Microaggressions in the Classroom


Dr. Derald Sue offered the following definition of microaggressions, “Microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (Sue, 2010, p. 5).

The Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning provides a related definition, with examples. “A microaggression, defined succinctly, is an everyday exchange that cues a sense of subordination based on any one of a number of social identities, including: race, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, nationality, religion, and disability. Microaggressions can be as explicit as the use of outdated language to refer to a racialized group and as implicit as providing men more opportunities to speak in class or the lack of representation of international perspectives in course content (Nadal, Wong, Griffin, Davidoff, & Sriken, 2014).”

The Northeastern University College of Professional Studies listed the following common themes of microaggressions, with examples :

  • Treating like a second class citizen
    • Person of color mistaken for a service worker
  • Assuming inferiority or pathology of marginalized identity
    • Raising your voice to speak to a blind person
  • Assuming normality of dominant culture/identity
    • Where are you from? Your English is great
  • Denying personal bias
    • Obviously, I’m not homophobic, my brother is gay
  • Ascription of Intelligence
    • You are so articulate
    • You’re good at math, right?
  • Culture blindness
    • We are all part of one race, the Human Race
  • Assuming criminality
    • I don’t want trans people using my restroom
    • Being followed in a store

According to Sue, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, & Esquilin, (2007), there are three categories of microaggressions. The University of British Columbia Inclusive Teaching site has provided examples of each in the classroom:

  • Microassaults: explicit derogatory behavior meant to hurt someone, including verbal and nonverbal attacks
    • Name calling (e.g., Use of a derogatory or hateful term to refer to a group of people in class discussions)
    • Avoidant behavior (e.g., Student consciously avoids forming a group with peers of a minority group for a group assignment)
    • Hateful comments (e.g., graffiti left on the blackboard.)
  • Microinsults: subtle verbal or nonverbal communication, often unintentional, that demean a social group or identity. remarks, including subtle snubs, that communicate rudeness, insensitivity, or a demeaning message about a person’s social group, social identity, or heritage.
    • Snubs, avoiding eye contact, turning away (e.g., Student silences or alienates a peer in small group discussions with dismissive comments or ignores the peer’s opinions)
    • Doubting or denying expertise (e.g., Student questions qualifications of a woman instructor)
    • Use of stereotypes (e.g., Instructor uses an example that communicates a negative stereotype about a particular ethnic group)
  • Microinvalidations: disconfirming messages that exclude, negate, or dismiss the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of marginalized groups.
    • Instructor denies or dismisses an accusation of racism (e.g., “I don’t see race, we are all equal” )
    • Student negates a peer’s experience of discrimination as just a matter of perception (e.g., “Don’t be so sensitive!”)
    • Instructor denies systemic inequalities (e.g., “You will succeed if you work hard enough”)

Consequences for Students

Microaggressions have been found to have a wide variety of negatives impacts, including feelings of anxiety, depression, and helplessness; sleep difficulties; diminished confidence; intrusive cognitions; and decreased motivation. Despite the unintentional nature of most microaggressions, they can result in a hostile and unwelcoming academic environment for students and are negatively associated with student well-being and success. Although each act may appear minor, the cumulative effect is damaging to student psychological functioning and mental health. Thus, microaggressions in the classroom can cause students to experience cognitive, behavioral, and emotional reactions that make it difficult for them to learn (Sue, Lin, Torino, Capodilupo, & Rivera, 2009). More specifically, students who repeatedly experience microaggressions can experience disruptive emotions, including frustration, anger, and lower self-esteem, that interfere with their full engagement in the learning processes (Nadal at al., 2014; Sue at al., 2009).

Avoiding Microaggressions in the Classroom

Both instructors and students can commit microaggressions in the classroom (Sue et al., 2009). This means that instructors should examine their own behavior and attitudes as well as those of their students to monitor microaggressions. The University of Saint Louis Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning provides the following advice to instructors on avoiding microaggressions:

  • Reflect on your own attitudes, stereotypes, and expectations.
  • Confront your own hesitancies.
  • Do not expect students to be experts on any experiences beyond their own and do not make them speak for the experience of an entire group of people.
  • Assume that the groups that you are talking about always are in some way represented in the classroom.
  • In those cases when students do have the courage to contact you and point out that they were offended by a remark that you made or an action that you undertook, listen to them.

