Microaggressions refer to subtle, often unintentional, forms of discrimination or derogatory remarks directed towards marginalized groups. These acts or comments may convey negative stereotypes, assumptions, or biases based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, disability, or other characteristics. In terms of sexuality and gender this can sound like the use of homophobic or transphobic terminology, gender policing, or assuming heterosexuality. Importantly, they may not be overtly hostile or malicious, but their cumulative effect can be harmful and contribute to a hostile or unwelcoming environment.
A single microaggression may seem small on its own but experiencing them repeatedly over time has a cumulative effect. So while hearing one homophobic may not seem like a big deal, 64% of youth in Canada report hearing them daily or weekly (Peter, Campbell, & Taylor, 2021). This repeated exposure to stigma can have a toll on an individual’s mental health and contribute to an unsafe environment.
The term “microaggression” was coined by psychiatrist Dr. Chester M. Pierce in the 1970s, with an initial focus on the experience of Black individuals in predominantly white environments.The term was further popularized by Dr. Derald Wing Sue and other researchers in the early 2000s, expanded the concept beyond racial microaggressions to encompass other marginalized identities such as gender, sexual orientation, disability, and more.
We must note that the term “microaggression” has gotten pushback, with concerns that the prefix “micro” minimizes the significant impact of these comments and acts on marginalized people. Some people prefer terms like ‘exclusionary behaviors’ or ‘subtle acts of inclusion’. In our understanding of “microaggression” the prefix “micro-” refers to the every-day nature of these acts, not the very macro nature of their impact.
The concept of microaggressions emerged as a way to describe and address the everyday experiences of discrimination and marginalization that individuals from marginalized groups face, even in seemingly innocent or well-intentioned interactions. By bringing attention to these subtle forms of discrimination, researchers and advocates are able to raise awareness and promote understanding of how systemic biases show up in interpersonal interactions.