What are microaggressions?

By Carolyn Ali

Microaggressions trickle down from cultural attitudes and ingrained societal discrimination. Photo illustration: iStock/UBC

Here’s how microaggressions show up in everyday interactions, including in the workplace and health-care settings. Dr. Nancy Sin, an associate professor of psychology at UBC, and Dr. Alifa Bandali, an assistant professor of teaching in UBC’s Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality and Social Justice, give some examples

In contrast to explicit forms of discrimination, such as denying housing or a job based on race, microaggressions are subtle.

Dr. Nancy Sin, who studies the effects of everyday discrimination on health, says the term “microaggression” was first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the forms of everyday discrimination experienced by African Americans. Columbia University’s Dr. Derald Wing Sue defines the term more broadly, as everyday slights, insults, putdowns and validations of offensive behaviours.

“A microaggression sends the message that the person is invisible, or conversely, hyper-visible. They send the message that the person doesn’t belong.”

— Dr. Nancy Sin, associate professor of psychology, UBC department of psychology

Microaggressions trickle down from cultural attitudes and ingrained societal discrimination. They can be related to race, gender, age, sexuality, nationality or different social identities. “A microaggression sends the message that the person is invisible, or conversely, hyper-visible,” explains Dr. Sin. “They send the message that the person doesn’t belong.”

“Microaggressions are so hard to pinpoint and define because for everyone, they look quite different,” says Dr. Bandali. At their core, microaggressions make a surface-level judgement that serves to diminish a person.

Microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal. Here are a few examples:

  • A person of colour might receive a “compliment” about how good their English is, when it’s in fact their first language
  • A person of colour may be asked where they’re from, and when they answer, they’re asked where they are “really from”, implying they are an outsider
  • A racialized person with a common Canadian first name might be asked by their doctor for their “real” name
  • A Black person might experience a microaggression when they’re walking down the street and another person clutches their handbag closer, implying they are dangerous
  • A nonbinary person may feel erased when the only options on a form are “male” or “female”
  • A younger person may “give a pass” to an older person for an inappropriate comment because they’re assumed to be out of touch
  • A person is told they “throw like a girl”, implying women are weak

Whether or not they are intended to cause harm, microaggressions are experienced by the person who receives them as harmful. Research shows that the impact of daily microaggressions adds up, affecting both our physical and mental health.

Learn more about how to counter the effects of microaggressions


Carolyn Ali is a writer for UBC Brand and Marketing. This article was published on September 28, 2022. Feel free to republish the text of this article, but please follow our guidelines for attribution and seek any necessary permissions before doing so. Please note that images are not included in this blanket licence.

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