Microaggressions | An Intervention

Readers: in the absence of any real resources available to faculty at my university, I decided to write an essay about microagressions for my students. There must be many of you out there who are better at this than I am. Would you read this and leave your comments so that I can make necessary revisions?

Daily forms of taken-for-granted discrimination have a real effect on people’s lives: the work of anti-racism is the ongoing struggle to recognize and respond to this situation. In the past few years, we have come to refer to discriminatory speech acts and encounters as “microaggressions.” As Khanh Ho points out, microaggressions are not unrelated to the lethal violence suffered by subordinated people, or to lingering feelings of doubt about one’s abilities and value to others. This makes it particularly important to be aware of the heightened potential for, and damage done by, microagressions in a learning environment where we want to feel safe enough to take risks and challenge each other’s views.



Microaggressions reduce equal access to education for those who are targeted by them. Reducing or eliminating microaggressions, and responding appropriately when one occurs, is everyone’s responsibility, and we can do it while still preserving academic freedom and insisting on everyone’s right to speak openly and frankly.

According to Dictionary.com, a microaggression is “a subtle but offensive comment or action directed at a minority or other nondominant group that is often unintentional or unconsciously reinforces a stereotype.” Our differences from each other are important, and worth addressing because they allow us to deepen our conversations and share perspectives that may be vary according to our national, racial, gender or class identity. Very often, a microaggression is seen by the perpetrator as a compliment, a statement about someone not in the room, or as an expression of desire to be more familiar than the actual relationship with the person would support. Most importantly, a microaggression, because it reflects a biased attitude towards a whole group, may make it more difficult for members of that group to learn, be in the classroom space, or speak their minds.


Microaggressions are, by nature, hurtful and boundary-crossing.This page is illustrated with examples of  microaggressions that real people have experienced. You may have experienced these things. Each of these statements makes an assumption about the history, identity, body, or community of the person holding the sign. A microaggression might also be distressing to another person in the room who may be overhearing the remark.


Microaggressions involve a level of presumed familiarity, or superior knowledge, on the speaker’s part. They are most hurtful when people who do not feel privileged in a social setting are given the unhappy choice between making a scene and simply being silent.


On the other hand, we shouldn’t be afraid to talk to each other, and even prior to friendship, we want to understand where people are coming from. If microaggressions are, as the definition says, often unintentional, can we be intentional and reduce them? Here are some things to keep in mind that might shape our intentions:

  • You are not entitled to comment on a person’s appearance, body, or presumed identity, unless your opinion is solicited.
  • Wait for an invitation to ask a personal question, and remember that some people might think a question is personal that you would be happy to tell them. If you want to be productively curious, disclose something about yourself and see if the person reciprocates. If not, let it go.
  • Touching people presumes familiarity, and should be preceded by an invitation to be touched. compliment someone’s fashion sense, or ask them where they get their hair cut if you need a hair cut, but keep your hands to yourself.
  • In class, be specific in your observations about social differences, preferably with evidence drawn from that day’s class preparation. Make sure you are expressing an informed opinion, not a misinformed opinion.
  • Don’t assume you know anything about a person, what they think or what they know, by what you see on the surface.


If you are the target of, or observe, a microaggression, you are not responsible for solving the problem unless you wish to take on that responsibility. But actions you might take to help the teachers and other students take responsibility could include :

  • Having a private conversation with a friend, academic advisor, counselor or dean about how to bring a problematic or hurtful dynamic up with your instructor or Professor Potter.
  • Ask the section leader to lead a conversation about the dynamic, perhaps with an experienced facilitator present.
  • Describing what happened to Professor Potter, and ask her to address it in the following week’s lecture or come to section.
  • If you are a bystander, you might talk to the section leader. You might also take the person who committed the microagression aside privately and share your perspective on what you saw and heard. Ask them how what they wanted to say could have been conveyed differently, and more effectively. Encourage them to apologize if it is appropriate.


4 thoughts on “Microaggressions | An Intervention

  1. Interesting idea! First quick thought, rather than a specific edit: Since you have a section on what people might do to avoid microaggressions, and what target/bystanders might choose to do, I’d love to see a section on how students can expect prof/section leaders to handle such situations.


  2. Thanks for sharing this with the internet – I really like it. As a grad student and TA, I’d be curious to know more about how you’re going to work with your TAs to make sure they’re representing these policies/guidelines when leading discussion, and how you’d advise TAs to respond if a student approaches them about a potential microaggression.


  3. Hi Claire,

    I am so glad you are writing this!
    Two thoughts:
    1 – I thought this bullet was unclear: “In class, be specific in your observations about social differences, preferably with evidence drawn from that day’s class preparation. Make sure you are expressing an informed opinion, not a misinformed opinion.”
    I think I’m pretty well educated about this topic and I’m struggling to put this paragraph into my own words. I’m guessing it will be harder for some less-informed students to get what you are intending.

    2 – I am wondering about not encouraging bystanders to speak up. Moments when I’ve been the victim of microaggresions and someone else said something stand out in my memory as positive even years later.
    I think a list of ways bystanders/witnesses could try to handle it in the moment would be useful. Here are my top two:
    1. Short and direct (but kind) e.g. I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way but saying _____ implies that ____.
    2. Humor (with a dose of shame) – which I’ve found often diffuses the situation while calling someone on their mistake/agression – this is also a powerful strategy when you think someone MIGHT be being racist/sexist/homo or transphobic but in the particular social situation you can’t quite tell for sure. Or when you experience them from people supposedly in your own identity group (like other queers telling me I was too femme to be queer and to go find a boyfriend) where you want them to stop but don’t want to alienate the people/lose the group/report it to someone who might not be in the same group.
    it might be a useful exercise for people to look at some of your examples and to brainstorm things they could say in response, either direct or humorous. I realize that is tricky with all the overlapping identities… But I’ve appreciated time both to share ways to intervene as a peer bystander and to respond as the traget.


  4. Claire, I admire your effort to be proactive with this policy. On specific suggestions, I guess it might be covered in comments on “presumed identity,” but comments showing contempt for someone’s socioeconomic background can also be rough. That was a frequent challenge I had to deal with as an undergrad — comments about my accent (I have worked hard on getting rid of it!) and other remarks on the “tells” about my background (lack of familiarity w/ stuff that more privileged students could take for granted, lack of spending money/allowance, unrefined or uninformed expressions of taste/preference, etc.) I have been out of college for a while, but I’ll never forget being called “just an educated redneck” by a fellow resident of my freshman dorm. It’s a pretty quick way to make somebody feel like they don’t belong. And I guess socioeconomically I didn’t.


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