Is It You or Is It Racist? The Insidious Impact of Microaggressions on Mental Health

Fraying rope

By Debra Roberts, PhD (Howard University) and Sherry Molock, PhD (George Washington University)

Several years ago, I was at a national psychological conference presenting several papers.  I was walking through the lobby wearing an Afrocentric mud cloth jacket when a woman came up to me, handed me her tote and asked me to take her luggage to her room.  I remember thinking, “She can’t possibly think I am a staff person at the hotel because of my jacket” but I decided that I would take her luggage to her room. When she tried to tip me, I pointed to my conference badge with the presenter ribbon on it and replied: “Oh, that’s not necessary; you and I are both attending the same conference.”  The woman turned red, profusely apologized and tried to buy me dinner for the remainder of the conference.  – Sherry Molock, PhD

Honest mistake or racist act?

Perhaps, if you are African American, you may have similar stories to tell:

  • Have people marveled at how “articulate you are” or asked you if an African American student is “ ‘black smart’ or really smart?”
  • Has anyone ever said something that made you question whether what was said had racist undertones or were you just being overly sensitive?
  • Have you ever been followed in a department store for SWB – “shopping while black” or had your son pulled over numerous times for DWB – “driving while black?”

And, if you aren’t African American, you may have witnessed similar interactions happening to others around you.

Sometimes we don’t know how we should respond to such incidents because they are more subtle and not overtly racist.  But sometimes people engage in covert racism, which can involve statements, and behaviors that are more subtle or aversive, where the person engaging in the behavior is not aware that the behavior is racist or discriminatory and would feel offended if you labeled it as such.

These more subtle forms of racism are called microaggressions, and the dangerous thing about microaggressions is while they may be small intentional or unintentional offenses, they can accumulate and become burdensome over time for those who experience them.  One of the most insidious features of microaggressions is that sometimes it is hard to confront because it is so subtle.  Because they tend to involve small incidences or indirect insults, it is easy for the perpetrators to dismiss or negate your perception that the behavior or comment was racist.  After a while, you may begin to question whether you are being overly sensitive or imagining things yourself!

However, for those who are the targets of such microaggressions, it is important to acknowledge any discomfort you may experience as a result of the perpetrator’s comments and/or acts, cognitively and physiologically.

Whether or not we are aware of it, our bodies respond to circumstances (including racism) in our surroundings.  We often think of stress as some vague thing that happens to us; but stress is actually defined as “our response to conditions or stimuli in the environment.”

These conditions or stimuli can be referred to as stressors, and Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child identifies three different types of responses to stressors that they refer to as positive, tolerable and toxic.

  1. A positive stress response includes behavior that is normal, and is also an essential part of healthy development.
  2. Tolerable stress responses activate the body’s alert systems to a greater degree than the positive stress response, often due to more severe, longer-lasting events such as institutional racism.
  3. The last, and most harmful, is the toxic stress response that often occurs when one experiences strong, frequent, and/or prolonged adversity.  This may include emotional/physical abuse, economic hardship, exposure to violence, and exposure to racism – whether the acts are overt or subtle.  Toxic stress has been linked to severe illnesses such as depression, autoimmune disorders such as lupus and Crohn’s disease, and other disorders that compromise our physical and psychological well-being.

Given the potentially harmful effects of these stressors, it is important to at least be mindful of our responses to these triggers.  There are healthy and unhealthy responses.  Among a host of healthy coping strategies at our disposal are prayer and meditation.  Regardless of our religious/spiritual beliefs, there is room for one or the other or both in our lives.  One particular form of meditation that seems to be getting a great deal of attention among researchers who study our response to stress is mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness is simply an awareness of what is happening in the moment, observing your thoughts and feelings without judging them.  Mindfulness meditation often involves sitting in a quiet space while focusing on your physical, physiological and/or emotional state.  Although it is not necessary to use any particular tools, many people find that music and/or guided instructions are helpful during this process.  Whether you are a novice or seasoned practitioner a number of free mindfulness meditations can be found online.

