The State of Contemporary Race Relations in the United States

As I write these words, the Black community and its allies are deeply distressed at the racism in modern-day America. Many are heartbroken, yet empowered to generate positive social change, because we want to end racism, and we desire safety and freedom for ourselves and others. We want to end racist attacks on our bodies and communities—like the massacre at the Mother Emanuel AME Church ; the race-based harassment and violence during and after the 2016 election season; the burning of Black churches; racially motivated murders of Black men, women, and children; race-based violence and domestic terrorism committed by White nationalists; and the countless unpublicized narratives of indignity that are directed toward marginalized communities. We are living in a time when people are attacked for wanting justice for all and where virtual and physical spaces aren’t safe because of vitriolic speech and hateful behavior. We are certainly living in precarious times, when racial justice seems like a lofty goal and a distant reality.

Personal accounts, news reports, and research reveal how widespread and rampant racist microaggressions and macroaggressions are (Levchak 2013; Donovan et al. 2013). Whether in academic settings, workplaces, or within the media and popular culture, racist biases, stereotypes, and actions abound. For college and graduate students, experiencing racist microaggressions and macroaggressions can compromise their well-being and negatively impact their academic experience (see Chap. 4). Racist aggression can also derail short-term and long-term scholastic and professional goals. For groups who have historically been subjugated, microaggressions and macroaggressions on campus can negatively impact their chances of attaining upward mobility.

Being the recipient of racist microaggressions and macroaggressions in the workplace may result in unemployment, job insecurity, and a decline in one’s mental and emotional health (see Chap. 5). Racist aggression in the workplace can create a toxic and hostile work environment that limits the creativity and productivity of employees and may even result in lawsuits or fines for the employer.

In terms of the media and popular culture, research shows that if we are not mindful of the media we are consuming, we can absorb racist messages that adversely affect our perceptions of, and interactions with, targeted group members (Dixon 2008; Gilliam and Iyengar 2000; Greenberg et al. 2002; Johnson et al. 2009; Mastro and Tropp 2004; Prot et al. 2015). We are living in a time when technology, and particularly the Internet , has made the world feel smaller, and one would imagine that online access would provide an opportunity for us to see the humanity in one another. However, instead of fostering unity across racial, social, cultural, and political lines, our online interactions on forums and comment sections operate more like minefields filled with hate speech between and within groups, rather than places where we can learn from one another and nurture cultural competence and cultural awareness (see Chap. 6).

The Need for Protections Against Racist Macroaggressions and Microaggressions

Even though there are some laws, policies, and procedures in place to protect targeted group members from macroaggressions or blatant manifestations of racism, the success of such efforts is questionable. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s influenced legislation (e.g. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and The Civil Rights Act of 1968) that was crafted to protect people of color from some forms of overt racism, although it is arguable how effective the corresponding laws and their implementations have been. Although affirmative action policies and programs attempt to level the playing field for individuals by removing racist barriers that would otherwise block people of color from pursuing and achieving upward mobility through higher education and employment, these efforts only address a small portion of  diversity-related issues in higher education and workplaces. Creating a diverse student body and workforce is one issue, but retaining diverse students and employees and protecting them from racist aggression on campuses and worksites is another issue that has not been adequately addressed. Additionally, while it is extremely important that there are federal and state laws against hate crimes, there has been a growing concern that such laws are not being enforced effectively (Wagner 2015; Cassidy 2016; Jacobson 2016). Protections against microaggressions or covert racism are even more elusive, since it is often difficult to detect and address microaggressions due to their intricate and insidious nature. However, we won’t be able to eradicate racism unless we can protect targets from harmful microaggressions and macroaggressions and hold aggressors accountable for their racist actions.

Policies and procedures that combat race-based microaggressions and macroaggressions and that protect targets should be implemented in all schools and workplaces. However, research indicates that we should pay particular attention to racism in predominantly White environments. Levin and McDevitt (1993) explain that most perpetrators of hate crimes engaged in what they call “retaliatory” hate crimes, where aggressors claimed to be “defending their territory” from a wrongful intrusion of racial minorities into traditionally “White” environments. While Levin and McDevitt’s work explains the occurrence of macroaggressions in predominantly White environments, the idea of “defending White territory ” may also explain the manifestation of microaggressions in predominantly White spaces.