It also discusses how to address student-perpetrated microaggressions

  • Establish standards of responsibility and behavior for working collectively with others.
  • Challenge the discriminatory attitudes and behavior, rather than the person.
  • Teach students that impact is more important than intent.
  • Stop unintentional microinsults and ask students to rephrase or rethink comments.
  • Provide accurate information to challenge stereotypes and biases in the moment whenever possible.

The University of California/Davis Just In Time Teaching Guide suggests the following teaching strategies:

  • Use micro-affirmations, or small acts that foster inclusion. These include listening, comforting, and supporting people who may feel isolated or invisible in an environment.
  • Address the comment, even if you feel uncomfortable, because not doing so will send the message that such comments are okay.
  • Actively facilitate the discussion, rather than passively participating. This helps prevent only dominant voices from taking over the discussion.
  • Validate the feelings of your students about issues of difference and power. They are trusting you when they share their feelings.
  • Consider sharing the ways which you have been conditioned by the circumstances of your life and society, even if they seem to be “flawed.” This communicates courage in approaching conversations about difference.



Dr. Derald and his colleagues have written extensively about responding to microaggressions, introducing the concept of microinterventions. Sue, Alsaidi, Awad, Glaeser, Calle, & Mendez, (2019, p. 134) define micro-interventions as “the everyday words or deeds, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicates to targets of microaggressions (a) validation of their experiential reality, (b) value as a person, (c) affirmation of their racial or group identity, (d) support and encouragement, and (e) reassurance that they are not alone.” They believe they have two primary functions: (a) to enhance psychological well-being and provide a sense of control and self- efficacy and (b) to provide a repertoire of responses that can be used to directly disarm or counteract the effects of microaggressions by challenging perpetrators. “They are interpersonal tools that are intended to counteract, change or stop microaggressions by subtly or overtly confronting and educating the perpetrator.” (Sue et al., 2019, p.134).

Sue et al. (2019) specify four types of microintervention strategies. Examples of microintervention that  can be directed toward the perpetrator of the microaggression include:

  • Make the “invisible” visible
    • Make the meta-communication explicit
    • Challenge the stereotype
    • Ask for clarification
  • Disarm the microaggression
    • Express disagreement
    • Describe what is happening
    • Interrupt and redirect
  • Educate the offender
    • Appeal to the offender’s values and principles
    • Differentiate between intent and impact
    • Promote empathy
  •  Seek external intervention
    • Report the act
    • Set up a buddy system
    • Attend support groups

Interactive Webinars

Sponsored by the Office of Diversity Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Kumea Shorter-Gooden has presented interactive webinars:​​​​​​​

Culturally Responsive Mentoring


Diversity Flashpoints in the Classroom


Implicit Bias: What It Is and How to Interrupt It ​​​​​​​

Selected References

Sue, D. W., Lin, A. I., Torino, G. C., Capodilupo, C. M., & Rivera, D. P. (2009). Racial microaggressions and difficult dialogues on race in the classroom. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 15(2), 183-190.

Nadal, K. L., Wong, Y., Griffin, K. E., Davidoff, K., & Sriken, J. (2014). The adverse impact of racial microaggressions on college students’ self-esteem. Journal of College Student Development, 55(5), 461-474.

Sue, D. W. 2010. Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, John Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

Sue, D.W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, white allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74 (1), 128-142.



Microaggressions and Microaffirmations
Brown University Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning

Acknowledging Microaggressions
Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence & Educational Innovation

Microaggressions and Microinterventions in the Classroom
Florida State University College of Education

Recognizing and Addressing Microaggressions
Northeastern University College of Professional Studies

Addressing Microaggressions in the Classroom
University of Washington Center for Teaching and Learning

Avoiding Microaggressions in the Classroom
Saint Louis University Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning

University of California/Davis Just In Time Teaching Guide

Microaggressions in the Classroom
University of British Columbia Inclusive Teaching

University of Colorado Center for Teaching & Learning


Additional Resources with Examples

Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send
University of California/Santa Cruz Academic Affairs

Microaggressions in the Classroom
University of Denver Center for Multicultural Excellence

Examples of Racial Microaggressions
University of Minnesota School of Public Health


Guides to Responding to Microaggressions

Responding to Microaggressions and Bias
Diane Goodman Consulting

When and How to Respond to Microaggressions
Harvard Business Review