Race and Identity Racism How Do Microaggressions Affect the AAPI Community? By Nikhita Mahtani 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. Learn about our editorial process Updated on June 15, 2022 Medically reviewed Verywell Mind articles are reviewed by board-certified physicians and mental healthcare professionals. Medical Reviewers confirm the content is thorough and accurate, reflecting the latest evidence-based research. Content is reviewed before publication and upon substantial updates. Learn more. by Ivy Kwong, LMFT Medically reviewed by Ivy Kwong, LMFT LinkedIn Twitter Ivy Kwong, LMFT, is a psychotherapist specializing in relationships, love and intimacy, trauma and codependency, and AAPI mental health. Learn about our Medical Review Board Print Koh Sze Kiat / Getty Images Table of Contents View All Table of Contents What Are Microaggressions? History of Microaggressions How Microaggressions Show Up Causes of Microaggressions Coping How to Recognize Microaggressions How to Be an Ally 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. Intergenerational Trauma in AAPI Communities 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.” Yes, "Positive Stereotypes" Are Still Harmful 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. The Psychology of Racism 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. What to Do When a Loved One Is Being Racist 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. Observe what’s happening objectively. Can you sense discomfort or discreet racism?Express your emotions calmly to the aggressor, in a way that doesn’t indicate blame, but simply fact.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?"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. The Need for Increased Public Safety Policies for AAPI Elders 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. Espaillat A, Panna DK, Goede DL, Gurka MJ, Novak MA, Zaidi Z. An exploratory study on microaggressions in medical school: What are they and why should we care? Perspect Med Educ. 2019;8(3):143-151. doi:10.1007/s40037-019-0516-3 Muramatsu N, Chin MH. Battling structural racism against asians in the united states: call for public health to make the “invisible” visible. Journal of Public Health Management and Practice. 2022;28(1):S3-S8. doi:10.1097/PHH.0000000000001411 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. Williams MT. Causes of Microaggressions. Oxford University Press. Lui PP, Quezada L. Associations between microaggression and adjustment outcomes: A meta-analytic and narrative review. Psychological Bulletin. 2019;145(1):45-78. doi:10.1037/bul0000172 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. See Our Editorial Process Meet Our Review Board Share Feedback Was this page helpful? Thanks for your feedback! What is your feedback? Other Helpful Report an Error Submit Speak to a Therapist Online Advertiser Disclosure × The offers that appear in this table are from partnerships from which Verywell Mind receives compensation.