The Anti-Defamation League (2008) reports that nearly one third of hate crimes occur on school grounds. In their study, Stotzer and Hossellman (2012) write: “[G]iven that colleges and universities are traditionally White domains, the increase of racial/ethnic minorities could potentially trigger resistance to their increasing presence through race-based hate crimes and other forms of ethnoviolence.” Research also shows that the majority of identified perpetrators who committed violence toward minority students were White males, who were oftentimes fraternity members (Ehrlich 1998; Perry 2010). Perpetrators also included faculty members and people without campus affiliations who were connected to White supremacist groups (Ehrlich 1998; Perry 2010). Furthermore, such environments often fail to provide the support and safeguards students of color need to enjoy a successful and safe academic journey free of racial aggression (Price et al. 2009; Wilson and Constantine 1999).

While more research must be done on racist aggression in the workplace, it is clear that racism and racial harassment are present in American workplaces (Tahmincioglu 2008; Vega 2015). Research also shows that Latinos and African Americans experience higher rates of workplace bullying than Whites (Namie 2014).

As for the media, people of color are underrepresented in films and television, and when they are represented, they are often negatively portrayed. Negative representations are incredibly concerning because not only do they influence how we think about and value people of color (Dixon 2008; Gilliam and Iyengar 2000) they also adversely impact how people of color view themselves and can even reduce their self-esteem (Martins and Harrison 2011; Goldberg 2012). Underrepresentation is also troubling because it robs us from seeing, appreciating, and learning about individuals, cultures, and communities of color. The fact that our country is composed of people from a variety of racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds should be cause enough to create racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse television shows and films. However, due to the legacy of White supremacy in this country, the narratives of people of color are silenced, and many are disallowed the opportunity to see positive representations of themselves that are brilliant, lovely, complex, and antithetical to the racialized stereotypes that are common in the mainstream media.

Racism is a cancer that harms individuals, institutions, and social relations. We can no longer afford to disregard racism because when racism is ignored it cannot be prevented, reported, or eradicated. Therefore, it is extremely important to evaluate the current manifestations of modern racism, microaggressions, and macroaggressions and to work together to rid them from our lives and our social institutions.

Theoretical Frameworks

One of the most durable paradoxes of white supremacy—[is] the idea that those who are closest to an experience of oppression… are its least credible witnesses.

—Walter Johnson (1999: 9)

Over time, I have learned that writing about and studying issues related to race and racism is cathartic and liberating. I have also learned that researching and writing about race and racism requires an honesty and authenticity that comes from being reflective and reflexive. I am not just a social scientist; I am a social scientist who is also a Black woman. It would be disingenuous to pretend that my understanding of race and racism solely comes from intellectual exposure and not also from my lived experience as a Black woman who has experienced racist microaggressions and macroaggressions firsthand.

Relatedly, I believe that hearing a variety of narratives from people who have experienced racism is essential to gaining a comprehensive understanding of racism. For too long, the narratives and voices of marginalized people have been suppressed and silenced. While targets and allies understand the value and importance of discussing race and naming racism, aggressors and oppressors embrace a culture of silence regarding race and racism. Moreover, this culture of silence has disastrous consequences for targets of racism and for race relations, because it makes it easy to ignore the narratives of targets, masks the seriousness of racism, and stunts the creation of interventions to address racism and improve race relations.

The importance of telling, owning, and sharing our narrative is wonderfully captured in the following Brené Brown quote:

When we own our stories, we get to write a brave new ending…[w]hen we push down hurt or pretend that struggle doesn’t exist, the hurt and struggle own us…Until we find a way to own our collective stories around racism in this country, our history and the stories of pain will own us…Our collective stories of race in the US are not easy to own. They are stories of slavery, violence, and systemic dehumanization. We will have to choose courage over comfort. We will have to feel our way through the shame and sorrow…We have to keep listening even when we want to scream, “I’m not that way. This isn’t my fault!” We have to examine and own stereotypes and prejudices. Every single one of us has them. It will be tough… This means honest conversations about how we were raised and what we need to work on. No blaming or shaming, but truth. It’s not productive to deny how hard we all work for what we have, but it’s not honest to deny that many of us are afforded privileges based on who we are and what we look like. Will these conversations stop violent hate crimes? No one knows for sure, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power of love and truth-telling. (Brown 2015)

Sharing our narratives of oppression and listening to the narratives of others is key in understanding and addressing racial oppression. Aggressors and oppressors will continue their destructive behavior if we fail to raise our voices in objection and resistance to racism and if we fail to make room for the narratives of the oppressed to be heard. In this work, I counter the suppression of voices of color by featuring the voices and experiences of people of color who have experienced microaggressions and macroaggressions.

