Chapter 12, What are microaggressions? 

A seventh-grade Ijeoma nervously approaches a white girl named Jennifer to compliment her on her bright red lipstick. In response, Jennifer tells Ijeoma that red lipstick on her large, Black lips would make her appear clownish. As the only Black girl in her middle school and high school, Oluo is sensitive about her hair, clothing, and voice because people comment on them. She is excited about attending college, but her classmates tell her she’ll be accepted anywhere she wants to go because she’s Black. She attends a scholarship conference for minorities, fearful of being in a large group of strangers. The children she finds there are loud and friendly. The administrators serve pizza, and she is hungry. But because she is fat, she doesn’t want to appear too eager to eat. She moves toward the vegetarian pizza but stops when the other kids make fun of it for being “salad pizza.” She eats two large slices of pepperoni without feeling self-conscious about her weight and spends the next three days simply being herself.  

Oluo compares microaggressions to passive-aggressive comments made by well-meaning parents except the comments aren’t said with love and everyone says them. Microaggressions cause psychological harm to people of color, but because they are small, perpetrated by many people, subconscious, and cumulative, they are hard to recognize and redress. Oluo provides numerous examples of microaggressive comments as well as behaviors, such as locking the car doors when a Black person walks by. These actions make assumptions about a person’s socioeconomic status or question a person’s value. Oluo argues that microaggressions have a systematic cultural effect in reinforcing racial stereotypes and preventing people of color from making social progress.  

Oluo offers strategies for confronting microaggressions directly by describing the behavior bluntly, asking the person to clarify their motivations, and explaining how such comments hurt minorities. She acknowledges that white people can speak out as well but cautions them not to rob people of color of their agency. Oluo encourages people of color to confront people about microaggressions when they happen, even if it leads to an even more uncomfortable interaction. She argues that by regularly interrupting such harmful behaviors, minorities can eventually stop them. Furthermore, every human being has the right to say that they’ve been hurt and to demand redress. Finally, Oluo talks to people who commit microaggressions, encouraging them to be honest with themselves about the reasons for their behaviors. The situation is about a behavior and its effects, not the intention. And while this may be one incident for the white person involved, it’s cumulative for the affected person, so an apology is necessary and appropriate. 


In two contrasting anecdotes, Oluo shows what life is like with and without racial microaggressions. In her all-white school, Oluo is told which makeup she can and can’t wear. Her hair is too poufy. She is fat, and her butt is too big. She doesn’t have to work hard to get into college because she will benefit from affirmative action. She’s loud, like, “Black girl loud.” So she works to manage her body and her personality to conform to other people’s expectations. And, of course, she continually fails because she’s Black. In the context of a Black children’s conference, she learns what it could feel like to live without the weight of white people’s expectations. There, she can be unabashedly loud. She can eat freely without anybody judging her body as a racial stereotype. She can geek out with other smart kids and actually enjoy learning and having ambitions. The difference is stark, and watching a teenage girl maneuver both environments is an eye-opening example of the psychological damage that microaggressions cause.  

Racial microaggressions cause individual psychological damage and perpetuate systemic racial biases. Microaggressions are reminders that people do not belong, that they are less than, and that they must justify their existence. Such reminders wear people down by chipping away at their egos. They leave people feeling defensive and edgy, which has both physical and psychological repercussions. People who never feel at ease, who are never comfortable, who are never able to rest cannot attain maximum psychological well-being, and that has social costs. People who are unable to function optimally cannot contribute fully to the well-being of their families or to their own professional success, meaning they need social support systems. Perversely, these socially inflicted problems are seen as failures of the will on the part of minority groups, who are often dismissed as lazy or dissolute. Society confuses the result of microaggressions with the cause and blames minorities for being downtrodden.  

Unlike other chapters in which Oluo provides suggestions for white people to combat racism, here, she suggests that people of color call out microaggressions by describing the behavior and its effect, even if the perpetrators don’t care or disagree. This approach gives Black and brown people control of the conversation. It also forces people who commit and witness microaggressions to be accountable for the harmful things they say, whether their comments are microaggressions or overtly racist. Acknowledging a hurt and demanding an apology are powerful methods of building self-confidence, so confronting a person who committed a microaggression is one way that minorities can recover from the psychological damage these comments and behaviors inflict. From the beginning, Oluo has argued that systemic racism is not about changing individuals’ hearts and minds, and here she shows the implications of that argument. Even if the guilty party refuses to take the blame, repeatedly calling out the behavior eventually wears them down and forces them to stop because nobody wants to spend all day arguing about what they did wrong. Calling a microaggression by its proper name stops the behavior, and regardless of whether it changes people’s minds, that’s a win. 

White people can help to prevent microaggressions by supporting people who such comments target, however, it is important to follow their lead. If a white person witnesses a microaggression, they should not jump in to act as a savior, even if it’s well-meaning. That can reinforce a racist social hierarchy, placing the target of the microaggression in a socially inferior position. It can also force a person to speak out when they may choose not to, either because they believe it places them at risk, increases a burden on them, or for any number of other reasons that someone else cannot understand in the moment. Oluo’s explanation indirectly reminds readers to consider their purpose in intervening. By taking a supportive role and following the lead of the person who was hurt, white people can ensure that their intervention is appropriate and helpful rather than self-serving.