By |Published On: September 21st, 2020|Categories: Racial Awareness Concepts|Tags: |

If you are not an expert in spotting a “microagression,” you are not alone. This article and its companion articles, we hope, will transform you from a microaggression newbie into a microaggression maven. Buckle up.

The concept of “microaggression” was first theorized by Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce, a prominent Black American psychiatrist, and his colleagues in 1969. [1] This period in American history was burdened with “macroaggressions,” a term that Dr. Pierce used to describe cross-burnings, lynching, beatings and other “gross, dramatic, [and] obvious” manifestations of racism against Black Americans. However, Dr. Pierce also understood that more subtle—and more frequently occurring—manifestations of “proracist behavior” existed. Dr. Pierce called these manifestations “microaggressions,” which he and his colleagues defined as “subtle, stunning, often automatic, and non-verbal exchanges which are ‘put downs’ of blacks.” [2]


Developments In The Definition Of Microaggression


Since the term “microaggression” was coined, several psychologists and others have elaborated on the phenomenon. One of the most popular contemporary formulations of “microaggressions,” developed by Dr. Derald Wing Sue and others, defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”[3]

Dr. Sue and others further developed microaggression research by describing the following three forms of microaggressions:

Microinsults: Communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial identity.

Microinvalidation: Communications that exclude, negate or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color.

Microassaults: An explicit racial derogation characterized primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or purposeful discriminatory actions.


For The Avoidance Of Doubt…


Microaggressions can be based on factors other than race, such as one’s ethnicity, gender, transgender status, sexual orientation, disability, weight, religion and socioeconomic status. Microaggressions may also be based one’s bi-racial or multi-racial identity.


Illustrative Examples


To help gain a better understanding of microaggression, below are a few illustrative examples of racial microaggressions in the Big Law context, using a hypothetical Big Law firm (the “Firm”).

The Firm’s [web site/ external branding / internal branding] excludes any depiction of Black attorneys working at the Firm, when there are several Black attorneys, including partners, at the Firm.This example conveys the message that Black attorneys are not welcome at the Firm and that Black attorneys do not exist. In terms of microaggression theory, this stylized example is an example of environmental microinvalidation.
A partner at the Firm says, to a Black staff member, that America is not racist because a Black president was elected twice.The Big Law partner in this example suggests that America is cleansed of its racist past, including approximately 250 years of slavery, because of two elections (which were not the result of unanimous votes). In terms of microaggression theory, this stylized example is an example of a verbal microinvalidation.
A Big Law partner tells a Black associate to eat more fried chicken to gain weight.The Big Law partner in this example promotes a racial stereotype (that all Black people eat fried chicken), fails to recognize that fried chicken is associated with negative portrayals of Black people, and suggests that the associate’s weight is abnormal. In terms of microaggression theory, this stylized example is an example of a verbal microinsult.




We hope you found this overview of microaggressions informative. If you think you are already a microaggression pro, take this microaggression quiz to find out!


[1] Dr. Pierce was a Black American psychiatrist who, among other things, served as a Commander in the U.S. Navy, was a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, a professor of education at Harvard University and a member of the faculty of the Harvard School of Public Health. Dr. Pierce devoted a significant part of his life to studying extreme environments and how Black Americans cope with racism. See Ezra Griffith, Race and Excellence: My Dialogue with Chester Pierce 138, 163 (1st ed. 1998); see also The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry, About Us Page (available at

[2] Chester M. Pierce, Jean V. Carew, Diane Pierce-Gonzalez & Deborah Wills, An Experiment in Racism: TV Commercials, 10(1) Education and Urban Society 65 (1977). In this paper, the authors define racism as a mental and public health illness in which skin color determines whether or not one is expected to operate from an inferior or superior vantage point, resulting in a situation where “[Black Americans and white Americans] are proracist, in that that they permit, insist, encourage, and sustain that the black will be dependent and deferential (in regard to time, space, energy, mobility) in all interpersonal interactions.”

[3] Derald Wing Sue, Christina M. Capodilupo, Gina C. Torino, Jennifer M. Bucceri, Aisha M. B. Holder, Kevin L. Nadal & Marta Esquilin, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice, 62(4) American Psychologist 271-286 (2007).

About the Author: Oscar

Oscar is the founder of Black at Big Law, a resource devoted to promoting anti-racism in the Big Law community.