Critical Race Theory

Critical race theory (CRT) is a framework that helps us understand and address race-based oppression because it centers the voices and experiences of people of color with the expectation that we will use such insights to promote long-lasting positive social change (Ortiz and Jani 2010; Hughes and Giles 2010). As a sociologist, social worker, and professor, I choose to employ CRT in my work because I value and appreciate the narratives and perspectives of individuals (even those that differ from my own and that I don’t agree with), since listening can be the start of an amazing learning opportunity that can bridge gaps, create solidarity, and contribute to positive social change. Furthermore, I utilize CRT in my work because it compliments my use of qualitative methodologies like open-ended questions and interviews that provide rich and in-depth information on people’s experiences with racism (see Solórzano 1998; Solórzano et al. 2000). CRT has specifically been used to understand racial inequities within academic environments (Solórzano and Yosso 2002; Hughes and Giles 2010). However, in this book, it will also be used to understand racism in the workplace, media, and popular culture. Therefore, I use CRT in this book to (1) understand, document, and analyze how race-based microaggressions and macroaggressions manifest on college campuses, at workplaces, and within the media and pop culture; (2) examine racist microaggressions and macroaggressions throughout society by displaying and elucidating the insight and voices of people of color; and (3) highlight anti-racism efforts aimed at reducing racism, increasing inter- racial solidarity, and generating long-lasting positive social change.

Microaggression and Macroaggression Theory: Classic and Contemporary Frameworks

Most [racist] offensive actions are not gross and crippling. They are subtle and stunning. The enormity of the complications they cause can be appreciated only when one considers that these subtle blows are delivered incessantly…the cumulative effect to the victim and to the victimizer is of an unimaginable magnitude.

—Chester Pierce (1970: 266)

The term microaggression was introduced by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe covert forms of racist aggression that are “subtle and stunning” yet unimaginably harmful (266–267). As noted in the quote at the beginning of this chapter, Pierce also describes microaggressions as “continuous bombardments” of aggression that negatively impact “race relations” and interactions between racial groups (Pierce 1970: 282). Pierce also presents the concept of macroaggressions or overt forms of racist aggression that are “gross, dramatic, [and] obvious” manifestations of racism such as lynching (Pierce 1970: 266). Pierce (1970) makes a clear distinction between racism that is covert (microaggressions) and overt (macroaggressions). This important distinction has seemingly been lost over time, with some laymen and academics conflating overt and covert forms of racist aggression, combining overt and covert racism under the singular term microaggressions, or making confusing classifications that mystify the concepts. I believe that Pierce’s (1970) original distinction provides a clear method of talking about racism in a way that makes sense sociologically and generally.

Understanding Overt and Covert Racism

For people of color, navigating workplaces, campuses, and other social spaces becomes more complicated because of racism. Regardless of social critiques that claim we live in a post-racial and post-racist society, racism is alive, and not only is racism alive, it manifests overtly and covertly. Overt or blatant forms of racism are acts that are undeniably racist. An example would be the domestic terrorism that occurred at the Mother Emanuel AME Church when a racist murdered the church’s pastor and Bible study attendees because they were Black.

Covert racism is more underhanded and subtle, but it is also very insidious. Covert racism often bolsters overt racism and is a building block of White supremacy . It is used to construct barriers that oppress people of color while maintaining privileges that benefit White people. Historically, covert racism has been difficult to define and, therefore, challenge. It flourished in the post-Civil Rights era and during the politically correct movement of the 1990s, when blatantly racist speech and actions were not only morally condemned but could also lead to negative legal, social, academic, and professional consequences. On the surface, it appeared to be a great win that blatant racist behavior was on the decline. However, not only did overt racism endure, it mutated into harmful and insidious microaggressions and modern racism.

