Racial Microaggressions

Racial microaggressions are subtle and commonplace exchanges or indignities (both conscious and unconscious) that somehow convey demeaning messages to people of color. These racial slights can be verbal, behavioral, or even environmental. The exchanges often are viewed by perpetrators as harmless and inoffensive, but racial microaggressions can be a cause of psychological distress and drain spiritual energy for people of color who experience them.

A taxonomy of racial microaggressions was proposed by Derald Wing Sue and his colleagues, and their taxonomy classified racial microaggressions into three forms: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Microassaults are explicit and conscious derogatory racist epithets that are purposefully meant to hurt people of color. Microinsults and microinvalidations are the unconscious and unintentional demeaning slights made toward people of color. An example of a microinsult would be a White man telling a person of color who is interviewing for a job, “The person who is most qualified will get this job.”

Historical Perspective

The term microaggressions was first introduced by Chester Pierce in 1970. According to Pierce’s definition, microaggressions are interracial interactions that convey contempt, disregard, and/or ambivalence that often reflect racial slights toward people of color. They are subtle racial behaviors that act as reminders of the societally inferior racial status of people of color in the United States. Because racial microaggressions are so unpredictable and occur intermittently, they force people of color to react and remain vigilant to preserve their self-respect. In the late 1980s, Peggy C. Davis defined racial microaggressions as stunning automatic acts of disregard that come from unconscious attitudes of White superiority and reveal a verification of Black inferiority. Therefore, racial microaggressions have evolved over time to reflect subtle and unconscious forms of racism.

Contemporary Views of Racial Microaggressions

Implications for Counseling and Supervision

Existing research and literature today focus on different aspects of microaggressions, particularly the contexts in which they occur. Microaggressions not only occur in daily interracial interactions for people of color, but they also occur in counseling and supervision relationships.

In a therapeutic relationship, where therapists are in positions of power and clients are more likely to view their therapists in positions of authority, clients who experience racial microaggressions from their therapists are more likely to question themselves than their therapist. For example, if a client shares an experience that she or he perceived as racist and wanted to process this experience with her or his therapist, the therapist may respond by saying, “I think that you are being paranoid,” thus completely invalidating the client’s experience. Well-intentioned White therapists also may claim that they understand racial oppression completely in an attempt to identify with or make a connection with their clients of color. However, such an intervention could further demean clients’ experiences of racism and invalidate their identification as a person of color who experiences unique racial oppression.

Racial microaggressions also have been found to occur in cross-racial supervisory relationships involving White supervisors and Black supervisees. For example, Black supervisees have reported that White supervisors have blamed clients of color for problems stemming from oppression, made stereotypic assumptions about these supervisees and clients of color, offered culturally insensitive treatment recommendations to these supervisees, and been reluctant to give performance feedback to them for fear of being viewed as racist. These experiences have been found to be detrimental to Black supervisees and, indirectly, to the clients they serve.

Implications for Counseling

Mental health practitioners must be aware of the detrimental effects that racial microaggressions have on people of color. The literature reveals that this experience of everyday racism for people of color has an effect on their intrapsychic structure. Racial microaggressions perpetuate and promote feelings of invisibility, unworthiness, and anguish among people of color. Because racial microaggressions can be so subtle, yet so powerful, people of color usually are left with feelings of disbelief about their occurrence and, in turn, question themselves as to what really happened in a microaggressive situation. It is imperative that counselors are sensitive to and aware of experiences of racial microaggressions when they are shared in a therapeutic context so that these experiences are not disregarded or invalidated through minimization.


  1. Constantine, M. G. (2007). Racial microaggressions against African American clients in cross-racial counseling relationships. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54, 1-16.
  2. Constantine, M. G., & Sue, D. W. (2007). Perceptions of racial microaggressions among Black supervisees in cross-racial dyads. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 54, 142-153.
  3. Franklin, A. J., & Boyd-Franklin, N. (2000). Invisibility syndrome: A clinical model of the effects of racism on African-American males. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 33—41.
  4. Harrell, S. P. (2000). A multidimensional conceptualization of racism-related stress: Implications for the well-being of people of color. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 70, 42-57.
  5. Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life. American Psychologist, 62, 271—286.

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