A microaggression is a subtle, often unintentional, form of prejudice. Rather than an overt declaration of racism or sexism, a microaggression often takes the shape of an offhanded comment, an inadvertently painful joke, or a pointed insult. For example, a white manager might comment that an Asian American employee speaks English well. A white student might ask where an Indian American student is from. A white woman may cross the street when she sees an African American man walking toward her at night. The white individual may not have intended to offend the person of color, but the comment still reminds the person of color that they are not fully accepted or trusted in their community. Experiencing microaggressions on a daily basis can be deeply stressful. The experience can also be unsettling, because the marginalized person may struggle to understand if the comment was intentional and how to respond.
The term was coined by Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the subtle insults he witnessed between white students and African American students. The term had a resurgence in 2007 when Teachers College Columbia University psychologist Derald Sue began to popularize the idea through his writing. Since then, the construct has spurred tremendous conversation, research, and debate.