One of the hallmarks of covert racism is that it is elusive and underhanded, and when it is named, the perpetrator (or those who defend the perpetrator), argue that the statement or behavior was a “joke” or a “misunderstanding” which puts the onus on the target or ally to either challenge the assertion or to ignore the offense. Some common examples of covert racism include telling a racist joke, discouraging interracial relationships and friendships, using dog-whistles, racial profiling, perpetuating racial stereotypes, acting on or holding onto prejudices and race-based fears after being exposed to accurate or bias-challenging information, and appropriating Black culture, as well as the unabashed, brazen display and defense of artifacts of hate like confederate flags.

In this book, I refer to covert racism as “racist microaggressions” (e.g. following a person of color around a store as if they will steal or rudely staring at an interracial couple) and overt racism as “racist macroaggressions” (e.g. physical and verbal attacks on people of color because of their race or racist policing procedures like stop-and-frisk campaigns).

I also conceptualize covert and overt racism as existing on a continuum with varying intensities of racist aggression and violence (see Fig. 2.1). Furthermore, defining a racist act of aggression as a microaggression or macroaggression is both an individual and societal process that is based on the target’s perception as well as socially agreed upon understandings of what a serious incident is and what an insignificant incident is.

Fig. 2.1
figure 1

Microaggression and macroaggression continuum

As seen in Fig. 2.1, I make the distinction between microaggressions (covert, subtle, or underhanded racism) and macroaggressions (overt, blatant, or obvious racism) as well as acts of aggression that are intentional and unintentional. Moving horizontally, we see that racism can be displayed covertly or overtly, and moving vertically, we see that racism can be either intentional or unintentional. Examples for each type are given below:

  • Intentional microaggression: An employer refuses to hire a person because of the target’s race or people staring angrily at an interracial couple.

  • Unintentional microaggression: A person fails to correctly observe a particular cultural tradition because they haven’t been exposed to a given culture or assuming an Asian person is foreign-born.

  • Intentional macroaggression: The implementation of Jim Crow Laws and American slavery or physically harming a person of color because of their race.

  • Unintentional macroaggression: Carrying out supposedly race-neutral policies that result in disparate outcomes for Blacks and Latinos (e.g. stop-and-frisk policies or sentencing disparities between cocaine users and crack users—although for these examples, it is possible that some policymakers intended for these policies to have disparate outcomes).

Regardless of the “intent” of the aggressor, what matters most is the impact that racist microaggressions and macroaggressions have on the target. Oftentimes, aggressors will attempt to avoid taking responsibility for their actions, because they claim that the offense was unintentional. However, that doesn’t erase the fact that they still hurt someone and should make amends. In my view, valuing a target’s perception of an incident, over an aggressor’s perception, helps to hold the aggressor accountable, helps empower the target, and gives credence to the experiences and feelings of the target.

Forms of racism and violence that fall on the covert or microaggressive end of the spectrum are there simply because they are subtle, indirect, or underhanded in nature, and not because I am diminishing the emotional, psychological, or physical repercussions of covert racism or microaggressions. Additionally, the placement of microaggressions and macroaggressions on this continuum may shift based on time, space, and the target’s perception. In terms of “time,” interracial relationships and marriages were once prohibited in the United States and participating in one often resulted in adverse legal, social, and physical consequences that were macroaggressive in nature. Even though interracial marriage is now legal, interracial couples may still face sanctions in terms of looks, stares, and rude treatment that are microaggressive in nature. I will also note that, although racist macroaggressions toward interracial couples have declined, they still occur, as do racial microaggressions that are wounding to targets . In terms of “space,” while being verbally assaulted is unfortunate and detrimental (regardless of the space that it occurs in), someone saying a racially motivated comment on the street may have fewer long-term consequences than a coworker or a supervisor saying racist slurs in the workplace (since such comments may adversely impact workplace climate and shape how others view the target as a professional). As for the target’s “perception”, as explained above, targets have the right to name and label racist incidents as they see fit. While it is common for aggressors, oppressors, and their apologists to victim blame or downplay targets’ experiences, as a society, we should learn to respect the perception of targets and offer assistance to them if they want or need support.

