Microaggressions: How and why do they impact health?

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People’s physical and mental health is influenced by a large and diverse array of factors. But how can the attitudes of other people affect individuals’ well-being? In this Special Feature, we examine the impact that microaggressions have on health.

Share on PinterestMicroaggressions are an insidious form of discrimination. How do they impact health? Photo editing by Steve Kelly; image credit: kkgas/Stocksy.

Prof. Derald Wing Sue — a leading psychologist at Columbia University — and his collaborators give the definition of microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

The origin of the term “microaggression” dates back to the 1970s, and was coined by African American Harvard University psychiatrist Chester Pierce, specifically in relation to race.

Since then it has expanded to include other marginalized groups including women, LGBTQIA+ people, religious minorities, people with disabilities, and those from low socioeconomic backgrounds.As conceptualized by Prof. Sue and his colleagues, microaggressions can pertain to three distinct categories:

• microassaults – the most overt form of microaggressions, which come in the form of slights and insults that can be verbal or behavioral

• microinsults — which assert prejudiced stereotypes through insensitive comments that make presumptions about an individual’s intelligence, morality, or belonging to an in-group

• microinvalidations — comments that have the effect of devaluing or denying the lived experience of marginalized people.Microaggressions may be a result of conscious bias, but they can also reveal unconscious prejudices. Oftentimes a person may deliver a microaggression without consciously admitting that the attitude expressed by their words or actions is discriminatory.

Emerging research suggests that, like more explicit forms of discrimination, this covert type of discrimination has concrete negative impacts on the health of those at the receiving end.Chronic exposure to microaggressions can have both a direct impact on health, and an indirect impact when it occurs within a system of healthcare.

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