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Racial, Gender, and Sexual-Orientation Microaggressions


and women equally. In fact, I don’t even think about employees as men or women. People are people and everyone has an equal opportunity to be hired and succeed.”

Kathleen felt very uncomfortable with the response. She left the interview knowing she would not be offered the position.

What do these incidents have in common?

In both case vignettes, racial and gender microaggressions were being unconsciously delivered—in the classroom by a well-intentioned professor, in the subway station by a fellow commuter, and in the job interview by a vice president. The term “racial microaggressions” was first coined by Chester Pierce in the 1970s to refer to the everyday subtle and often automatic “put-downs” and insults directed toward Black Americans (Pierce, Carew, Pierce-Gonzalez, & Willis, 1978). While his theorizing focused solely on racial microaggressions, it is clear that microaggressions can be expressed toward any marginalized group in our society; they can be gender-based, sexual orientation–based, class-based, or disability-based (Sue & Capodilupo, 2008). In this book I have decided to concentrate on three forms of microaggressions—race, gender, and sexual orientation—to illustrate the hidden and damaging consequences of the more subtle forms of bias and discrimination that harm persons of color, women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered persons (LGBTs).

Microaggressions are the brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that commu- nicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group (Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007). Perpetrators are usually unaware that they have engaged in an exchange that demeans the recipient of the communication. During the 2008 presidential campaign, for example, Republican Senator John McCain appeared at a political rally taking questions from his supporters. One elderly White woman, speaking into a handheld microphone, haltingly stated, “I don’t trust Obama. He’s an Arab.”

McCain shook his head, quickly took the microphone, and said, “No ma’am. He’s a decent family man, a citizen that I just happen to have disagree- ments with. He’s not!”

At first glance, John McCain’s defense of then-candidate Barak Obama appeared admirable. After all, he was correcting misinformation and defending a political rival. Upon reflection, however, his response, while well-intentioned, represented a major microaggression. Let us briefly analyze the interaction, the words used, and their hidden meanings.

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