Microaggressions and Macroaggressions: Revisiting, Revising, and Creating Concepts

In Chester Pierce’s seminal work Offensive Mechanisms (1970), he explained that Black people experienced blatant, obvious, and vicious forms of racism called macroaggressions, as well as subtle, underhanded, and elusive forms of racism called microaggressions. Although he problematized both macroaggressions and microaggressions in his work, he spends most of the piece explaining that microaggressions are an especially significant pillar of race relations and racism since they are embedded in everyday interactions. He also explains that microaggressions reinforce the racist message that Black people are inferior and White people are superior.

Derald Wing Sue has also greatly contributed to microaggression theory . Sue et al. (2007: 274–275) theorized that there are three forms of microaggressions: (1) microassaults, (2) microinsults, and (3) microinvalidations . Kevin Nadal has also impressively added to microaggression theory, providing the following explanations . Nadal (2008: 22) notes that microassaults are similar to “old-fashioned” racism, where people behave and speak in blatantly racist ways (e.g. the use of a racial slur to attack someone or striking a person with the intent to harm them because of their race). He also explains that microinsults are “statements or actions that indirectly belittle a person of color and are often unconscious and unintentional.” Examples of microinsults include a person being surprised that a person of color is “articulate” or being shocked that they are good at math, because it underscores the racial stereotypes that people of color are not intelligent. Another example of a microinsult includes a student of color being watched on campus as if they are a criminal, a thief, or dangerous (Nadal 2008: 22). Lastly, he explains that microinvalidations “are statements and behaviors that negate or nullify a person of color’s experiences or realities” (Nadal 2008: 22). Examples of microinvalidations include a student of color being told that they are “too sensitive about race” or an individual telling a student of color that they “don’t see race ” (Nadal 2008: 22). Nadal (2008) notes that such declarations are harmful because the perpetrator ignores the target’s race-based experiences and reality, and, by ignoring the harm they have done, the perpetrator avoids taking responsibility for their actions and for perpetuating racism.

In my work, for clarity and simplicity, I refer to microassaults as macroaggressions, and I refer to microinsults and microinvalidations as microaggressions. Additionally, I largely refer to overt racist behaviors and speech as macroaggressions and covert racist behavior as microaggressions. As mentioned above, I believe that Pierce’s (1970) original classification provides a well-defined way of talking about racism that makes sense sociologically and generally (see Fig. 2.2).

Fig. 2.2
figure 2

Microaggression and macroaggression classification diagram

Microassaults Are Macroaggressions

Pierce (1970: 266) explained that macroaggressions are “gross, dramatic, [and] obvious” forms of racism like lynching, while Sue and others who followed in his tradition labeled such behaviors as microassaults (Nadal 2008; Sue et al. 2007). In my view, microassaults are macroaggressions and include physical violence, name-calling, mean comments, and threats that occur in person or online and are directed toward a person because of their race.

Macroaggressions have seemingly reduced during the twentieth century as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the Politically Correct Movement of the 1990s. This resulted in macroaggressors facing social, legal, economic, professional, and academic consequences for their blatantly racist words and actions. Even though there has seemingly been a reduction in overt racist behavior, it is important to note that overt racism still occurs and can increase in prevalence under the right conditions (e.g. when dominant groups feel as though racial minorities are encroaching on their territory [Levin and McDevitt 1993], or when public figures embolden racist behavior). As seen in the prevalence of hate crimes in the United States (Southern Poverty Law Center 2016; Yan et al. 2016; Federal Bureau of Investigation 2015) as well as the following examples from my research on microaggressions and macroaggressions on college campuses (Levchak 2013), it is clear that macroaggressions are very much alive:

Targets’ Experiences

I have been discriminated against a lot. My friends (Black) and I have been harassed by the police many times. I received hate mail for my opinion column about race in the [local paper]. Teachers have harassed me because of my race. I have been judged because I received “a race-card-scholarship (Latina, 22).”

Had people call me nigger (Multiracial man, 21).

Verbal harassment (Multiracial woman, 19).

Being called a spic (Latino man, 20).

Vicarious Experiences and Bystanders’ Perceptions

I haven’t had any personally, but a group of my friends [were] called niggers when walking to Wal-Mart from [their dorm] (White man, 20).

Person in dorms yelling racial slurs out the window (White man, 20).

I’ve overheard racist comments while eating or walking (White woman, 19).

I have heard so many racist comments (White woman, 20).

I often hear my peers say extremely derogatory things about individuals from the Black, Hispanic, and especially Asian communities (White woman, 19).

