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What are microaggressions? And how can they affect our health?


Microaggressions are seemingly harmless verbal, behavioral or environmental insults directed at members of minority communities.

The term microaggressions was coined by an American psychiatrist Chester Pierce in his 1970 essay Attacking mechanisms. He explained:

Most offensive plays are not rude and crippling. They are subtle and stunning. The magnitude of the complications they cause can only be appreciated when one considers that these subtle blows are incessantly dealt. Even though any negotiation of a criminal offense can be considered relatively harmless in itself, the cumulative effect for the victim and the perpetrator is of an unimaginable magnitude.

Although originally conceived in the context of race relations, microaggressions can also be related to gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability status, weight, or a combination of this.

Read more: Discrimination against fat people is so endemic most of us don’t even realize it’s happening

What do microaggressions look like?

Consider these situations. They are all true stories from people of color I know (used with their permission):

  • a woman enters a barbershop. The shop is empty and the hairdresser sweeps hair off the floor. The woman asks if she can go to the hairdresser – if not now, then maybe another day. The hairdresser says she can’t help because she’s not taking on new clients.

  • a man waits to pick up his partner in his car, parked on a side street near his partner’s apartment, which is in a predominantly white suburb. He mind his own business while in his own car. Every time someone walks by, they stare at the man and continue to stare as they pass.

Read more: Micro-aggressions aren’t just harmless blunders – research links them to racial prejudice

  • a couple waits to order coffee in a busy city cafe. The server is chatty with the white couple in front of them. When they move to the front of the line, the server is curt, avoids eye contact, and is eager to move on to the next customer. After placing their order, the couple stands where other customers had previously waited for their order. A member of staff comes over and asks the pair to wait outside instead.

Examples of micro-aggressions towards other identity minorities may include: to move house of a trans person on public transport, or not considering wheelchair accessibility when booking venues for meetings or events.

Each of these incidents on their own may not seem particularly harmful, with some even attributing them to coincidences or “reading too much into a situation.”

However, when experienced repeatedly, daily or even several times a day, they can harm people’s psychological and physical health.

Micro-aggressions are like death by a thousand mosquito bites/Fusion Comedy.

Microaggressions are subtle

Microaggressions are often so subtle that even the victim only realizes later that they have just experienced one – probably because microaggressions are often accompanied by dissociation (i.e., disconnection from thoughts, feelings, or personal sense of identity).

Like psychologist Ron Taffel explainsdissociation is a “psychologically useful” tool that helps to ease the pain,

keeping the moment from registering completely or doing its damage until a less vulnerable moment later – perhaps during some quiet alone time…

Micro-aggressions affect our physical and mental health

Microaggressions can occur in all environments from the workplace to shops, medical clinics, schools, universities, even while walking or parking on the street. Victims therefore often become increasingly self-aware and hypervigilant.

Having to be constantly vigilant is a great burden.
Unsplash/Aiden Frazier

The effects of micro-aggressions can extend beyond psychological stress and affect the body as well physiological state.

When people perceive a sense of imminent danger,fight, flight, freeze response” is activated. While this is a useful evolutionary mechanism to protect us from physical danger, when it is activated frequently – as can be the case with micro-aggressions – it can take a while. toll on the body and contribute to problems such as high blood pressure, anxiety, depression and addiction.

Racial microaggressions have also been linked to suicide risk. A study found that experiencing race-related microaggressions leads to more symptoms of depression, which in turn increases thoughts of suicide.

Read more: Why Words Matter: The Negative Effects of Racial Microaggressions on Indigenous and Other Racialized People

Micro-aggressions can deter people from seeking help

Victims’ health problems can be exacerbated when micro-aggressions are experienced in health care. a study from 2011 found that sexual orientation-related micro-aggressions (eg derogatory comments or assumptions about one’s sexual orientation) reduced the likelihood of LGBTIQ+ people seeking psychotherapy and influenced their attitudes towards therapy and therapists.

Research involving Indigenous peoples also suggests that micro-aggressions influence help-seeking behavior in this group (such as failure to schedule or attend regular health care appointments), which in turn increases the risk of hospitalization.

Indirect effects of microaggressions

Micro-aggressions can also indirectly affect people’s health status. Research suggests that repeated microaggressions may cause marginalized groups to internalize feelings of inadequacy.

Over time, this internalized oppression can affect their academic and professional success, and consequently their socioeconomic status.

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Feelings of inadequacy can hold people back.
Pexels/Ketut Subiyanto

Skeptics and victim-blaming

Skeptics often attribute microaggressions to victims’ “negative emotionality”—a tendency to show negative affect and always feel like a victim.

However, proponents argue that this is a form of victim-blaming that increases the damage caused by micro-aggressions.

Clinical psychologist Monica Williams suggests that the years of unchecked micro-aggressions might themselves be the very thing to cause negativity in marginalized people.

Responses of victims to microaggressors

Victims’ reactions to microaggressions can vary between people and between events experienced by the same person. Victims have to regularly to decide whether to let it slide or confront the aggressor.

The discourse on micro-aggressions in social media seems to be on the rise. A study found that between 2010 and 2018 there was a drastic increase in the use of the term “micro-aggression” on Twitter. Discussions on social media and other online spaces can help victims (especially younger people) to respond more critically to microaggressors.

Other technological innovations, such as the virtual reality-based intervention Equal realityalso help people walk in other people’s shoes, recognize unconscious biases, reduce the risk of micro-aggressions and promote more inclusive workplaces.

If this article has raised any issues for you, or if you are concerned about someone you know, call Lifeline at 13 11 14.

Read more: What is a microaggression name and could you be doing it without knowing it?

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