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Racism Hides Behind The Small Things People Say And Do

New research links microaggressions and racism.

While overt and blatant expressions of prejudice seem to have declined on American university campuses over the last few decades, students of color still suffer from racism embedded in small things that White students say and do. This is especially true for White students who think that minorities are too sensitive about racial issues.

Source: Imagestate

We conducted a study where we asked White American students how likely they were to deliver statements that contain microaggressive messages about people of other races. Microaggressive messages refer to brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults. These might appear to be harmless, but are in fact considered a form of everyday racism or discrimination and are correlated with a number of negative mental health outcomes in those who experience them. These negative mental health outcomes include increased distress (Chae et al., 2011), increased depression and decreased life satisfaction (Ayalon & Gum, 2011), increased risk for mood and substance use disorders (Clark et al., 2015), increased anxiety (Liao et al., 2016), and increased suicide risk (O'Keefe et al., 2015).

Taken together, these findings make microaggressions an important area of mental health research. But although many studies have examined the experiences of people of color who report experiencing microaggresions, no one had ever thought to examine those who perpetrate microaggessions. In fact, some scholars have questioned whether or not microaggressions are reflective of prejudicial attitudes or if they are simply innocuous racial missteps (Lilienfeld, 2017).

Thirty-three African American and 118 non-Hispanic White undergraduate students aged between 18 and 35 years old were included in our study, conducted at the University of Louisville. Participants completed questionnaires about their self-reported likelihood to engage in microaggressions, and the contexts in which such behavior occurred – for example in a discussion-based diversity course or while watching a news report about the shooting of an unarmed Black man. White students also answered questions about their explicit contemporary prejudicial attitudes towards Blacks, compared to more “old-fashioned” overt forms of racism.

M. Williams
Source: M. Williams

To account for different perspectives on this issue, we also asked Black participants how racist they considered each of the potential microaggressions to be. Any items where at least half of the Black students thought the behavior was “possibly,” “somewhat,” or “very racist” were classified as microaggressions for the purpose of this study.

M. Williams
Source: M. Williams

Study results indicate that the likelihood of White students committing microaggressions across five common contexts goes hand in hand with several well-validated measures of prejudice. Specifically, White students who reported that they were more likely to commit microaggressions were more likely to endorse colorblind, symbolic, and modern racist attitudes. They also held significantly less favorable feelings and attitudes towards Black people. This was especially true for White students who thought that minorities are too sensitive about matters related to racial prejudice. Almost all of the Black respondents judged being called “too sensitive” in this context to be racist in some form or another.

M. Williams
Source: M. Williams

“These findings provide empirical support that microaggressive acts are rooted in racist beliefs and feelings of deliverers, and may not be dismissed as simply subjective perceptions of the target,” says lead author Dr. Jonathan Kanter. “The delivery of microaggressions by White students is not simply innocuous behavior and may be indicative of broad, complex, and negative racial attitudes and explicit underlying hostility and negative feelings toward black students.”

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Read more about this study online at Race and Social Problems.


Ayalon, L., & Gum, A. M. (2011). The relationships between major lifetime discrimination, everyday discrimination, and mental health in three racial and ethnic groups of older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 15(5), 587–594.

Chae, D. H., Lincoln, K. D., & Jackson, J. S. (2011). Discrimination, attribution, and racial group identification: implications for psychological distress among Black Americans in the National Survey of American Life (2001-2003). American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 81(4), 498–506. doi: 10.1111/j.1939-0025.2011.01122.x

Clark, T. T., Salas-Wright, C. P., Vaughn, M. G., & Whitfield, K. E. (2015). Everyday discrimination and mood and substance use disorders: A latent profile analysis with African Americans and Caribbean Blacks. Addictive Behaviors, 40, 119–125. doi:10.1016/j.addbeh.2014.08.006

Kanter, J. W., Williams, M. T., Kuczynski, A. M., Manbeck, K., Debreaux, M., & Rosen, D. (2017). A Preliminary Report on the Relationship between Microaggressions against Blacks and Racism among White College Students, Race and Social Problems, 9(4), 291-299. DOI: 10.1007/s12552-017-9214-0

Liao, K. Y., Weng, C., & West, L. M. (2016). Social connectedness and intolerance of uncertainty as moderators between racial microaggressions and anxiety among Black individuals. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 63(2), 240-246. doi:10.1037/cou0000123

Lilienfeld, S. O. (2017). Microaggressions: Strong claims, inadequate evidence. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 12(1), 138-169. doi:10.1177/1745691616659391

O'Keefe, V. M., Wingate, L. R., Cole, A. B., Hollingsworth, D. W., & Tucker, R. P. (2015). Seemingly harmless racial communications are not so harmless: Racial microaggressions lead to suicidal ideation by way of depression symptoms. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior, 45(5), 567-576.