I hear racial slurs all the time (White woman, 18).

My friends have been discriminated against because they were minorities walking home at night. Other friends have not been allowed in bars, because they are minorities (Latina, 21).

Microinsults Are Microaggressions

Microinsults are typically covert and include “statements or actions that indirectly belittle a person of color and are often unconscious and unintentional”, although I would stress that based on my observations they are often intentional (Nadal 2008: 22). An example of a microinsult would be when an individual expresses surprise that an Asian person is “articulate” or speaks clear English. This particular stereotype underscores the perpetual foreigner sentiment in which it is assumed that all Asian people are foreign-born and that English is not their first language. Another example would be when an individual expresses surprise that a person of color, and particularly a young person of color, holds a position of power or has a prestigious occupation such as a professor, medical doctor, lawyer, or director of a program. In the autumn of 2016, there was a news story that went viral in which a young Black woman who was also a medical doctor was on a flight and wanted to help another passenger who was having a medical emergency. However, the flight attendant was shocked and didn’t believe that the woman was actually a doctor and prevented the physician from helping (Hoffman 2016). Many believed that this was a manifestation of racism since the flight attendant couldn’t believe that a young Black woman could actually be intelligent and successful enough to be a medical doctor. In response to the story, other Black doctors took to social media using the hashtag #thisiswhatadoctorlookslike in order to demonstrate that there is diversity in the medical profession (Workneh 2016). Research shows that young, Black PhD-holding professors also experience this microinsult (Bailey 2015). Furthermore, this is something that I can attest to experiencing.

The racist harassment associated with “shopping while Black” (which occurs when Black people are followed around stores as if they are going to steal something) is also considered a microinsult (Nadal 2008). Similarly, the race-based vilification that Black students experience when they are watched, followed, or racially profiled by members of the campus community and law enforcement as though they are dangerous or don’t belong is also a microinsult. In 2014, a series of microinsults were caught on camera when Rashid Polo, a young Black teenager, filmed himself while being followed by a series of clerks who assumed that he would steal from the store because of his race (Matthews 2014).

Below are examples of microinsults from my research (Levchak 2013):

Targets’ Experiences

People are less likely to engage with you because of your race (Latino man, 20).

Having some people fear me or my intentions because I’m Black (Multiracial man, 19).

Stared at; talked to like I’m stupid; avoided; cut off from conversations; ignored (Black man, 19).

I have felt a lot of racism my freshman year here at [my predominantly White school], I have just heard people call me names and just stare at me as [if] I don’t belong (Multiracial woman, 19).

Vicarious Experiences and Bystanders’ Perceptions

The campus is quite a lot whiter than my home state and so I think most racism I’ve seen is rooted in awkward exchanges. Not just Black v. White issues, but international student/multiracial and ethnic issues come up a lot. People don’t really talk about either in public but there are coded/subtle exchanges. Like White people tell my friends who are international that their English is surprisingly good. Or they ask my friends who are Black “Where are you from?” like they couldn’t have grown up here [in a predominantly white, Midwestern state]. I think it’s called microaggressions (White woman, 21).

I know some people who are scared of Black men for no reason at all, (when out at night) (White woman, 20).

I have a Black roommate and people are surprised how well we get along with each other (White man, 18).

At night by [the mall near campus], people get scared of the Black people walking around (White woman, 19).

People tell me they don’t ride the bus at certain times of day because of Black people (Indian man, 20).

If I am with one of my friends who is colored we are sometimes looked at which makes me feel uncomfortable and I know he feels the same (White woman, 19).

Microinvalidations Are Microaggressions

Microinvalidations are typically covert and include “statements and behaviors that negate or nullify a person of color’s experiences or realities” (Nadal 2008: 22). Examples of microinvalidations include a person of color being told that they are “too sensitive about race” or an individual telling a person of color that they “don’t see race” (Nadal 2008: 22). Nadal (2008) also explains that such declarations are harmful because the perpetrator ignores the target’s racial experiences and reality, and in effect, the perpetrator denies that they are capable of perpetuating racism. Microinvalidations also occur when people of color have their ideas, opinions, and feelings ignored, when they are left out of conversations, or when they are mistaken for someone because they share the same racial or ethnic background.

Below are examples of microinvalidations from my research (Levchak 2013):

Targets’ Experiences

During the group discussion, [a] White guy ignored me while [I was] speaking (Asian woman, 24).

