How Do Microaggressions Affect the AAPI Community?

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Outwardly racist comments are pretty easy to detect—they could include the fact that you didn’t get a certain job because of your gender, or could consist of obvious comments and insults that demean your appearance or culture.

Microaggressions, on the other hand, can be more subtle, but are still forms of prejudice: They could create similar feelings that racial slurs do, making you feel anxious, confused, angry, gaslit, unwelcome, or judged due to your appearance, culture, sexual orientation, or another characteristic that’s related to the marginalized group you may find yourself in.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions have been defined as “subtle verbal or nonverbal behavior, committed consciously or not, that is directed at a member of a marginalized group, and has a harmful, derogatory effect.” 

The main difference between a microaggression and another type of comment is that the microaggression specifically targets the marginalized group or community of a victim. They often occur quite subtly and frequently—in fact, in many instances, the person issuing the microaggression may have no idea that their words or behaviors are hostile, derogatory, prejudiced, or insulting. Microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal and are often automatic and unconscious, according to research.

History of Microaggressions Toward the AAPI Community

Racism and bigotry against the AAPI community has been happening for nearly 200 years, since the first Asian immigrants made their way to the United States, while the term “microaggressions” first came to the forefront in the 1970s by Harvard researchers. The first wave of East Asian immigration occurred in the 1850s, which, after years of discrimination and outward racism (i.e., race-based mass lynching and murders, burning their homes, internment camps, banning them from schools and jobs, etc.), led to anti-Chinese immigration bans that lasted in some form until 1943.

Currently, there are still laws in place that allow (and even encourage) the en-masse deportations of immigrants, which can target the AAPI community, not to mention the mass shootings, racial aggressions, and hate crimes Asian Americans have experienced throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.

Historically, in terms of microaggressions, the earliest studies are from the early 2000s, suggesting that most Asian Americans (about 80%) have experienced microaggressions at some point in their lifetime and that they can start as early as preschool.

Recognizing Microaggressions Toward AAPI

Microaggressions can take many different forms toward AAPI. They negatively impact the physical, emotional, and mental health and well-being of their targets and may elicit feelings of shame, confusion, embarrassment, stress, anger, and sadness. Below are some examples of common racial microaggressions toward members of the AAPI community. Note that microaggressions can be verbal or nonverbal.

Alien in one’s own land

This type of racial microaggression assumes that AAPI, who look or are named differently from the dominant culture, are foreign-born or “don’t belong” in America.

Examples: “Wow, you speak English so well!” and "Where are you really from?"

Ascription of intelligence

This microaggression assigns intelligence to someone based on their race, and especially perpetuates the stereotype that Asian Americans have higher intelligence levels when it comes to subjects such as math or science.

Example: “Oh, can you help me with this? You seem like you’re good at math.”

Color blindness or denial of culture

These racial microaggressions deny or refuse the acknowledgement of cultural heritage or race as if doesn't exist, erasing the valid racial and ethnic experiences and history of people of color.

Example: “I don’t see color.”

Myth of meritocracy

Here, the microaggressor suggests that race doesn’t play a role when it comes to life successes or failures.

Example: “You’ll get the job, regardless of your race.”

Pathologizing cultural values or communication styles

This microaggression assumes the notion that the only “correct” cultural values or communication styles are of the dominant culture in that country.

Examples: “You’re being way too quiet," and "You're not going to get that promotion because you're not assertive enough."

Second class citizen

This type of microaggression generally occurs when the person from the non-dominant group receives treatment from the dominant group that indicates the dominant group is preferred overall.

Examples: A person of color being mistaken for and treated as a service worker, being ignored by a salesperson who addresses a White person behind them, and being addressed as "you people."

Causes of Microaggressions

While the exact causes of microaggressions are unknown, it has been suggested that they occur because of learned behaviors that have been taught through observation or social mechanisms from an early age. So, even if it isn’t explicit bias, implicit bias can still exist subconsciously. This makes microaggressions occur, even if the person in question does not mean to commit one.

Some common causes of microaggressions may consist of watching television shows or reading books that show the AAPI community in a negative light or propagate stereotypes, having childhood friends or parents discriminate against members of the AAPI community or calling them “different,” or learning history in a whitewashed way at school.

Coping Strategies for Microaggressions

Even though microaggressions can be very subtle, research has determined that the cumulative effect of microaggressions over time can have a significant negative impact on mental health. If you find yourself the target of a microaggression, here are a few things that might help:

First, determine whether it’s worth responding to. Dr. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College, has a five-question checklist that can help you determine whether you should respond to a microaggression or not.

  • If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
  • If I respond, will the person become defensive, and will this lead to an argument?
  • If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., co-worker, family member, etc.)
  • If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
  • If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?

It’s important to recognize that your decision to respond to a microaggression is incredibly personal, and it all stems down to how you feel when you respond. No response is also a perfectly acceptable reaction.

Should you choose to respond, Dr. Diane Goodman, a social justice and diversity consultant, recommends memorizing statements from her list, which consists of responses such as repeating the statements, separating the intent from the impact, and expressing how the incident made you feel.

The best way to respond is usually by expressing your emotions, as oftentimes, people are unaware a microaggression has been made in the first place. Then, be gentle with yourself and your emotions, as they will be heightened: Self-care is key.

Call a trusted friend, loved one, or community member who can witness and validate your emotions and experience and provide you with care, comfort, and support.

How to Recognize Microaggressions

A microaggression truly is anything that suggests bias, no matter how implicitly. If something has made you uncomfortable or “other,” those feelings are valid and should be recognized as such. 

And if you’re the one delivering the microaggression? Understand the other person’s opinion when they express discomfort, and take note of what you said and how it made the person feel. By naturally displaying empathy and understanding, you can be a better ally to the community when they experience microaggressions.

Commit to increasing your awareness and correcting your behavior moving forward so that you don't inadvertently continue to cause harm.

How to Be an Ally for the Community When You Witness Microaggressions

If you happen to see someone else making a member of the AAPI community uncomfortable due to a microaggression, here’s what you can do.

  1. Observe what’s happening objectively. Can you sense discomfort or discreet racism?
  2. Express your emotions calmly to the aggressor, in a way that doesn’t indicate blame, but simply fact.
  3. Approach the person who experienced the microaggression and acknowledge their experience, i.e., "I saw what happened and that wasn't okay" or "I want to check in with you because what that person said/did was really messed up and I'm sorry you experienced that. How are you doing and is there anything I can do to help?"
  4. Educate. Make sure to always be a source of inspiration, where you can explain stereotyping and subtle racism in a way that helps the world do better long term.

A Word From Verywell

Microaggressions happen in many different ways to AAPI and all people of color. If you are in the AAPI community and experience microaggressions, be sure to prioritize your self-care by keeping yourself as physically, mentally, and emotionally safe as possible. This may include speaking with a mental health care professional to process any feelings that come up.

To address microaggressions and the damage they cause, we can all do our part to learn how we may be internalizing prejudices and unlearn them, listen to people of color when they talk about their experiences, and commit to supporting each other on our anti-racism journeys and heal, together.

5 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Muramatsu N, Chin MH. Battling structural racism against asians in the united states: call for public health to make the “invisible” visibleJournal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2022;28(1):S3-S8. doi:10.1097/PHH.0000000000001411

  3. UCSC. Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send. Adapted from Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010.

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By Nikhita Mahtani
Nikhita has written extensively about health and wellness since 2014, and has enjoyed a successful career in the digital space as both an editor and strategist. A New York-based writer, she primarily uses her contacts in the mental health industry to help readers deal with stress and burnout, prejudices or racial bias, and the mind-body connection.