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Laura Drury Laughology blog posts

What Exactly Is Microaggression? Is it Really So Objectionable?


If we asked you whether you’d ever been subject to microaggression, what would you say? Would you be able to recognise it or notice it in someone you’re talking to? Would you even recognise it in yourself?

You see microaggression is just that, micro. Tiny. Small. Seemingly inconsequential. Often flimsily disguised as a compliment, it’s that passive-aggressive way people can speak to one another. When challenged, they often argue good intentions. 

Still not sure? Try these on for size:

“Are you feeling a bit emotional today, is it that time of the month?” 

“You speak remarkably good English! Where are you from again?”

“Oh you’re gay! You should meet my friend Jen, she’s gay too!”

Recognise it now? Thought so. 

Subtleties of microaggression

Unlike overt prejudice, microaggression is much subtler and may be missed by those who aren’t directly affected by it. However, that does not excuse it. 

Microaggression itself receives bad press because it’s seen as ‘going too far’. Ironically, there’s also a perception that those on the receiving end are being ‘overly sensitive’, which, of course, is yet another microaggression.

More often than not, it’s said without any intention of harm at all. That’s when it’s at its most damaging though, because the person demonstrating it has no awareness of how rude or offensive they are being.

Where do microaggressions come from?

In short, microaggressions come from our unconscious biases... and we all have those. Our biases are cultivated during our upbringing, influenced by our beliefs, values and experiences. Families, friends and authority figures all have a part to play too. Some that we admire and respect, others that we don’t. They all shape our perception of the world and its inhabitants. 

Our biases are part of our ‘fight or flight’ response; our prehistoric survival mechanism, stemming from our emotional brain (or limbic system). The more rational part (the prefrontal cortex) is relatively young in evolutionary terms

For our brains to work effectively, these two parts of the brain need to cooperate and work together, but it’s the emotional part that is quickest to react. 

What does this have to do with our biases?

The human brain has approximately 86 billion neurons, all firing several times a second. Therefore, we are continuously bombarded with an incomprehensible amount of information. Consequently, we look to our past (our aforementioned experiences and beliefs) as a quick way to guide the decisions we make in the present.  

Whilst a brilliant and necessary way to save time, the unfortunate consequences are our automatic biases.

With this in mind, it’s important to reassure yourself that it’s human nature to have bias; we are all the same in that respect.

However, it’s not acceptable to use human nature as an excuse.

How can we manage our microaggressions?

Managing our microaggressions comes from awareness and communication.

For communication to be effective, we need to carefully consider not just what we’re saying but who we’re saying it to, and what impact we’d like to make. As well as hearing what’s being said with our ears, we also need to listen with our eyes, so we can watch for the physical responses people demonstrate.

Given the current situation and new world of work, it has never been more important to carefully consider what we’re trying to communicate and the impact we want to have. Especially since much more of our communication is now done virtually.

Therefore, we need to become aware of our thought processes. What or who has influenced this idea, decision or judgment? Engage the slower prefrontal cortex to challenge opinion. Whilst not easy to do automatically, we can practise through reflection.

Empathise - ask yourself how you would feel on the receiving end of microaggression? Not just one, off-hand remark, but continuously throughout your life? 

Microaggressions negatively impact wellbeing in the workplace or at school etc. Simply put, it’s another form of bullying and exacerbates the discriminations and prejudices that are so prevalent in society today.

They are often said in humor but, unfortunately, don’t leave the audience laughing.

How then can we tackle microaggressions?

  • Learn to recognise and challenge your own fears or biases which could lead to microaggressions.
  • Be quick to admit and apologise if you think you have upset someone.
  • Create a culture within your workplace, team or school that encourages openness and understanding, as well as challenging any form of bias.
  • Empathise with and support those around you who are experiencing it.
  • Seek support from those you trust if you're on the receiving end. 
  • Stand up to microaggression through courage and curiosity rather than blame. Attacking others or being defensive will only make the situation worse.

As many of those who are micro-aggressive don’t intend to be, it’s important not to be aggressive back. This isn’t something we’re going to solve through naming and blaming or hatred and accusations. 

It’s about raising awareness, listening to each other and being kind. Kindness and understanding are the path to inclusivity. 

Let’s give them a go. 


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