White student[s] sometimes ignored my opinion in discussion section (Asian man, 24).

International Advisors didn’t treat me fairly and they ignored my efforts (Asian man, 20).

People [think] if a person is Asian, they are really smart, good at fighting and are good with technology…People often stare at me to try to fit a racial profile on me based on my looks, and they usually guess wrongly, or ask me and look surprised (Multiracial woman, 19).

Bystander’s Perception

This might be mixed with other factors other than race, but international students, because they may speak another language or dress differently are not blatantly disrespected, but [are] conveniently ignored (White man, 20).

Microaggressive Perspective

I had one T.A. who … believed he was still mistreated for being colored (White woman, 21).

There isn’t any (racism). People are way too sensitive (White man, 21).

What is race? We are 1 human race! (White man, 18).

Aggressor and Target Relationship

There is a need to acknowledge each other’s pain, even as we attend to our own…The task of resisting our own oppression does not relieve us of the responsibility of acknowledging our complicity in the oppression of others.

—Beverly Daniel Tatum (2013: 9)

Current microaggression and macroaggression theory lacks an in-depth explanation on the relationship between the aggressor (microaggressor/macroaggressor) and the target. I expand this theory by introducing and explaining the following types of aggressors: (1) intimate microaggressors or macroaggressors, (2) acquaintance microaggressors or macroaggressors, and (3) unknown microaggressors or macroaggressors. However, before delving into these new concepts, it’s essential that I first discuss the Oppression Dynamics Conceptual Framework (Hardiman and Jackson 2007). The Oppression Dynamics Conceptual Framework accounts for the behaviors, social identities, social positions, and social locations of both aggressors and targets. The framework provides a comprehensive understanding of how oppressive systems are maintained due to a variety of dynamics both among and within advantaged and targeted social groups.

Hardiman and Jackson (2007) explain that while oppression certainly involves advantaged group members (e.g. Whites, men) acting against targeted group members (e.g. people of color, women) oppression includes other noteworthy dynamics as well. The Oppression Dynamics Conceptual Framework highlights the complexity of race relations. There are White people and people of color who are aware and who are doing daily work to reduce racism, and there are also White people and people of color who unintentionally and intentionally harm race relations. This framework shows us that regardless of our social position and status, we can be complicit in maintaining oppressive dynamics.

In their work, Hardiman and Jackson (2007) outline three important concepts that are key to this framework: vertical dynamics of oppression, horizontal dynamics of oppression, and internalized dynamics of oppression.

Vertical Dynamics of Oppression

According to Hardiman and Jackson (2007) “[v]ertical oppression occurs in interactions between advantaged and targeted groups that maintain and reinforce oppression” (60). Vertical oppression includes advantaged group members acting in ways that negatively impact targeted group members, but it can also include targeted group members behaving in ways that negatively impact advantaged group members . Hardiman and Jackson (2007) go on to explain that actions by targeted group members that negatively impact advantaged group members are “more complicated and are not equivalent to the actions of a member of an advantaged group against a member of a targeted group”. They specifically note that:

[B]oth members of advantaged and targeted groups are capable of prejudice, abuse, violence, and hatred, but only the advantaged groups have the institutional and cultural power to back up their prejudices against targeted groups. For example, individual people of color might feel or express prejudices against white people…but as a group…people of color [don’t] hold many positions of power in major institutions in the United States that would enable them to turn their prejudices into widely held institutional and social policy. Claims of “reverse racism” …fail to take this power dynamic into account (61).

Vertically oppressive behaviors conducted by advantaged group members include the following: a White faculty member having low expectations of their students of color, a White employer refusing to hire people of color, or a White political pundit making racist comments. Vertically oppressive behavior conducted by a targeted group member includes a student of color who believes that all White people are racist and avoids associating with White members of the campus community or a mental health practitioner of color who refuses to help White people and refers their White clients on to White practitioners.

Horizontal Dynamics of Oppression

Hardiman and Jackson (2007) explain that “…interactions among advantaged group members as well as interactions among targeted group members can maintain and reinforce oppression” (61). Although we frequently examine oppressive behaviors between racial groups (vertical oppression), it is important to discuss occasions when members of the same racial group or people who share a similar social position (people of color) harm one another. I also want to note that although intraracial crime is usually only talked about in terms of “Black on Black crime,” intraracial violence occurs in all communities, which means that “White on White crime,” “Asian on Asian crime,” “Latino on Latino crime,” and other types of intraracial violence exist.

