Psychology Microaggressions
Gina C. Torino
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0310


Dr. Chester Pierce of Harvard University is credited with coining the term microaggression in the 1970s. His first research studied the depiction of African Americans in television commercials. Not until the beginning of the twenty-first century did study on microaggressions arise. This preliminary study examined the prevalence of microaggressions in higher education. Sue and colleagues released “Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice” in 2007. This 2007 paper, which was published in American Psychologist, expanded on the concept by constructing a taxonomy and providing numerous examples from the psychological literature. The term was added to the Merriam-Webster dictionary in 2017. Since 2007, research has been conducted on the incidence and impact of microaggressions across a variety of contexts. Microaggressions are brief, everyday, derogatory slights or insults that communicate hostility and bias (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, etc.) toward a marginalized person or group. They can be conveyed verbally, behaviorally, or environmentally. Oftentimes, microaggressions occur unconsciously but not necessarily. Their cumulative impact over time can have deleterious consequences upon individuals. For example, repeated microaggressions have been associated with depression, anxiety, suicidal ideation, negative educational and physical health outcomes, as well as higher rates of attrition in the workplace and decreased job satisfaction (just to name a few). Scholars have also developed, and managers have implemented, prevention and intervention strategies within organizations to minimize the potential impact that microaggressions can have upon individuals.

General Overview

This section offers a historical background of the phrase “microaggression” and contains overviews as well as significant articles that provide in-depth information on associated terminology. Additionally, this section provides a historical background of the term “microaggression.” It was in the article Pierce, et al. 1977 that the word “microaggressions” was first used and defined. The article focuses on how racism is portrayed in various commercials that were seen on television. In the article Sue, et al. 2007a, the authors improved upon the original description and produced the first taxonomy of microaggressions (microassualts, microinsults, microinvalidations). In addition to this, instances and recurring themes from previous research on racial microaggressions were presented. Sue 2010a cites subsequent books and publications that expand upon the initial concept of microaggressions and include microaggressions based on gender and sexual orientation. These books and articles also investigate how microaggressions present themselves in a range of settings. The book Torino, et al. 2018 brings together thought leaders in the area to examine studies on microaggressions in a variety of settings, including healthcare, K-12 education, the environment, the workplace, higher education, and online. Implications for society as well as possible avenues for future research are highlighted. In addition to the research on microaggressions that can be found in the literature pertaining to psychology, the following publications also explore microaggressions in relation to other areas of study. For instance, the research in Pérez Huber and Solórzano 2015 makes use of Critical Race Theory (CRT) as a lens in order to gain an understanding of the more widespread and systemic effects of microaggressions. In addition, Freeman and Schroer 2020 and Freeman and Stewart 2021 offer a philosophical explanation of microaggressions and how they can affect individuals. Hughey, et al. 2017 investigates the phenomenon of microaggressions from a sociological perspective, with a particular emphasis on power dynamics within society. In conclusion, Williams 2020 and Williams, et al. 2021 explore the criticisms leveled against microaggression theory and research, and they give improvements to the original definition and taxonomy proposed by Pierce, et al. 1977 and Sue, et al. 2007a.

  • Freeman, L., and J. W. Schroer, eds. 2020. Microaggressions and philosophy. New York: Routledge.

    This book to address microaggressions from a philosophical lens. It seeks to give an intersectional explanation of microaggressions that cuts across different aspects of oppression and marginalization. Writings in this text strive to defend microaggressions against criticisms and to explain their influence outside the setting of college students. This volume covers a variety of guiding questions, including but not limited to the following: Can microaggressions be established as a scientifically viable concept? What roles do microaggressions play in other forms of oppression, such as transphobia, fatphobia, and abelism? How can feminist theory, critical racial theory, disability theory, or epistemologies of ignorance be used to solve epistemological issues pertaining to microaggressions?

  • Freeman, L., and H. Stewart. 2021. Toward a harm-based account of microaggressions. Perspectives on Psychological Science 16.5: 1008–1023.

    DOI: 10.1177/17456916211017099

    Authors posit an alternative way of theorizing microaggressions that centers on those that experience microaggressions and the harms they produce. This is a direct critique to the common theorization of microaggressions as articulated by Dr. Derald Wing (Sue 2010a; Sue, et al. 2019; and Sue, et al. 2007a). Three new harm-based categories of microaggressions are introduced—those that cause epistemic harm (epistemic microaggressions), those that cause emotional harm (emotional microaggressions), and those that result in existential harm (marginalization-based self-identity microaggressions).

  • Hughey, M. W., J. Rees, D. R. Goss, M. L. Rosino, and E. Lesser. 2017. Making everyday microaggressions: An exploratory experimental vignette study on the presence and power of racial microaggressions. Sociological Inquiry 87.2: 303–336.