Meditation has been linked to improved mood, decreased stress, and better immune function.  So, whether we are in the midst of observing race-based injustices on a national/global level or experiencing our own personal microaggressions, the nature of our response is a key factor in preserving our physical and psychological health.

In addition to practicing mindfulness and mediation, it can also be empowering to directly address microaggressive behaviors.  Before responding, think about what is your goal. To express how the behaviors made you feel? To affect behavioral change?  Sometimes it may be important just to let the person know that you are offended by the behavior and that the behaviors/statements are unacceptable. At other times, the incident can be the catalyst for some important ongoing discussions about race and discrimination. However you decide to respond, remember: microaggressions are real,  offensive and you can be empowered to respond to them in ways that maximize your mental and physical well being.

We want to hear from you! Tell us in the comments.

  • How do you respond to daily microaggressions based on your race, age, gender, sexual orientation, etc.?
  • How can we encourage others to be more mindful of the impact microaggressions may have?

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  1. I experience this on my current job. At first it was indirect: body language and could detect that I was being discussed by colleagues in an unprofessional manner not due to bad performance but due to my initiative to learn more about the company, its processes and objectives. Then it became direct. Before that, I would put on some headphones (music not always playing in them) as a barrier to the behavior. I was either left alone ir the perpetrator(s) would speak freely and boldly. After the direct confrontation, I began experiencing stress stomach upset and stress related migraine like headaches. I addressed this with both my direct Supervisor and the Executive Director. I was told in the nicest way possible that I was overly sensitive and I was free to find another job. The microaggression I experienced has been practiced and honed to a very sharp edge and wielded with great skill. I made my own personal decision on how I resolved the problem which will remain private. However, I did not sit back and internalize this experience. It was not my concern if I were perceived as crazy or not. I expressed my feelings and in return, I was given a response that allowed me to make a decision on how to respond if I experience microaggression in the future.


  2. Thesis might deviate but, Positive stress response is interpreted as a psychosomatic disorder for me. I think Mindfulness is, whether not valid in these symptoms. Of course, limited to mild symptoms. For example, hot flashes increase in heart rate, the disorder of the breathing, these from the tension. These experts mindfulness is introduced, and if they are practitioner to the client, the client feels is likely do with the self-management then.
    I think in the case of “Tolerable stress response”, treatment is difficult in mindfulness. As the maintenance of good condition, it may be effective in self-suggestion, but important is perhaps, it is to maintain good relations with others and with counseling psychologists.
    “Toxic stress response” would be out of the question. To recover from the mental state such is difficult. On the contrary, there is a risk that meditation is directly linked to the trauma of the past.
    There is personal interest in “Toxic stress response”. How it is give like any neurological damage to the brain ? But I want to another chance.
    And, sorry, the movie was not shown. It was error.


  3. I want to thank you for writing this. I am an black academic working in a UK university and the sheer emotional stress of dealing with microagressions has recently taken a huge toll on my physical and emotional well being. I like that you opened this article with that anecdote because conference/large meeting microaggressions are probably the most difficult to deal with. The worst part, aside from the standard nonsense whereby people talk over you, or dismiss your contributions to discussions at least until someone else has said the exact same thing, is the social engagements.

    As you know, socialising and networking is a large part of succeeding in academia. It is during the coffee-breaks, lunches and gala dinners that the real collaborations are made. It is there where you must form alliances, beef up ideas, make that connection that wins you that next grant. It is also where you must endure people handing you their glasses, asking you for directions to toilets, asking you if you “eat with a knife and fork at home”, ask you intimate details about your sex life, rub your arm when trying to illustrate a point about whether it is possible to see the measles rash on black skin…. And you just have to keep going, sometimes gently explaining that you’re a speaker, other times steeling your nerve to deliver a firm rebuke.

