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November 17, 2015

How does unintentional bias impact people of color?


Sometimes, casual comments we don’t think about can be just as damaging as obvious racial slurs. Columbia University Teachers College Professor Derald Sue studies these instances, which he calls microaggressions, and their often hidden meanings.

In recent protests on college campuses at the University of Missouri and around the country, students and faculty of color called for schools to crack down on racial slurs and discrimination and create more inclusive campus climates for minorities. Microaggressions contribute to the hostile conditions these protesters experience on a daily basis, according to Sue.

When talking about racism, we usually think of open racial insults and prejudices as examples, but unintentional things like making assumptions about a person of color’s background based on stereotypes can have a “constant, continual and cumulative” impact as well, Sue said.

“Microaggressions really are reflections of world views of inclusion, exclusion, superiority, inferiority and they come out in ways that are outside the level of conscious awareness of an individual,” he said.

Critics such as Bloomberg columnist Megan McArdle say that talking about microaggressions overhypes their frequency in society, makes people overly sensitive and creating a “victim culture.” There is also a debate about whether over-sensitivity creates an environment that stifles free speech.

Sue said these concerns are misguided, because they overlook the reality of what people of color have experienced through history not being allowed to express their own opinions freely.

“(T)he problem is that people believe microaggressions are very similar to the everyday incivility and rudeness that individuals, white Americans, experience in their day-to-day lives,” said Sue. “They are quite different.”

Even though microaggressions can be hard to identify and prove, Sue said understanding them is the key to addressing the unintentional bias that harms people of color the most.


microaggressions – everyday slights, putdowns and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations experience in their day to day interactions with others

hate speech – speech that insults, threatens or offends groups of people, based on race, color, religion, national origin, sexual orientation or disability

Warm up questions
  1. Do you think people talk about race the right amount, too little, too much?
  2. What do you think the term microaggression means?
  3. Can you think of a situation in which someone made a subtle remark of racism, intentionally or unintentionally?
Critical thinking questions
  1. Do you agree with Dr. Sue’s assessment that some microaggressions cause more hurt than flagrant remarks of racism?
  2. Critics of Dr. Sue’s studies of microaggressions believe that adults coddle young people too much and that individuals need to learn to be less sensitive. Do you agree or disagree?
  3. What are some ways we can address our own unintentional biases towards others?
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