    DOI: 10.1111/soin.12167

    A study and analysis of microaggressions through a sociological lens, looking at how exposure to racial microaggressions might affect racial attitudes and the power/effect of different microaggressive interactions. Findings indicate that those who benefit from microaggressions (white men) are most likely to use them.

  • Pérez Huber, L., and D. G. Solórzano. 2015. Racial microaggressions as a tool for critical race research. Race Ethnicity and Education 18.3: 297–320.

    DOI: 10.1080/13613324.2014.994173

    Seminal article that uses a critical race theory perspective to provide a framework for theorizing how racial microaggressions are facilitated by and emerge from institutional racism and white supremacy. Model is applied to historic and current experiences with racial microaggressions.

  • Pierce, C. M., J. V. Carew, D. Pierce-Gonzalez, and D. Wills. 1977. An experiment in racism: TV commercials. Education and Urban Society 10.1: 61–87.

    DOI: 10.1177/001312457701000105

    Seminal article on microaggressions, in which the term “racial microaggressions” was first coined. The term refers to “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of blacks by offenders.”

  • Sue, D. W., C. M. Capodilupo, G. C. Torino, et al. 2007a. Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist 62.4: 271.

    DOI: 10.1037/0003-066X.62.4.271

    This piece is the first to create a taxonomy of racial microaggressions (e.g., microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations). Moreover, this paper expanded upon Pierce’s original definition of microaggressions and put forward microaggressive themes based upon the literature.

  • Sue, D. W. 2010a. Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    Groundbreaking book by Dr. Derald Wing Sue, an originator in the field of microaggressions research, that explores various categories of microaggressions and their psychological effects on society’s most marginalized groups. Microaggressions in specific groups (racial/ethnic, gender, sexual orientation) and various settings (workplace, education, counseling) are all discussed, along with practical suggestions on how to respond to and cope with them.

  • Sue, D. W., ed. 2010b. Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    This book contains contributions from eminent scholars who present original research and analysis on microaggressions and other expressions of discrimination and bias toward marginalized groups. It includes chapters on microaggressions toward specific racial/ethnic populations, as well as microaggressions concerning cultural, gender, LGBT, social class, disability, and religious groups.

  • Sue, D. W., S. Alsaidi, M. N. Awad, E. Glaeser, C. Z. Calle, and N. Mendez. 2019. Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist 74.1: 128.

    DOI: 10.1037/amp0000296

    This article provides a new strategic paradigm for dealing with microaggressions that goes beyond coping and survival and into specific action steps and dialogues that targets, allies, and bystanders can engage in (microinterventions). These answers are organized into four key strategic aims of microinterventions: (a) making the invisible visible, (b) disarming the microaggression, (c) educating the perpetrator, and (d) seeking external reinforcement or support. The aims and justifications for each goal are described, as well as particular microintervention strategies to use and examples of how they are implemented.

  • Torino, G. C., D. P. Rivera, C. M. Capodilupo, K. L. Nadal, and D. W. Sue, eds. 2018. Microaggression theory: Influence and implications. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

    This book examines how microaggressions affect education, employment, health care, and the media, including details of their psychological effects and how social policies and practices can minimize microaggressions.

  • Williams, M. T. 2020. Microaggressions: Clarification, evidence, and impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science 15.1: 3–26.

    DOI: 10.1177/1745691619827499

    This article is a direct counter response to Scott Lilienfeld’s representation and critique of the concept of microaggressions, originally made in Perspectives on Psychological Science. Author deconstructs each of Lilienfeld’s arguments using existing, empirical literature, as well as their own research.

  • Williams, M. T. 2021. Racial microaggressions: Critical questions, state of the science, and new directions. Perspectives on Psychological Science: Microaggressions 16.5: 880–885.

    DOI: 10.1177/17456916211039209

    In response to the social justice movements of 2020, Perspectives on Psychological Science published a special issue, titled, “Microaggressions,” to advance the discourse on microaggressions. This article provides an overview of the diverse contributions and research included in the special issue, with key highlights of the taxonomy and classification issues, consequences and harm, and foundational and theoretical issues further discussed in the subsequent articles.

  • Williams, M. T., M. D. Skinta, and R. Martin-Willett. 2021. After Pierce and Sue: A revised racial microaggressions taxonomy. Perspectives on Psychological Science 16.5: 991–1007.

    DOI: 10.1177/1745691621994247

    This article builds upon Pierce, et al. 1977 and Sue, et al. 2007b work on the original taxonomy of racial microaggressions. This revision posits a revised taxonomy and identifies 16 common categories of microaggressions. Categories include tokenism, connecting via stereotypes, exoticization and eroticization, and avoidance and distancing.

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