Microaggression can be so common and subtle that you might not notice it—unless it’s directed at you. It can be telling an off-colour joke. Or sending the only woman on the team to fetch the coffee. Or commenting that someone doesn’t really look black.
People who say and do these kinds of things don’t mean to hurt anyone’s feelings. Most of the time they’re not even aware they’ve crossed a line or done anything wrong.
Examples of microaggression
Microaggression can be hard to pinpoint. What’s tricky is that a comment or joke or gesture that is perfectly fine in one situation can be hurtful and negative in another. Context is key.
The following examples describe microaggressions directed at specific groups.
1. Expressing surprise when a woman is tech savvy or good at math.
- This reflects the stereotype that women are incapable in certain areas.
2. Commenting that a woman must be suffering from PMS (premenstrual syndrome) if she is passionate or expresses her feelings.
- This invalidates women’s opinions and emotions.
3. Commenting that a woman executive must have slept her way to the top.
- This is derogatory. It undermines women’s intelligence and abilities. A comment like this can also cause emotional harm to survivors of sexual harassment and violence.
4. Calling women “girls.”
- This suggests that women are immature and not to be taken seriously.
5. Calling work teams “guys”—particularly if women are in the minority.
- Sometimes women don’t mind being one of the guys. But comments like this can make them feel their work isn’t valued.
6. Telling a person of colour or a new immigrant that they are articulate or that they barely have an accent.
- This can make the person feel you didn’t expect immigrants or people of colour to be well-spoken.
7. Denying that people are different and denying that prejudice exists in society.
- Differences are not wrong. When we pretend that people aren’t different, we deny their identity. For example, if a white person tells a black person “I don’t see colour,” this invalidates the black person’s lived experience of systemic racism. It also invalidates their sense of personhood. It’s like telling someone that you don’t see, hear, or understand them. In other words, their identity has made them invisible, their opinions don’t matter, and their experiences aren’t worth knowing.
8. Telling someone that they don’t look Indigenous, or they don’t look black. Or reassuring someone that they’re not like the negative stereotype for their group.
- Comments like this are insults disguised as compliments. Even if no insult was intended, they reflect the speaker’s deep-seated, unconscious prejudice and bias.
9. Telling someone, “Didn’t this happen a long time ago?” or “It’s time to move on.”
- Comments like this show a lack of understanding and invalidate people’s history and identity.
10. Telling an Indigenous doctor “Your people must be so proud.”
- This reflects the stereotype that Indigenous people don’t have what it takes to succeed as professionals.
11. Telling someone their name is exotic and assuming that’s a compliment.
- In some situations, comments like this can indeed be compliments. But sometimes they can make people feel like outsiders.
12. Raising your voice when you’re speaking to a blind person.
- This reflects the hurtful assumption that blind people are also hearing-impaired and that people with disabilities are disabled in all aspects of their life.
13. Saying that someone is acting crazy. Or claiming that you’re super organized because you have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder.)
- This trivializes the experience of people who struggle with mental health issues.
14. Asking questions like "So, what are you?"
- This is a dehumanizing way to express curiosity.
15. Assuming that someone is in a heterosexual relationship.
- Assumptions like this stem from the societal belief that being straight is a sign of being normal.
16. Telling a person who is overweight that they should eat less.
- Unsolicited advice can be hurtful and Weight gain (and weight loss) can be the result of a genetic predisposition, health condition, or medication.
17. Making comments like “That’s so lame” or “I got Jewed” or “That’s so gay.”
- Reducing people to stereotypes is offensive and hurtful.
18. Interrupting or talking over someone in a meeting.
- This can make people feel like their input or opinions have no value.
19. Sighing or rolling your eyes when someone speaks.
- This is just plain rude. It invalidates people’s feelings and makes them feel invisible.
20. Scheduling important meetings or deadlines on non-mainstream cultural or religious holidays. Or ordering food for events and not considering other people’s dietary preferences.
- This sends the message that only mainstream culture and the preferences of the majority have value.
Context is key
Microaggression isn’t just what you say, but where, to whom and why you say it. Depending on the context, the same words can either be an innocent observation or a subtle insult.
For example, it might be good fun to ask a messy close friend if she grew up in a barnyard. It’s a totally different matter to ask a new colleague “Where did you come from?” It’s not that questions like this are hurtful in themselves. But there’s a time and a place for curiosity.
Genuine curiosity about a person can help you get to know them. It can be an invitation for them to ask you questions and get to know you better too. But it’s important to be curious for the right reasons and to focus on who—not what—someone is.
It’s also important to remember that no 2 people or experiences are the same. Just because a comment isn’t offensive to you doesn’t mean it isn’t hurtful to someone else.