A microaggression occurs when you do something which, while not in and of itself very antagonistic or detrimental, contributes to an environment where someone else feels slighted, unappreciated, or hurt.

Microaggressions may decrease a sense of belonging, raise stress, decrease happiness, increase stereotype threat, and otherwise impede the learning and success of students.

1 Accidental microaggressions

Although some microaggressions are intentional, many are not. For example,

  • Using obscure idioms or archaic vocabulary may be intended to make speech more interesting or expressive, but also make those with less English proficiency feel unwelcome and excluded.

  • If your subconscious identifies someone as typical of those with whom you use one pronoun, but they identify with another pronoun, your relaxed speech may appear to them to be an aggression against their identity.

  • If you come from a region where guys means people, but someone you are speaking with comes from a region where guys means male people, your use of what seems to you to be an inclusive term may be seen as exclusionary by others.

  • Your implicit biases likely tell you to speak more slowly to people who look unlike you, as a consideration for the fact they may not be as proficient in English. But this can be insulting when you do it to someone who is proficient in English and thinks you are talking down to them.

  • You may be used to referring to some group using phrases they do not use to identify themselves, or which the do use but only with situational nuance you are not aware of.

I could give many more examples, but hopefully this will give you an idea what we mean.

The important takeaway:

It’s an aggression if the subject perceives it as one, regardless of the aggressor’s intent.

2 Do your part

You should strive to become aware of microaggressions you create and to adjust your behavior to stop creating them.

The most common objection I hear to that is some form of I’ve always done this and mean no harm; they should stop being offended when my intent is innocent.

2.1 Stop being offended is itself offensive

  1. Pick something you don’t want me to use to refer to you. Perhaps calling you a member of a group or political movement you detest, or an insult to your intelligence or your family or nationality or background or hobbies or appearance or …

  2. Make this concrete; an actual offensive title you could write down or share with others. Don’t go on to step 3 until you have it in mind.

  3. Imagine that I repeatedly used this on you, and when you asked me to stop I replied don’t be offended; that’s just how I refer to people like you.

To say you are a fool, and you shouldn’t find that offensive is to provide two insults: one on your intelligence and the other on your emotional maturity. It escalates an insult into an attack on one’s personhood and right to defend themselves.

Don’t do this.

2.2 Share the load

In general (though not in every particular), microaggressions target those who are already struggling against multiple impediments, be they stereotype threat or implicit biases or code switching or the struggle of learning a new language and culture or … If you have fewer of these impediments than others and can use some of your energy to remove one or more impediments from those with more, doing so is a worthy load-sharing service to perform.