Featured Commentary: Trayvon, Troy, Sean: When racial biases and microaggressions kill

Subtle racism and microaggressions hurt mental and physical health of oppressed groups

Kevin L. Nadal, PhD
John Jay College of Criminal Justice- City University of New York

Kevin L. Nadal, PhDWith the recent, tragic killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida, there has been a great amount of media attention that has debated whether or not the actions of the confessed shooter, George Zimmerman were warranted. The most basic facts of the case include that Mr. Martin was a young African-American man who was walking alone, wearing a hoodie, and carrying a bag of skittles and a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea. Allegedly, Mr. Zimmerman viewed the teenager as being “suspicious,” as Mr. Martin’s profile did not match the demographic of the upper-middle-class White neighborhood. Thus, he took the law into his own hands, eventually shooting and killing the teen.

When I first heard of this case, a number of feelings emerged, ranging from sadness, anger, hopelessness and disgust. Yet, at the same time, I couldn’t say that I was completely surprised. Racism is something that is still so pervasive in our society and there have been so many cases throughout the history of our country in which people have been killed unjustly because of their race. Troy Davis from Georgia was a Black man who was sentenced to death for a conviction that relied on only two eyewitness testimonies and did not include any other forensic evidence. Sean Bell was an African-American man who was killed in a barrage of 50 bullets by officers of the New York Police Department, the day before his wedding, based on the suspicion that he possessed a gun.

While some media correspondents may argue that the stories of Trayvon, Troy and Sean are anomalies, it is important to recognize that racism is still alive and well in 2012. Perhaps racism is not as overt as the cross-burnings and lynchings in the past, nor does it regularly end in murder. However, the subtle racism that people of color experience has been found to have significant effects on mental and physical health (see Nadal, 2011 for a review). In recent years, there has been an increase in literature that has focused on racial discrimination that is more subtle and covert; these types of discriminatory acts are otherwise known as racial microaggressions (Nadal, 2011; Sue, 2010).

Racial microaggressions are “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color” (Sue et al., 2007, p. 271). Microaggressions are often unconscious and unintentional in that perpetrators may not realize the negative impact these messages have on members of oppressed groups. Thus, microaggressions tend to be harder to identify than overt racism, more difficult to confront or address, or both, because victims of microaggressions may have different perceptions and racial realities than those who enact them (Nadal, 2011; Sue, et al., 2007; Sue, 2010).

Recent research has found that people of color experience an array of microaggressions, ranging from being assumed to be a criminal, being presumed to be inferior, being exoticized, or being treated as a second-class citizen. Specifically, qualitative studies with African-Americans (Sue, Nadal, Capodilupo, Lin, Rivera, & Torino, 2008), Asian Americans (Nadal, Escobar, Prado, David, & Haynes, in press; Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, & Torino, 2007), and Latina/os (Rivera, Forquer, & Rangel, 2010) have supported that people of color do indeed encounter various types of microaggressions, which often lead to immediate distress (e.g., confusion of whether or not to react to the situation) or long-term effects (e.g., feeling depressed or hopeless about the world). A quantitative measure was created to examine the various types of racial microaggressions that people of color experience (Nadal, 2011). Thus far, findings suggest that people of color who encounter greater amounts of racial microaggressions are likely to exhibit a number of mental health issues, such as depression or negative affect (Nadal, Griffin, Wong, Hamit, & Rasmus, 2012), as well as physical health issues such as pain or fatigue (Nadal, Griffin, Wong, Davidoff, & Davis, 2012). So, while overt, intentional racism may have led to the deaths of these three abovementioned innocent men, racial microaggressions may also be slowly killing the entire population of people of color.

Furthermore, while microaggressions were initially conceptualized to understand subtle forms of racism, there has been a growth in quantitative and qualitative research that has examined microaggressions based on gender (e.g., Capodilupo, et al., 2010); sexual orientation (e.g., Balsam, Molina, Beadnell, Simoni, & Walters, 2011; Nadal, Issa, Leon, Meterko, Wideman, & Wong, 2011); gender identity (e.g., Nadal, Skolnik, & Wong, 2012); ability (Keller & Galgay, 2012); and religion (Nadal, Griffin, Hamit, Leon, Tobio, & Rivera, in press). Similarly, such research has found that a member of a minority or target group (e.g., a woman; a lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender person; a person with a disability; or a Muslim) who experiences a great amount of microaggressions may also experience a number of issues, including psychological distress, low self-esteem and physical health problems.

Given that microaggressions appear to be quite common in society, perhaps it would be best to not place all of the blame on George Zimmerman or the NYPD or the faulty legal system. Rather, we need to look at the ways that our unconscious biases negatively impact other people, particularly young, black men. We should challenge ourselves if we clutch our purses or check our wallets when an African-American joins us on an elevator. We must recognize the immediate stereotype we might make when we see a young Black man in a hoodie walking towards us. We may not jump to the same conclusion that George Zimmerman did, but we must remain aware of our initial reaction, especially in light of the way in which society has socialized us to stereotype African-Americans. If we are honest with ourselves, we would have to admit that we may not be proud of our immediate reaction to this young black man sporting a hoodie.

