Keeping Up With... Microaggressions

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Tarica LaBossiere and Abby Deese. 

Tarica LaBossiere is an Assistant Public Defender at the Broward County Office of the Public Defender and an active member of the American Association of Law Libraries, email:

Abby Deese is the Law Librarian for Digital Initiatives & Research Services at the Hugh F. MacMillan Law Library at Emory University School of Law, email:

What Are Microaggressions?

“You speak incredibly well for a/an ...”
“They should have selected the most qualified person ...”
“I don’t see color.” / “There is only one race, the human race.”

Do these phrases sound familiar? To some, these phrases are believed to be compliments. An acknowledgment of our unified society and our progressive evolution beyond the subjects of race, class, and sex. To others, these phrases elicit feelings of offense, although the individual on the receiving end of the slight may be unsure as to why they feel as such. These subtle barbs, and others of similar nature, that inspire feelings of affront while couched in seeming civility, are called microaggressions.

Derald Wing Sue, author of Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Orientation, Gender, and Sexual Orientation, defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group.” [1] First coined by Chester M. Pierce, psychiatrist and professor at Harvard University, the term has since grown from its initial classification of small barbs and dismissals aimed at African Americans, to encompass all subtle forms of bias, either conscious or unconscious, that send malignant, yet inconspicuous, messages of inferiority to already marginalized groups.

Dr. Sue classifies microaggressions under three distinct categories:

  1. Microassaults: Microassaults (otherwise known as “old-fashioned” racism, sexism, or heterosexism) are conscious and deliberate biased attitudes communicated to marginalized groups through environmental cues, verbalizations, or behaviors. Examples of this behavior include Mel Gibson’s well-remembered drunken, anti-Semitic tirade or racist epithets, like “coon,” “raghead,” or “cracker.”  
  2. Microinsults: Microinsults are subtle snubs and behaviors that communicate a belief in denigrating stereotypes against marginalized groups. For example, if a female technology expert appeared for a technology assistance request, and the person seeking help asked her, “Are you sure you know what you are doing?”
  3. Microinvalidations: Microinvalidations are communications or environmental cues that exclude and/or negate the experiential reality of marginalized groups. For example, the “I don’t see color” assertion, intrinsically denies a person of color’s racial experiences by implying that those differences do not exist.

Many of these microaggressions are unintentional behaviors, not recognized by those communicating the derogatory signals as hostile or harmful. However, whether the harmful message is sent consciously or unconsciously to another individual, microaggressions can have a significant and detrimental impact on the psychology of the individual and on society as a whole.

Impact of Microaggressions In Libraries

While microaggressions themselves can be subtle actions, their cumulative effects are not subtle at all. The impact of microaggressions in libraries is deeply felt and has consequences for the entire profession. 

The cumulative effects of microaggressions and the hostile climates they create in the workplace result in feelings of frustration, isolation, and anxiety for librarians belonging to marginalized groups. Surveys of academic librarians catalogue numerous examples of microaggressions and their effects. [2] These include verbal exchanges, like the examples appearing at the beginning of this piece, and even deliberate exclusion from advancement opportunities that serve to isolate and “other” professionals in their career pursuits. Burn-out can occur when these effects go unaddressed, which frequently leads librarians from marginalized groups to seek new positions, different opportunities, or leave the profession entirely. The loss of talent and diversity caused by burn-out continues to plague librarianship.

Similar to the challenges facing diversification efforts in the tech field [3], the challenges to increasing diversity in the library profession cannot be characterized as a pipeline problem. There are many individuals interested in entering the library profession. Unfortunately, the pipeline is inaccessible. Diversity and inclusion efforts fail because the culture is exclusionary and hostile to diverse librarians, which drives librarians from marginalized groups to leave the profession, reduces the diversity of the organization, and hinders future recruitment efforts. When organizations focus solely on diversification through recruitment, yet fail to concomitantly invest in creating a welcoming and inclusive climate that values diversity, the recruitment process becomes a revolving door that only serves to maintain “homogenous environments [that] foster homogenous attitudes and practices.” [4]

If the goal of librarianship is to maintain the status quo, that has been achieved. However, that is not the goal of librarianship. Broadening the experiences and perspectives of the profession by nurturing and valuing librarians from marginalized groups and creating a place for everyone in this profession is worth the effort of confronting discomfort or bias.

