are of Korean heritage.” In this case, the person asking recognizes that simply asking, “Where are you from?” may not address what he really wants to know and he is sensitive enough to recognize that wording could be experienced as a microaggression, and so he provides a reason in advance for asking the question in the first place.

Figure 1.2 illustrates a similar example, with two couples at a get-together over dinner. Simply asking one of the guests, “Where are you from?” might not be a microaggression if it is for the sake of better understanding the other person. But when the person then comments on the guest’s accent, it becomes evident that (p. 28) there was more behind the question, causing some concern and distress in the target, who fears that her answer will result in prejudice. When thinking about the harms caused by these types of microaggressions, consider there are many reasons this line of questioning is problematic:

  1. 1. White people who speak American English are almost never asked what country they are from, so the target may feel singled out for being non-White.

  2. 2. Implicit in the question is the assumption that the target may not be a true American, contributing to feelings of alienation and not belonging.

  3. 3. Assuming one is from abroad is wrong much of the time, and it feels awkward to have to keep correcting people. For example, more than 30% of Asian Americans were born in the United States.

  4. 4. If the target person says they are from someplace in the United States, the person asking the question probes for more information and this can be uncomfortable.

  5. 5. The assertion of “curiosity” is often untrue because often the person asking only wants the information in order to apply their stereotypes to the individual.

  6. 6. If the person is not a native English speaker, they may feel self-conscious or embarrassed about their accent.

  7. 7. If the person has a stigmatized heritage (e.g., they are Puerto Rican instead of Portuguese), the person asking may be disappointed with the answer, which is often apparent to the target.

Figure 1.2 Questions about where people are from can be a microaggression when some ethnic origins are devalued in comparison to others.

Figure 1.2 Questions about where people are from can be a microaggression when some ethnic origins are devalued in comparison to others.

Because just asking where someone is from may be a microaggression, one may wonder how a conscientious therapist can glean this information from new clients. It may be tempting to not ask at all. Although forcing someone to identify their race can be a microaggression, this is not the same as a situation in which someone is filling out a form and race is asked in order to better serve all clients, so you can keep this question on your intake forms. (Although it can be a microaggression if people are forced to choose a category that does not fit them.) But because this is so similar to a microaggression, anyone collecting racial and ethnic information should explain why they need it. In Chapter 5, there is more discussion on why therapists should collect this information and how to do it in a sensitive and non-microaggressive manner.

Microaggressions in the Media

Microaggressions bombard us all through many avenues, including the media. Interestingly, there is a legacy of racism in soap ads, which has not completely ended. Historically, some brands of soap humorously advanced their benefits by featuring Black children turned White with the use of the advertised product. A recent Dove body wash advertisement followed suit by featuring a Black woman (p. 29) who removes her brown shirt and, as if by magic, underneath is a White woman in a white shirt. The ad was considered racist because it showed a Black woman transforming into a White woman, suggesting that dark skin is dirty and light skin is clean. This comes after an earlier, similarly criticized Dove ad that showed two women of color and a White woman standing in front of “before” and “after” signs. The Black woman was standing in front of an enlarged image of scratchy damaged skin, the White woman was standing in front of smooth healthy skin, and a Latina woman was standing in between.

The H&M fashion chain had to apologize after its website featured a Black child wearing a green hoodie emblazoned with the words “Coolest monkey in the jungle.” In the same series of advertisements, a White child wore a hoodie that read “Survival expert.” Of course, the chain apologized and insisted it meant no harm, but many were disgusted and outraged by the ad. If we examine this using our criteria for microaggressions, we can see the ad propagated hurtful stereotypes about Black people, who have historically been compared to apes and considered less evolved that Whites. And it was racially offensive to many. So, this ad would qualify as a microaggression.

Microaggressions appear in the news media as well. Such statements were made by a journalist employed by a major Canadian newspaper, the National Post. The title of the article was “Stop Calling People ‘Racialized Minorities.’ It’s Silly and Cynical” by Jonathan Kay (2014). Kay states that

Western societies have, to their great credit, taken further strides in removing race as a barrier to professional achievement. Indeed, one of the only barriers they have left to overcome is the effort of Toronto Star [competitor news outlet]-type liberals to convince them that anyone without white skin is constantly being racialized by the rest of us. They’re not.

