Racial & Ethnic Microaggressions: Examples & Impacts

Instructor: Clio Stearns

Clio has taught education courses at the college level and has a Ph.D. in curriculum and instruction.

If you are interested in reducing microaggressions in your workplace, you may want to start by learning more about what they are and how they affect people. This lesson discusses examples and the impact of racial and ethnic microaggressions.

What is Microaggression?

Ella is an African-American woman who works at a nonprofit environmental organization. Even though her organization is very progressive, Ella has experienced many microaggressions, or subtle acts of discrimination, on the job.

Ella knows that microaggressions are often subjective; not everyone who commits them sees the full range of implications and offense to what they are perpetuating. Also, microaggressions can be rooted in unconscious bias, preconceived notions about other people and groups that we hold without even being aware of it.

When she talks to other people of color working at her organization, though, Ella finds that microaggressions based on race and ethnicity are abound. She starts to gather examples and thinks about how these microaggressions are affecting individuals and affecting the organization overall.

Ella believes that the first step toward ending microaggression is really identifying what microaggressions are and how they impact people and groups.

Examples of Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions

As Ella understands it, racial microaggressions are those committed against people because of their race or a perception of their race. Ella knows race to be a social construct that combines perceptions of skin color, heritage, and historical background.

Ethnic microaggressions are similar, but these are based on ethnicity, or people's cultural heritage and background. As Ella talks with colleagues, she gathers many different examples of racial and ethnic microaggressions.

  • Minh, a man of Vietnamese descent, tells Ella that last February, he came to work to find a toy dragon on his desk. His neighbor, a white woman, looked at him proudly and said, 'Happy Chinese New Year!' Minh was flabbergasted; he is not Chinese, and he does not celebrate any particular holidays associated with his ethnicity anyway. He experienced this as a microaggression and was not really sure what to do with the dragon staring up at him.
  • Aisha, a Latina woman who was born and raised in Pennsylvania, tells Ella about a presentation she made for a division of their organization a few weeks ago. She worked hard to make the presentation succinct and meaningful. When she finished, an audience member looked at her and said, 'Wow, your English is so good!' Aisha could not believe it; English is the only language she has ever spoken, and she wanted people to pay attention to her content, not her accent and grammar.
  • James, an African American man, missed work one day last week to take care of his daughter who was home with the flu. When he returned, he tells Ella, his supervisor said to him, 'Gosh, it's so nice you stayed home; most black men aren't very reliable fathers; if you know what I mean!'
  • Tessa, who is biracial, tells Ella about how she sat down with a group of colleagues for lunch last week. They were talking about a variety of topics, when suddenly, one of them turned to Tessa, looked at her and said, 'I've been meaning to ask...what ARE you?' Tessa wishes she had thought quickly enough to answer, 'A person,' but instead, she just mumbled something unintelligible and kept eating her lunch.

Impacts of Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions

Ella realizes that these microaggressions have impacted her colleagues in a wide variety of ways. Some of the impacts of racial and ethnic microaggressions on the individual level include:

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