In the interests of furthering this work, we have used this opportunity to present a call to action. It is time to stop talking and to start doing. [5]

Mitigating Microaggressions

The examples and strategies discussed below are primarily derived from the literature on racial microaggressions. However, microaggressions can impact all marginalized identities. These strategies for mitigation are intended to bridge the gap between talking about diversity and taking actions to protect diversity. Librarianship is still primarily a White profession [6] and, to quote Ronald Wheeler, past president of the American Association of Law Libraries: “Creating and sustaining a culture that either tolerates or condemns these kinds of [aggressions] is everyone’s responsibility.” [7] There are three primary areas where individuals can work to mitigate and prevent microaggressions in librarianship.

  1. Support: Providing support can mitigate burn-out, the feelings of exclusion and isolation commonly described by the targets of microaggressions [8], and other negative effects. Support can take different forms and be as simple as checking in on your colleagues to ask how they are doing. Showing that you care is especially important when there is a workplace or political climate that is likely to create strain for your colleagues. Support can also be active and require intervention in hostile situations. When we remain silent while witnessing a microaggression, we become complicit in that action. 
  2. Listen: Believe colleagues when they tell you about their experiences. Being dismissive of your colleagues’ accounts and feelings, or claiming that they have been too sensitive, are in  themselves microaggressions that invalidate their experiences and cause harm. [9] Suspend judgment and excuses and listen to what is being told to you before you react. Understand that this confidence is not an attack, but a gesture of trust. If you are the person who committed the microaggression, listen to the impact that your words or actions had so that you can understand how to change.
  3. Act: The following strategies have been identified as opportunities to build our resilience as allies and to lighten the burdens that our colleagues from marginalized groups bear.

Develop stamina to tolerate discussions about racism and other axes of oppression. DiAngelo, in her discussions of white fragility, characterized the defensive reactions that white people feel to the challenges of their cultural dominance or worldview as a lack of “racial stamina,” or tolerance for racial stress. [10] Librarians from marginalized groups are faced with stress every day, either in the macro or the micro, and while not inured to those stresses, are much more accustomed to coping with them. One of the most important things library professionals can do is to work to build stamina in order to be better allies and advocates. 

Stop asking our colleagues to take on the emotional and workplace labor of outreach and inclusion efforts alone. Expecting colleagues from marginalized groups to devote energy to diversity initiatives that other librarians and administrators are not also contributing to robs them of time and energy they could be devoting to their own scholarship interests and professional development. [11] Making our institutions and environments open and inclusive to other people and perspectives should be on all of us.

Replace microaggressions with microaffections. Microaffections are the antithesis of microaggressions: spontaneous, genuine, and unconscious comments or actions that affirm the dignity and value of a person. [12] It will take work to reprogram small hurtful words and actions into acts of kindness, but it is an effort library professionals can make to build equity in our profession.


Microaggressions, though seemingly subtle, are insidious in nature and perilous to the library profession. Their impact creates exclusive and hostile work environments that challenge diversification efforts within the profession. Recognizing these harmful behaviors can help librarians be more conscious of their actions. By heeding the suggestions to support, act, and listen, librarians can mitigate the harmful impact of microaggressions and foster more inclusive and diverse work environments for all.


[1] Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender, and Sexual Orientation (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2010), 10. 
[2]  Alabi, Jaena, “Racial Microaggressions in Academic Libraries: Results of a Survey of Minority and Non-minority Librarians,” The Journal of Academic Librarianship 41, (2015). Alabi, Jaena. “This Actually Happened: An Analysis of Librarians’ Responses to a Survey about Racial Microaggressions,” Journal of Library Administration 55 (2015): 3.
[3]  Sey, Araba, “Barriers, Not the Pipeline, Prevent Gender Equality in Tech.” Harvard Business School Digital Initiative (February 15, 2019),
[4] Espinal, Isabel et al., “A Holistic Approach for Inclusive Librarianship: Decentering Whiteness in Our Profession” Library Trends 67 (2018): 148.
[5] Espinal et al., ”A Holistic Approach for Inclusive Librarianship,” 151. Espinal and her co-authors attribute this motto to librarians engaged in the work of diversifying the profession in the late 1990s, and we think it is time enough to revive it. 
[6.] Bourg, Chris. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Librarianship,” (March 3, 2014):
[7] Wheeler, Ronald, “About Microaggressions” Law Library Journal 108 (2016): 324. 
[8] Alabi, “This Actually Happened,” 3.
[9] Alabi, Jaena, “From Hostile to Inclusive: Strategies for Improving the Racial Climate of Academic Libraries." Library Trends 67 (2018), 136-37.
[10] DiAngelo, Robin, “White Fragility." International Journal of Critical Pedagogy 3 (2011): 56.
[11] Alabi, “From Hostile to Inclusive,” 136.
[12] Espinal, et al., “A Holistic Approach to Inclusive Librarianship.” 158.