4 Ways Microaggressions Can Be Dangerous to Someone

Unlike overt racism and discrimination, microaggressions are difficult to spot; although these subtle acts all stem from one thing: They target racial minorities, women, non-mainstream sexual orientation, and other marginalized groups. These include people of lower socio-economic class, students with poor academic performance, or anyone who can be a great subject of a “good punch line.”

In essence, microaggressions are verbal and nonverbal slights that have hidden messages, which may intentionally or unintentionally invalidate a certain group of people, or convey to them that they are of inferior status and do not belong with the “mainstream” society.

While blatant insults and racists remarks are becoming less of a problem these days, the same is not true for microaggression, which is generally defined by experts as any act or comment that rarely comes with malicious intent or hostility.

Furthermore, these subtle insults or insensitive comments often happen so casually and frequently that psychologists are saying the cumulative effects of microaggressions are almost similar to “death by a thousand cuts” because they eat away at one’s self-esteem and self-worth.

Read on the four subtle, but nonetheless detrimental, effects of microaggressions.

They Can Take a Toll on Your Psychological Health

You can easily call out someone who makes a snarky comment or racist remark, something which is hard or even nearly impossible to do when a person commits microaggressions lest you’d be accused of being overly sensitive, or worse, a crybaby.

And since victims of microaggressions might be uncomfortable with being called as overly sensitive, they tend to suffer in silence, which gradually and inevitably takes a psychological toll on their mental health.  This leads to depression, anger, and low self-esteem, issues tied to decreased work productivity and poor academic performance.

In an interview with USA Today, Arline Geronimus, a professor at the University of Michigan who teaches health behavior and health education, says that people have life-threatening stressors that activate a psychological stress response, which ideally should only kick in occasionally.  However, victims of microaggressions and discrimination experience this response more frequent than normal.

When this natural response is triggered incessantly, it takes a toll on your psychological health, Geronimus says.

Microaggressions Can Perpetuate Racism and Discrimination

Again, despite the subtle nature of microaggressions, more often than not they have a more insidious effect on their victims compared to racism and discrimination. This is because there is no or at least a covert malicious intent.  For instance, people of Asian ethnicity often hear the seemingly innocuous but nonetheless degrading statement, “You speak perfect English,” even though they have lived in the U.S. throughout their lives.

The aforementioned remark, which surprisingly is used by many people whose intention is to actually flatter the recipient, is often regarded as offensive.  In fact, some individuals have claimed that this seemingly innocuous “flattery” is a constant reminder that “they are alien in their very own country and are not a true, quintessential American.”

Further complicating things is the fact that those saying this covert or ambiguous flattery are not evil people.  In fact, many of them are well-respected educators, politicians, business moguls, friendly neighbors, and the likes.

More often than not, recipients of this covert flattery would say “Thank you, I was born here,” without even explicitly stating—lest they appear defensive and overly sensitive—that the comment underlines that they do not fit into the quintessential American citizen.

And because it is hard to address microaggressions head-on, the victims have no way to speak up against the subtle threats of stereotyping, which can perpetuate racism and discrimination even more.

Microaggressions Have a Detrimental Impact on Your Physical Health

To reiterate, their cumulative effects can lead to anxiety, depression, and stress, which all have a direct impact on your physical health.  Furthermore, severe depression can be paralyzing to the point of you becoming irresponsible with your own health and welfare, which further perpetuates the effects of microaggression.

Studies have also found that chronic stress and depression can predispose you to a higher risk of heart attack, diabetes, cancer, stroke, and osteoporosis.

The psychological stress caused by microaggressions is also linked to sleep problems, unhealthy eating habits, premature aging of the body, and weight loss.

Geronimus has pointed out the case of Erica Garner, a late activist whose father died due to a police chokehold.  At a young age of 27, she died of a heart attack, a condition tied to cellular aging and stress—just some of the ill effects of microaggressions that cause the recipients to be always in a “fight or flight mode.”

Microaggressions Affect Work Productivity and School Performance

Because microaggression puts victims in a “box” through subliminal remarks that isolate and stereotype them due to their religious belief, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic background, or ethnicity, it is not surprising that their work productivity or school performance greatly suffers as a result.

Their productivity and performance also suffer because the environment precludes them to maximize their potential since they are expected to have skills and knowledge that are bound and limited by their so-called “disadvantageous position.”

Just like overt discrimination, microaggressions have tangible effects on the children of immigrants who go to school.  In fact, some studies have shown that these subtle slights may not just affect their social, emotional, and mental development, but also their academic future.  After all, any experience, both good and bad, will always leave a lasting effect on someone during his or her early, impressionable years.

Children benefit from a supportive learning environment where they are respected as a person, and their contributions are valued by their educators and peers.

To further help you understand what constitutes microaggressions, here is a list of the most common examples of these subtle or covert insults that eat away at the recipient’s self-esteem and self-worth.

What Racial Microaggressions Look Like

  • A White woman clutches her purse as a Black man enters the elevator.
  • An Asian American college professor is often complimented by her colleagues because of her “perfect English” despite living all her life in the U.S.
  • A Latino woman walks into a high-end shop and is snubbed by the salespeople.

What Racial Mic​​​​​roaggressions Look Like

  • A young man’s sense of fashion is described as “gaudy” or “too ghetto.”
  • A couple is seated at a table in a posh restaurant even though other more desirable tables (which are located at the front) are available because of their “modest” appearance

What Gender and Sexual Microaggressions Look Like:

  • An assertive female boss is described with offensive words, while her male counterpart is only deemed as a persuasive leader.
  • A career-oriented mother is frequently asked by her colleagues if her husband has no problem with her earning more than him.
  • A female lawyer is often mistaken as a secretary.
  • A gay couple is often told not to hold hands or show romantic gestures to each other in public.
  • A man describes a vibrant shirt as something that only gay people would wear.


Experts suggest that gender, sexual orientation, racial, and socio-economic microaggressions are an implicit reflection of our worldviews, particularly of people who belong from socially devalued groups.  These subtle slights also tell us about how we categorize superiority and desirability versus inferiority and undesirability.

The gnawing but subtle detrimental effects of microaggressions often go unnoticed as most people see themselves as decent human beings who avoid blatant discrimination and biases.  To further complicate things, our environment, especially how social norms have been inculcated in us throughout our lives, has turned microaggressions into frequent and even acceptable acts that much of these happen outside the level of our conscious awareness.

Consequently, the only way to deal with our propensity to engage in microaggressions is to become more self-aware in how we deal with our people, particularly those from socially devalued groups.  Furthermore, by exposing ourselves from uncomfortable or unfamiliar environments, ideas, and individuals we might learn more and possibly become more accepting of others.

Other things we can do to curb our predilection to commit acts of microaggressions include dropping our defensiveness, listening to someone who claims to be offended by our actions and words, and learning more about the current and historical social settings and policy.

To reiterate, the subtle nature of microaggressions makes them easily ignored by most people, particularly of those who are not the recipients of the everyday minor slights.  In fact, critics of this “term” suggest that it is an impossible attempt to become politically correct at all times to the point that it inevitably curbs freedom of speech.  Furthermore, they have pointed out that it is a clear manifestation of society’s growing number of overly sensitive people.

Some well-respected psychologists such as Kenneth Thomas of the University of Wisconsin-Madison has also been quoted saying that the theory of microaggressions “would rather restrict than promote candid interaction between members of different racial groups, further adding that it gives people of certain ethnic and racial background a label that “they are weak and vulnerable.”

But for the targets of microaggressions, their effects are something that can’t be ignored as they are downright isolating, demeaning, and above all, hurtful. 

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