The long term impact of microaggressions

by Mar 28, 2024

The impact of microaggressions

The long term impact of microaggressions can also trigger underlying traumas from other parts of an individual’s life and resurrect deep-seated negative emotions


Indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalised group.

Microaggressions themselves may seem minor or subtle and we often dismiss them as being inconsequential by both onlookers and the target. The perpetrator may even claim not to mean anything by it and that whatever they did was a misunderstanding or a joke.

We are only just coming to understand the long-term impact of microaggressions. Their cumulative effect can be significant, resulting in psychological distress and lasting emotional harm.  Repeated exposure to microaggressions can indeed lead to cumulative trauma, particularly when they are pervasive, severe, and sustained over time.

They can also trigger underlying traumas from other parts of an individual’s life and resurrect deep-seated negative emotions that may have been lying dormant for years.

Examples of microaggressions

Microaggressions are subtle, often unintentional, verbal or non-verbal slights or insults, which may communicate derogatory or negative messages to individuals based on their marginalized identities. Here are some examples across different contexts:

  • Race:  Asking a person of color where they are really from, implying they are not truly x nationality.
  • Gender: Addressing a group as “guys” or “gentlemen” when there are women present.
  • Sexual Orientation: Asking a same-sex couple who the “man” or “woman” in the relationship is, reinforcing heteronormative gender roles.
  • Religious: Making jokes or comments that mock or belittle someone’s religious practices or traditions.
  • Disability: Using phrases like “retarded” or “crazy” to describe something negative or foolish.
  • Ageist: Patronizing language such as calling an older person “sweetie” or “dear,” implying they are incompetent.
  • Status : addressing a man in the room by default regardless of his professional status.

Worth a read: The problem with banter – 3 Plus International

The long term impact of microaggressions


The long term impact of microaggressions

Micoraggressions have a long term impact when some or all of the following elements occur:

1. They occur frequently

The frequency and duration of exposure to microaggressions play a crucial role in their potential to have a longer-term impact or even cause trauma. When individuals experience microaggressions on a regular basis over an extended period, it increases the likelihood of negative psychological effects.

2. If they are severe

The severity of microaggressions also influences their impact. While some microaggressions may be relatively mild, others can be more overt and emotionally damaging They might be ongoing attempts to undermine or humiliate someone, sabotage their efforts, or make constant jibes about their race, gender, or a specific characteristic. Repeated exposure to any severe microaggressions intensifies their traumatic effects.

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3.They attack a core issue

Microaggressions often target aspects of an individual’s identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, or religion. When these core aspects of identity are consistently ridiculed, undermined or invalidated, it can lead to a profound sense of identity threat and distress.

This can range from making comments about a black person’s hair to sexist or ageist jokes, commenting on a person’s appearance or accent or physical ability.

4.The target is isolated

A lack of support from colleagues, supervisors, or the organisation itself can exacerbate the impact of any microaggressions. Feeling isolated and unsupported in the face of discrimination and ongoing harassment amplifies feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

This is accentuated if an individual is part of an underrepresented group and may even be the only one of that demographic on the team.

5. Pre-existing vulnerabilities

Individuals who have pre-existing vulnerabilities, such as a history of abuse or mental health conditions, they are more susceptible to the traumatic effects of microaggressions. I have experienced women burst into tears recounting incidents from their early careers when they experienced abuse or harassment.  This may have been as long as 40 years ago. The impact lingers especially from old incidents when maybe reporting or support systems were not in place.

Another workplace trauma

Over time, the cumulative impact of repeated microaggressions can lead to symptoms consistent with trauma, including anxiety, depression, hypervigilance, avoidance behaviors, and difficulty concentrating. These symptoms can significantly impair an individual’s functioning in various areas of life, including work, relationships, and overall well-being which will ultimately have an effect on how they do their jobs which could even put their livelihoods at risk.


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Dorothy Dalton Administrator
Dorothy Dalton is CEO of 3Plus International. A specialist in diversity and bias conscious executive search, she supports organizations to achieve business success via gender balance, diversity and inclusion. She is CIPD qualified, and a certified coach and trainer including digital learning.
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