    I do sometimes resent the fact that I need so much mental strength to go to these gatherings. I realise that many people have anxiety issues that mean that they feel awkward and uncomfortable at conferences. I appreciate that for the chronically shy it must be just as hard to attend. But I am not chronically shy, I am mainly out-going and friendly and I enjoy meeting new people. If I wasn’t black (and female), I would relish these opportunities. Instead, I look upon the conference calendar with dread.

    Fortunately, meditation has helped me enormously. That and copius amounts of Zumba!

    That you once again.


  4. People are always wondering why children of color are so angry and don’t do well in school. Follow some of these children in their lives; see and feel their hurt and helplessness at the comments and treatment they receive each and every day. Add to that the generational hurt and anger reflected on them by their parents and other family and community members who have to endure the same thing everyday of their lives. Many of the incidents most of us would call “macro” not microaggressions. I am a white woman married to a black man in 1969. I have had the heartbreak of comforting my children and husband when their experiences become overwhelming. It’s time to become more aware of our behavior to “others” My philosophy is that when I think of people, (whether they are living on the streets, are yelling at their kids in a supermarket, or have different skin color) as “others” or “those people” I am a bigot. I challenge you to become aware of the people you categorize as others and work on seeing them as God’s children just as important the human as you are.


  5. In my first year as a PhD international graduate student, the instructor of one of my classes approached me during an exam and indicated that because English was not my first language, I had one additional hour to complete the test. She said that in front of all the other students. My grade average in the class at that time was an A.

    The same professor, a few lectures back, dared to say that specific kinds of toys are so important for a child’s human development. Where I came from, you played with mud or whatever was around you and it certainly did not affect me from successfully completing my degree.

    While discussing my interest in international psychology, a student in the class interrupted me and said that she only wanted to work with American clients and was therefore not interested in international issues.

    Someone that I did ask general advices about internship applications told me that he first could review and revise my application for language and writing style.

    A professor once told me to repeat my last name more than 5 times and then proceeded on remarking that it was “such a strange last name” and it would be difficult for her to remember it.

    One time, I decided to do a specific African hair style. One student approached me with a smile and said “what do you have there on your hair? It looks like…” She stopped talking, smiled again, and then went away.


  6. Wow,thank you for this article. I will be presenting at the Illinois Psychological Associations conference on Micro-aggressions from the Doll House to the White House: Black women’s hair and the impact on health and Black girls self esteem.


  7. Excellent bericht . Ik controleerde voortdurend dit
    weblog en ik ben onder de indruk ! Zeer behulpzame informatie, met name het hoofdstuk sluiten :
    ) Ik zorg voor dergelijke informatie veel. Ik was op zoek naar deze specifieke informatie
    voor een lange tijd . Bedankt en veel geluk .


  8. I am one of five siblings of interracial parents. I am phenotypically white-looking and rarely experience these “microaggressions,” while my brown-skinned siblings experience them quite often. My sister once called me, close to tears, and asked me to drive across town to buy a cup of coffee at a specific cafe using a $100 bill. She had been refused service and needed to know (due to a lifetime of microagressions) that the policy was not aimed specifically at her (I did visit, and my $100 was not accepted either). That my sister had to expend even a second of emotional energy on the question left me reeling. I am acutely aware that my white skin affords countless privileges, but until that day it hadn’t occured to me that one of the privileges was not having to question every apparently dismissive action as possibly or probably racist. I cannot fathom the psychic toll that takes over time–and to have that toll dismissed by folks who never experience it just adds more insult to the injuries.


