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How to handle micro-aggressions

November 8, 2017

Probably you have heard (or said) things like “That is so gay” or perhaps you’ve been told that you’re articulate for a ___ person. (Feel free to insert black/Hispanic/immigrant or any nationality that is considered foreign.) I’m sure your response was a mental eye roll if it happened in the workplace or at school.

Did you know there is a word to describe these encounters? They are called a micro-aggressions. Check out the following short clip to learn what a micro-aggression is and why it’s important to recognize them:


Let’s start by understanding more about this concept. At its root, micro aggressions are defined as everyday slights related to sexism, racism, or homophobia. The term was coined by Harvard University professor and psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the ’70s, and researcher Gerald Sue also conducted extensive studies on this topic. “Micro aggression” comes with a family of other micros: micro-messages, micro-invalidation, and micro-assaults.

As we watched on the video above, micro-aggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to and individual or groups of people.

In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.

The tricky part is that the most detrimental forms of micro-aggressions are usually delivered by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they have engaged in harmful conduct toward a socially devalued group. These everyday occurrences may on the surface appear quite harmless, trivial, or be described as “small slights,” but research indicates they have a powerful impact upon the psychological well-being of marginalized groups and affect their standard of living by creating inequities in health care, education, and employment. The fact that micro-aggressions are often subtle can make them harder to shake off than more overt forms of discrimination.



  • Remain calm and find a way to pause from assuming or reacting right away. 
  • Give the benefit of the doubt. Taking extreme stances either as a victim or a “tough” person can ultimately hurt you. Remember often times people are not aware of their offensive comment or action. 
  • Ask clarifying questions. You can ask: “Why are you surprised that I am articulate? Help me understand why you are surprised that I speak well?” or “What do you mean that is gay? 
  • Focus on the event, not the person. By directing the conversation to the behavior, event, or comment you will decrease the likelihood of defensiveness.


  • Be an ally. It’s really important for allies to know that sometimes their voices can be heard even more powerfully than those of the people directly affected by micro-aggressions. 
  • Speak for yourself. Don’t try to speak on behalf of the person who has experienced the micro-aggression since doing so can itself be a form of micro-aggression


  • You are not a bad person. The first thing to remember is that Committing a micro-aggression is not indicative that we’re bad people, It’s more indicative of a society where certain stereotypes are engrained in our culture from the media, our families and friends. 
  • Try not to be defensive. If someone else is accusing you of a micro-aggression, take into consideration that the person may be nervous too to share this info with you. 
  • Acknowledge the other person’s hurt, apologize and reflect on where the micro-aggression came from and how you can avoid similar mistakes in the future.

The art of handling microaggressions effectively develops over time. It is like building a muscle. You need to exercise it, feed it the right nutrients, let it rest, and then challenge it again. And again. And again.


Learn more about our programs on micro-aggressions: NSFW (micro-aggressions in the workplace) and Say What?! (micro-aggressions in college campuses). 

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Catharsis Productions

Catharsis Productions' mission is to change the world by producing innovative, accessible and 
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