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Racial Microaggressions

Racial Microaggressions:

Dr Chester Pierce pioneered the term racial microaggressions (RMA) in 1970, to conceptualise racism against African Americans. Pierce (1969) described RMA as an “offensive mechanism” to explore the poor attention African Americans received in the medical field. According to Sue et al. (2007), RMA is the unconscious subtle racial slights, intentional or unintentional, communicating hostility, which can be categorised into three categories: microinsults, microinvalidations and microassaults (Sue, 2010). Microinsults are described as communications of rudeness and insensitivity, which convey a hidden insulting message. An example of this may be a white co-worker telling a person of colour “You are really articulate, I’m surprised”. The remark may sound like a compliment but suggests that people of colour are not typically articulate, perpetuating the stereotype that they are less intelligent than white people. Microinvalidation is a form of communication that negates people of colour’s experience as racial beings (Helms, 1992). An example is “I don’t see colour”. This comment invalidates those of colour and implies that race is not a factor in their experiences or identity. Microassaults are explicit racial derogatory verbal or nonverbal attacks (Minikel-Lacoque, 2013; Sue, 2010), which are more likely to be conscious. For instance, being called a racial slur or being racially abused.

According to the EHRC (2019), UK universities are "oblivious” to the racial abuse on campus. Their inquiry found that 24% of ethnic minority students had experienced racial harassment on university campuses, where nearly two-thirds of discriminatory occurrences encountered by students are thought to go unreported. This is concerning as 43% of universities felt confident in their anti-racial harassment policies (EHRC, 2019). Studies have shown that BAME students in HE often experience RMA, however different challenges depending on their ethnicity (Nadal et al., 2014). All these can have a negative impact on their educational experiences, leading to feelings of isolation, frustration, and lack of belonging (Hollingsworth et al., 2018; Mills, 2020; Seuwou et al., 2022). Researchers have found that campus staff, white peers and faculty members were the primary perpetrators of RMA (Watkins et al., 2010). RMA can take the form of environmental microaggressions, and unconscious forms of discrimination, such as being ignored or talked over in class, which create a hostile and unwelcoming environment for Black students in PWI (Mills, 2020). Chisholm et al. (2021) found that experiencing microaggressions negatively impacted the learning environment and could link to academic attainment, as students felt burnt out and that their experiences were invalidated. The impact of RMA is not limited to internal experiences but rather widely impacts the lives of BAME students, including career progression, normalising racism, and interference with friendships (Pardiwalla, 2020).

Bhopal, K. (2022). Academics of colour in elite universities in the UK and the USA: the ‘unspoken system of exclusion’. Studies in Higher Education, 1-11.

Bhopal, K., & Pitkin, C. (2018). Investigating higher education institutions and their views on the Race Equality Charter. Birmingham, UK: Center for Research of Race and Education.

Chisholm, L. P., Jackson, K. R., Davidson, H. A., Churchwell, A. L., Fleming, A. E., & Drolet, B. C. (2021). Evaluation of racial microaggressions experienced during medical school training and the effect on medical student education and burnout: a validation study. Journal of the National Medical Association, 113(3), 310-314.

EHRC. (2019). Universities oblivious to the scale of racial abuse on campus. Equality and Human Rights Commission. Retrieved from

Helms, J. E. (1992). A race is a nice thing to have: A guide to being a white person or understanding the white persons in your life. Topeka, KS: Content Communications. Helms, JE (1993). Introduction: Review of racial identity terminology. JG Ponterotto, JM Casas, LA Suzuki, & CM Alexander (Eds.).

Hollingsworth, L. D., Patton, D. U., Allen, P. C., & Johnson, K. E. (2018). Racial microaggressions in social work education: Black students’ encounters in a predominantly White institution. Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 27(1), 95-105.

Mills, K. J. (2020). “It’s systemic”: Environmental racial microaggressions experienced by Black undergraduates at a predominantly White institution. Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, 13(1), 44.

Minikel-Lacocque, J. (2013). Racism, college, and the power of words: Racial microaggressions reconsidered. American Educational Research Journal, 50(3), 432-465.

Nadal, K. L., Griffin, K. E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2014). The impact of racial microaggressions on mental health: Counseling implications for clients of color. Journal of Counseling & Development, 92(1), 57-66.

Pardiwalla, V. (2020). Racial microaggressions in the contemporary UK context: exploring the experiences of British Asians (Doctoral dissertation, City, University of London).

Seuwou, P., Dodzo, N., Osho, Y. I., Ajaefobi, W., Ngwana, T. A., Sarwar, D., ... & Daye, M. (2022). Widening Participation in Higher Education: Exploring the Factors that Impact on Black Asian and Minority Ethnic students attainment at a Post-1992 University in England. In EDULEARN22 Proceedings (pp. 2720-2729). IATED. https://doi:10.21125/edulearn.2022.0700

Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions, marginality, and oppression: An introduction.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: implications for clinical practice. American psychologist, 62(4), 271.

Watkins, N. L., LaBarrie, T. L., & Appio, L. M. (2010). Black undergraduates' experiences with perceived racial microaggressions in predominately White colleges and universities.