    1. Most white people don’t want to understand it. We have been in the race fight for a longtime. Folks need to understand, there is a new frontier that has been added to racism. Its called the colored America. Where white folks feel they are fighting for their lives, to exist as a minority in this country. lol And have become even more vicious toward not only Black people but all people of color. They’re greatest fear is that Black people will treat ’em as they have treated us. But its not true. We love white people. lol And we are still trying to be accepted by ’em as human beings. After all After slavery. They were the only human we knew to follow. lol So mircoaggression. I think not. lol Black people have to automatically, assume that the actions are racist, bcuz looking at history. If u don’t pay attention and see it as such, it could cost u ur life. But I agree with the issue of stress and raising heart rates that it causes. Which should give us excellent reasons for reparations. Many women like u were often killed when it was found out that u were passing.


  9. There is some merit in believing what you “feel.” Usually, your inner voice tells you to be aware and to acknowledge the urgings of uncomfortableness. Direct acts of racism are stressful, especially in this current political forum of Attack-Obama, and overall gross economic hardship. We are two societies, and the fear of the encroachment of one upon the other is palatable. Almost no one is immune from either being a target, victim, or even a perpetrator. As an elementary teacher, I see it every day, and worse, I see the continuous efforts of ten-year old children still pandering to Eurocentric standards of acceptance (features, hair, skin tone). As an adult, I experience this daily, despite my stature (older, professional) and my manner (calm, urbane). It is suspect, now, when I experience or witness white people who seem authentically kind. Sad, but oh so true.


  10. I am an older black guy… insert (over 55, also bi-racial, opposed to being called African-American, usually nicely dressed and groomed man – I also have a MPA). From a lifetime of wondering about, being angry about and general confusion at other people’s (OP) behavior – I often have a frown on my face. Most folks don’t bother me in the store, on the street, getting a good table, asking for directions etc. cause I think they know – I’m not the guy to ‘screw’ with… ok.
    At this point in time what this article does for me is wonder how old you are – would you respond well to a response of, ‘duh’? I wonder if you have noticed that most ‘help’ are now NOT black these days (I won’t insert the new brown I see all over town) so the folks that assume you are the help are just out-of-date and clueless non-black folk and who gives a rip about them – unless of course you are in the business of educating those people and I don’t know many black folks who have made a living of such enterprise. Actually – maybe that is a good idea! Along with that teaching line-up include the younger set who think that being light, dark, kinky, natural, afro-centric or athletic or whatever – – – makes you special or stand out or not average or, or, or, and or. Well, it does not. You is just you. You is just the product of your mother and father. Your life is just as interesting or not interesting as the next guy or gal. Learn to speak and read and get busy. The actual history of our people and of all people reveals that it takes a long time to change the storyline but, it can be done. Thank God for the men and women who take the risk and step out of the picture frame. When you get older – you have time to look back and wish so much time wasn’t spent on what used to be called – the dumb sh*t. EG. just wasted an hour of my life with this response! Funny though – I reread the article and seriously – the graphic is too big and your stereotyped examples were dated. You might do better to educate them, not us.


    1. You have a valid point! I don’t agree that we are just a product of our parents. Genes have a huge influence but so does our experiences and how we process and learn from them. We choose how we react to people, emotions, circumstances, etc. We can make positive chooses or choose to let others control us.


  11. I do not allow people to get away with insults. If it feels wrong it is wrong. I have a PhD and have been both a professor and a college administrator. I was a director at UNC Chapel Hill for ten years. I was frequently confronted with racism, including occasionally being told I was intimidating. When I asked how I was intimidating since I did not raise my voice, curse, call people names and had virtually no power to fire anybody I was told it was my vocabulary! Seems I knew how to express myself, including pointing out racism or insensitivity , rarely directed at me, but frequently observed by me, and some people found the fact I was articulate intimidating!


  12. Microaggressions range from simple mistakes to outright psychological abuse, which is the correct and proper term for this. Every day people are psychologically abused hundreds of times, from your peers and coworkers, your friends and family (very common), and of course the most common: your employer. Race is not the issue here, it is the abuse, it is treating someone as less than an equal. We will not see an end to psychological abuse or microaggressions until we deal with equalty. Race is a distraction and merely further divides us and ensures that we are less likely to solve the problem of inequality.


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