This writer is apparently praising his culture for fixing the racism problem without acknowledging major problems that still exist. He also fails to acknowledge that people of color are in fact racialized by others, and then he goes on to criticize those of us who would point this out. Finally, he calls the terminology “silly,” which could be insulting to those who are racialized and also implies that he has the necessary authority or expertise that would give him the prerogative to weigh in on the issue, although he is not an expert on race relations.

Microaggressions are particularly harmful when made by prominent and powerful individuals. Politicians on both sides of the aisle have made a number of microaggressive statements throughout the years, and President Donald Trump is no exception. During his presidential campaign, he said,

When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

(p. 30) Here, we see a very public person advancing unfair and inaccurate pathological stereotypes about Mexican immigrants—that they are drug dealers and rapists—that only fuels hateful biases. Such statements contribute to subsequent stereotyping and fears about Mexican Americans that lead to real problems, including more microaggressions and larger problems such as hate crimes and even racially motivated mass shootings.

Prominent democrats have also made microaggressive remarks. For example, at a town hall meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, when discussing advanced placement programs in schools, former Vice President Joe Biden said, “We have this notion that somehow if you’re poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as White kids.” In this sentence, he is equating kids of color and being poor, even though most Americans of color are not poor. He is also equating wealth and talent with Whiteness. We can see that Biden has some racist associations around people of color that fuel biases and pathological stereotypes.

Environmental Microaggressions

In a frequently used university conference room with which I am familiar, many large framed pictures of impoverished Black children hang on the walls. It is not immediately apparent why these pictures are there, as I noticed there were no placards explaining the photos. The children were dirty, wore second-hand clothes, and ate food off of plastic plates. These pictures could be considered microaggressions at several levels: They promoted unfair stereotypes as Black people as poor, needy, and unable to take care of their families. Were they being rescued from their plight by White saviors? I did not see photographs of impoverished White, Hispanic, or Asian children—and certainly needy children of all races occupy the world. One of the students in my graduate class also saw a similarly troubling picture in another room in the same facility portraying a poor, crowded neighborhood with an AIDS symbol ribbon on every door. All human characters in the picture had dark skin, perpetuating a stereotype that most Black individuals in African countries have AIDS. One must wonder about the impact of such images on those who use these facilities. It might promote feelings of stereotype threat in Black people and feelings of superiority in Whites, which could influence the dynamics of meetings occurring in those rooms. I can only wonder what diverse job applicants think and feel, seeing those images as a backdrop to interviews.

“Microaggressions” Versus “Everyday Racism”

Microaggressions overlap with some similar concepts, so one cannot study microaggressions without considering these other close constructs and the related literature base. Microaggressions are similar to the concept of “everyday racism,” which first emerged from the work of Essed (1991) and her studies (p. 31) of Black women in various societies. She described how racism is transmitted through routine practices that seem normal to the dominant group, ensuring that the racism goes largely unrecognized and unacknowledged (Phillips & Lowery, 2018). Everyday racism is defined as unacknowledged racism, integrated into common situations through cognitive and behavioral practices that activate and perpetuate underlying power relations through familiar schemas in common situations. One example is the concept of “majority rule,” which may be used to legitimize ignoring minority concerns, often dismissed as something of interest to only a small number of people. By this rubric, it becomes possible that no ethnic minority concerns will ever be addressed because those concerns impact a relatively smaller number of individuals, and yet we unthinkingly defer to majority opinion in many common situations. In fact, majority rule is considered a pillar of American democracy. Everyday racism is part of a larger system of structural racism that reinforces racial hierarchies resulting in a cumulative negative impact on people of color.

Everyday racism was followed by the concept of “everyday discrimination,” which is well studied in terms of impact and outcomes. This describes subjective common discrimination or unfair treatment as a form of stress in society that is strongly related to race (Banks, Kohn-Wood, & Spencer, 2006). Everyday discrimination can be defined as minor daily hassles and recent experiences that often constitute an assault to one’s character (Ayalon & Gum, 2011). Compared to microaggressions, everyday discrimination tends to have a greater focus on discrete discriminatory experiences, sometimes including blatant acts of prejudice, and tends to not include social exclusion or environmental assaults. This construct also sometimes addresses forms of discrimination other than race, such as gender or disability-related discrimination.

