Micro-aggression in academia (& especially in your PhD)

Aggressive Lego Man

Microaggression  – if you haven’t heard this term before have a quick look at Wikipedia  – it is basically the small, inane comments that people make that are actually insulting, degrading or aggressive – but said in such a way that if you react – you look like the super-sensitive over-reactor!

“brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” Prof. Derald Wing Sue

From a quick google search, it appears that most micro-aggression theory is related to race and gender. I think that micro- aggression is also well and alive in academia, and the idea of micro-aggression can be applied toward  the experiences of many doctoral researchers or early career researchers as they start out in academia.

(microaggressors)…minimise the existence of discrimination against the minority group [and] seek to deny the perpetrator’s own bias (quote from Wikipedia)

The trouble with micro-aggression in academia – is that some of it might be based on potential truths and/or insecurities that doctoral researchers have internalised- (hello impostors syndrome).

And the trouble is – how to call it out? How to say ‘that’s super inappropriate’ – especially when this is the Faculty or group of colleagues that you have to keep on side!

Here are some examples from a great website about micro-aggressions that encourage people to share their own experiences


Stranger:What do you do?
Me:I’m a professor.
Stranger:You’re way too young to be a professor. You look like a student.
I’m in my 30s and I dress more professionally than my colleagues. But I’m also petite and female. My male partner, who has the same age and occupation, is never told that he doesn’t look like a professor. It sends me the message that I’m an imposter, merely play-acting at being a serious scholar or authority figure. Made me feel like no one will take me seriously despite my accomplishments.


“Are you sure you have the right room number? This is the *honors* section.”


Wow, you’re really good at this!

Male co-worker, in a tone of great surprise, at seeing me use a screwdriver to open my PC because the hard drive had failed. I’m female, 24, and I have a master’s in computer science. Made me feel undervalued, like he’s expecting less of me because of my gender.


The term “microaggression” is somewhat misleading when looked at from the  victim’s perspective. A microaggressions is only “micro” when it is compared to acts of outright sexism or racism. If someone calls me a c*nt or calls my black friend a n*gg*r, that is hate speech and everyone will recognize it as such and agree that it is unacceptable in civil society. A microaggression is not “micro” in the sense that it is less disturbing  and less hurtful than this kind of hate speech. It is only “micro” in the sense that  privileged members of the community will regard it as trivial, if they notice it at all. Catherine Wells. (p.9)

So here comes the the bit- should you call people out?

I’ve recently been listening to one of my favourite podcasts by RadioLab and they have this episode called “Whats Left when You’re Right“- and there is this story about two friends and their different personalities.  One who tends to call people out on their ‘micro-aggressions’ and the other who doesn’t.

For me personally – standing up for myself often feels like I am becoming the aggressor. I struggle with saying and expressing how I really feel – perhaps because I’ve been brought up to be the ‘good girl’ – accommodating, complacent, accepting.  When I step outside these internal boundaries- I feel like I’m being antagonistic and aggressive somehow. And yet – like Lou in the podcast- I strongly admire when people do call the shots on bull-shit. When they just say – no way, that is crap. And often I see that the outcomes are not so terrible and like in Lou’s story- the outcomes are actually better for everyone involved.

Have you experienced micro-aggression in university? Either the traditional kind based on race, class, gender, sexual orientation or the academic kind? Would love to hear how you’ve dealt with it.


About Sarina Kilham

I'm a Doctoral Researcher at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney. Trained as a social scientist and with a Masters in Sustainable Agriculture, I'm interested in farmer's experiences of growing feedstock for biodiesel production. My research has focused on biodiesel production in Brazil and Timor-Leste. Also on Twitter @sarinakilham and blogging at thequalitativeresearcher.net
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