I truly believe that if we want to erase racism (as well as sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and others) we have to be willing to recognize the ways that we all individually contribute to the problem. We must be open to examine our privileges and our stereotypes, and be willing to acknowledge those times when we might accidentally slip and commit a microaggression. We must challenge ourselves to avoid pointing fingers at George Zimmerman and “others” without also examining ourselves, especially when we may be guilty of similar behaviors.

We also need to pay closer attention to the microaggressions that we witness in our everyday lives and stand up against them. While racism played a clearer role in the murder of these three men, we often overlook the slow deaths that microaggressions can cause in others. When someone makes a racist (or sexist or homophobic) joke, and we ignore it, we send the message that the behavior is okay, which may then slowly prick at a victim’s heart and soul. When someone stereotypes people of color (and others) in negative ways, treats them as second-class citizens, or assumes them to be inferior or criminal, and we don’t attempt to correct those biases, we essentially collude with those biases. In fact, we allow for the hate to continue, which may perpetuate a long cycle of microaggressions towards other innocent victims.

While it is evident that there is not a straightforward solution to ending discrimination in the world, one thing is clear — we cannot bring back Trayvon, Troy or Sean. However, we can try our best to fight for the needs of those people of color (and those of other marginalized groups) that are still living. Perhaps not doing anything to advocate for social justice would be the biggest crime of all.


Balsam, K.F., Molina, Y., Beadnell, B., Simoni, J., & Walters, K. (2011). Measuring multiple minority stress: the LGBT People of Color Microaggressions Scale. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(2), 163-174.

Capodilupo, C.M., Nadal, K.L., Corman, L., Hamit, S., Lyons, O., & Weinberg, A. (2010). The manifestation of gender microaggressions. In D.W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact (pp. 193-216). New York: Wiley & Sons.

Keller, R.M., & Galgay, C.E. (2010). Microaggressions experienced by people with disabilities in US society. In D.W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestation, dynamics, and impact (pp. 241–268). New York: Wiley & Sons.

Nadal, K.L. (2011). The Racial and Ethnic Microaggressions Scale (REMS): Construction, reliability, and validity. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 58(4), 470–480.

Nadal, K.L., Escobar, K.M., Prado, G., David, E.J.R. & Haynes, K. (in press). Racial microaggressions and the Filipino American Experience: Recommendations for counseling and development. Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development.

Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K. E., Hamit, S., Leon, J., Tobio, M., & Rivera, D.P. (in press). Subtle and overt forms of Islamophobia: Microaggressions toward Muslim Americans. Journal of Muslim Mental Health.

Nadal, K.L, Griffin, K.E., Wong, Y., Davidoff, K., & Davis, L. (2012). The impact of racial microaggressions on physical health and functioning. Manuscript under review.

Nadal, K.L., Griffin, K.E., Wong, Y., Hamit, S., & Rasmus, M. (2012). Racial microaggressions and mental health: Counseling clients of color. Manuscript under review.

Nadal, K.L. Issa, M., Leon, J., Meterko, V., Wideman, M., & Wong, Y. (2011). Sexual orientation microaggressions: “Death by a thousand cuts” for lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth. Journal of LGBT Youth, 8(3), 1-26.

Nadal, K.L., Skolnik, A., & Wong, Y. (2012). Interpersonal and systemic microaggressions: Psychological impacts on transgender individuals and communities. Journal of LGBT Issues in Counseling, 6(1), 55-82.

Rivera, D.P., Forquer, E.E., & Rangel, R. (2010). Microaggressions and the life experience of Latina/o Americans. In D.W. Sue (Ed.), Microaggressions and marginality: Manifestations, dynamics, and impact (pp. 59-84). New York: Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D.W. (2010). Microaggressions in everyday life: Race, gender, and sexual orientation. New York: Wiley & Sons.

Sue, D.W., Bucceri, J., Lin, A.I., Nadal, K.L., & Torino, G.C. (2007). Racial microaggressions and the Asian American experience. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 13(1), 72-81.

Sue, D.W., Capodilupo, C.M., Torino, G.C., Bucceri, J.M., Holder, A.M., Nadal, K.L., & Esquilin, M. . (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for counseling. The American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

Sue, D.W., Nadal, K.L., Capodilupo, C.M., Lin, A.I., Rivera, D.P., & Torino, G.C. (2008). Racial microaggressions against Black Americans: Implications for counseling. Journal of Counseling and Development, 86(3), 330-338.

Kevin L. Nadal, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York, where he is also the deputy director of the Forensic Mental Health Counseling Program. He is one of the leading researchers in understanding the impacts of microaggressions, or subtle forms of discrimination, on the mental and physical health of people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and other marginalized groups. He is also the author of the books "Filipino American Psychology: A Handbook of Theory, Research, and Clinical Practice" (2011, John Wiley and Sons), "Filipino American Psychology: A Collection of Personal Narratives" (2010, Author House) and "Women and Mental Disorders" (2011, Praeger). In 2011, he received the Early Career Award for Contributions to Excellence by the AAPA and in 2012, he received the Emerging Professional Award for Research from APA's Division 45.