Like microaggressions, everyday racism and everyday discrimination, including covert prejudice, are common and are rooted in power differentials between groups. Therefore, many, if not most, microaggressions can be conceptualized as manifestations of everyday racism and discrimination. A robust body of literature utilizing national samples has linked everyday discrimination to various negative mental and physical health outcomes across racial and ethnic groups, as described in more detail in Chapter 3.

Microaggressions Can Be Difficult to Recognize

When giving trainings about microaggressions, I typically show a slide with a list of categories and examples of related microaggressions. I notice that people are quickly snapping pictures of the slides with their cell phones, and many ask if they may have the list emailed to them. The problem, however, is that microaggressions are context dependent (Sue et al., 2007) and so cannot be defined simply on the basis of the exact behavior performed or the precise words used in a given sentence. A statement that might be microaggressive in one situation may not be a (p. 32) microaggression in another case. For example, as shown in Figure 1.3, telling a Black student that she is intelligent might not be a microaggression during office hours, but it might be if said during class with a look of surprise on the instructor’s face (Williams, 2020).

Figure 1.3 The same statement might not be a microaggression in one context but could be a problem in a different situation.

Figure 1.3 The same statement might not be a microaggression in one context but could be a problem in a different situation.

Microaggressions are invisible to many White people because, as dominant group members, they usually do not directly experience them. Furthermore, they tend not to notice microaggressions levied against their peers of color (Alabi, 2015). However, those who are motivated to understand them can learn to identify microaggressions when they are happening to others, even if they are the observer and not the target. For example, a White parent who adopts a Hispanic child may start to notice microaggressions for the first time as they are leveled against the child or may even start to receive them from others who may be uncomfortable with an ethnoracially blended family.

People of color are at a social disadvantage that can at times lead to severe consequences (e.g., police violence, loss of employment, and eviction), and so out of necessity they may learn (from parents, peers, or their own experiences) to identify subtle signs of bias in order to most effectively navigate society. Some have argued this is critical for well-being (Stevenson, 1994), although it is worth noting that this discernment is an acquired skill and neither inborn nor an exact science. For example, groups of people living in the United States longer, for more (p. 33) generations, and/or with darker skin will tend to have more experience with racial bias than new immigrants or those who appear White (Keith, Nguyen, Taylor, Chatters, & Mouzon, 2017), and some ethnic groups engage in more racial socialization with their children than do others (Hughes et al., 2006). More racial socialization is correlated with both better identification of subtle racism and improved mental health (Brown & Tylka, 2010; Thai, Lyons, Lee, & Iwasaki, 2017). Furthermore, to the extent that some people of color may accept pathological stereotypes and vary in ethnic identity development, not all will be able to identify all microaggressions when they occur. In addition, due to the stress of confronting offenders directly about microaggressions, targets may make a conscious but effortful choice not to be offended, or they may engage in denial as a coping strategy (Nadal, 2018). And there are certainly some individuals who are simply not offended by anything.

Responsible individuals need to learn appropriate social habits in order to successfully navigate our increasingly multicultural society. Claiming ignorance is not good enough when one’s behavior causes harm to others. For example, when one visits a foreign country, one is expected to familiarize oneself with the rules of the road before driving. Consider the case of a tourist who unintentionally strikes and injures a pedestrian because he was unfamiliar with the country’s rules surrounding driving when pedestrians are near. Although the accident was unintended, the driver would still be considered culpable and possibly convicted for not being careful or knowledgeable enough. Claiming ignorance or even good intentions would not be adequate to absolve the driver. Stating that his American license is valid in the country he visited would not be adequate either. The problem is that harm was caused by the driver due to his failure to acquire the knowledge needed to manage that situation—knowledge that was freely available and that he was expected to acquire. The onus is on the driving tourist to find the information needed (rules of the road) in order to navigate the new country safely. By the same token, the onus is on therapists to learn the proper etiquette needed to interact appropriately with people from diverse cultures without causing harm. Ignorance (“I didn’t know I needed to act differently”), arrogance (“Clients should adapt to my culture”), laziness (“I didn’t have time to learn about her culture”), and naive good intentions (“I was only trying to help and didn’t mean to be patronizing”) are not acceptable reasons for causing harm, especially when the needed information for preventing harm is freely available. (p. 34)