Microaggression is a term used for brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward any group, particularly culturally marginalized groups. The term was coined by psychiatrist and Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly witnessed non-black Americans inflicting on African Americans. By the early 21st century, use of the term was applied to the casual degradation of any socially marginalized group, including LGBT people, people living in poverty, and people that are disabled. Psychologist Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership”. The persons making the comments may be otherwise well-intentioned and unaware of the potential impact of their words.
A number of scholars and social commentators have criticised the microaggression concept for its lack of scientific basis, over-reliance on subjective evidence, and promotion of psychological fragility. Critics argue that avoiding behaviours that one interprets as microaggressions restricts one’s own freedom and causes emotional self-harm, and that employing authority figures to address microaggressions can lead to an atrophy of those skills needed to mediate one’s own disputes. Some argue that, because the term “microaggression” uses language connoting violence to describe verbal conduct, it can be (and is) abused to exaggerate harm, resulting in retribution and the elevation of victimhood.