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Racial Microaggressions: The Everyday Assault


Even in the post–Civil Rights Era, racism and discrimination continue to plague the United States. Acts of bias are often subtle. These often unconscious, subtle acts are referred to as microaggressions.

What are microaggressions?

The term microaggression was first coined by psychiatrist Chester Pierce, M.D., in the 1970s. Dr. Pierce, emeritus professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, died in early September at 89 years old. His work on microaggressions continues to impact the field of mental health. Microaggression describes “the subtle, stunning and often automatic and non–verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs.’”1 Racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”2 Because they are often unconscious they can be more difficult to identify and address than overt forms of discrimination. Perpetrators of microaggressions may not realize the impact of their actions.

Types of microaggressions

Derald W. Sue, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Columbia University, describes three types of microaggressions: micro–assaults, micro–insults and micro–invalidations.1 Micro–assaults are most akin to conventional racism, they are conscious. They are explicit racial or derogatory actions that are intended to hurt. For example, intentionally serving a white person before a person of color or deliberating referring to an Asian person as “Oriental.”

A micro–insult is an unconscious communication that demeans a person from a minority group. Examples include a teacher not calling on students of color or a white person asking a person of color “how did you get your job?”, implying that he/she is not qualified and got the job because of affirmative action or a quota program.

Minimizing or disregarding the thoughts, feelings or experiences of a person of color is referred to as micro–invalidation. A white person asserting to minorities that “they don’t see color” or that “we are all human beings” are examples.

What is the impact on mental health?

Research has shown that being the victim of microaggressions can lead to distress, confusion, anger or worry. Experiencing greater amounts of microaggressions may contribute to mental health difficulties, such as depression or anxiety, and physical health consequences, such as pain and fatigue.2

How to respond to microaggressions

Because being subjected to microaggressions can cause emotional reactions, it can certainly be difficult to know what to do in the moment. The following suggestions from Jody Gray, director of the Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach at the American Library Association, can help you respond in way that both remains inclusive and helps educate others.3

Assess the Situation

  • Ensure you are safe from any physical or emotional immediate harm
  • Refrain from reacting immediately
  • Take a breath or create a moment of silence

Model the Behavior

  • Model the behavior you want from the person or people you are confronting
  • Avoid being sarcastic, snide or mocking
  • Remember that the goal is to educate. It’s not about winning or making someone feel bad or wrong. It’s about helping them understand something from a different perspective.

Focus on the Event, Not the Person

  • Keep the focus of the conversation to the behavior or event

Experiencing and responding to microaggressions can be difficult as many of these acts are unconscious. Talking to a friend, partner or family member about what you’ve experienced can help. Repeated experiences of microaggressions can have a cumulative impact on mental health. Should you find yourself feeling sad or hopeless, notice changes in your sleep, appetite, energy, or concentration, or experience a loss in motivation, please contact your primary care doctor or a mental health professional.


  1. Sue, D., 2007. Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life. American Psychologist, 62(4): 271–286
  2. Nadal, KL. 2012. Featured Commentary: Trayvon, Troy, Sean: When racial biases and microaggressions kill. Communiqué, American Psychological Association.
  3. Gray J. nd. Identifying & Responding to Microaggressions (presentation).


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