Horizontally oppressive behaviors conducted by advantaged group members include Whites who ridicule, harass, or harm other Whites who support the Movement for Black Lives, or Whites who ridicule, harass, or harm other Whites in interracial relationships. Horizontally oppressive behaviors conducted by targeted group members include Latinos who say negative things about or mistreat Black people, or people of color who physically harm other people of color or their property.

Internalized Dynamics of Oppression

Hardiman and Jackson (2007) also explain that internalized oppression “…occurs when members of advantaged and targeted groups adopt the dominant ideology about their own groups that maintains and reinforces oppression (61).” Internalized oppression has two subcategories: internalized domination (behavior exhibited by dominant group members) and internalized subordination (behavior exhibited by targeted or subordinate group members).

Internalized domination occurs when “members of advantaged groups accept their group’s socially superior status as normal and deserved (Hardiman and Jackson 2007: 61).” Examples include a White educator who believes White children should be punished less harshly than students of color who commit the same offenses; a White manager who believes that Whites should be promoted before people of color with the same or superior qualifications; and White media executives who devalue the narratives of people of color, while favoring predominantly White stories and hiring predominantly White casts. Internalized subordination occurs when “members of targeted groups internalize dominant social messages of inferiority about their group (Hardiman and Jackson 2007: 61).” Examples include a person of color who believes that White people have a higher sense of morality than people of color, or people of color who believe that European features are superior and who consequently bleach their skin.

Intimate Microaggressors and Macroaggressors

Intimate microaggressors or macroaggressors can be family members, close friends, spouses, and anyone with whom an individual has a close relationship. An example of an intimate microaggressor would be a family member who speaks negatively of another family member’s interracial relationship or slights the interracial couple by not inviting them to holiday celebrations and family gatherings. Hearing negative messages like this from an individual who is close can be very damaging especially since there is an expectation that we should be able to trust and depend on close relationships for support and encouragement. An example of an intimate macroaggressor would be a friend or partner in an interracial relationship who is verbally abusive (using racial epithets toward their friend or partner). Another example would be domestic abuse that occurs because the perpetrator believes they are racially superior compared to the victim/survivor.

Acquaintance Microaggressors and Macroaggressors

Acquaintance microaggressors or macroaggressors can be classmates, dormmates, coworkers, supervisors, students, or instructors. An example of an acquaintance microaggressor would be an instructor who calls a student of color “too sensitive” when the student tells the instructor that other students are making racially insensitive comments during class discussions. In some cases, it may be difficult or risky to interrupt the microaggressive behaviors of an acquaintance microaggressor, especially if the acquaintance is in a position of power like a supervisor or instructor. In these cases, reporting an incident may lead to revictimization or retaliation that can affect the short-term and long-term quality of life of an individual, as well as their professional and academic goals. An example of an acquaintance macroaggressor would be a classmate who writes a racial epithet on another student’s desk, who yells racial slurs at their classmates, or who physically assaults their classmate because of the student’s race.

Unknown Microaggressors and Macroaggressors

Unknown microaggressors and macroaggressors are individuals the target does not know. An example of an unknown microaggressor would be a stranger who stares at a person of color as though they don’t belong in the vicinity or a stranger who laughs at a person of color’s ethnic clothing or practices because they believe that their own culture is superior. An example of an unknown macroaggressor would be a stranger who calls a person of color racist names from a moving car or a stranger who stalks and harms a person of color because of their race. I’ll also note that microaggressions and macroaggressions from unknown individuals are rampant online, and depending on the level of privacy on the site, the perpetrator can remain anonymous. Additionally, while the advent of the Internet has been beneficial in many cases (specifically in terms of generating awareness and creating community), this technology has also introduced Internet stalking and other forms of harassment that target people and communities of color (Duggan 2014).

Responses to Microaggressions and Macroaggressions: Reactions That Help and Harm Targets

I advance microaggression and macroaggression theory by articulating two overarching responses to racist microaggressions and macroaggressions (as supported by my research and observations): (1) responses that may help or empower the target and (2) responses that are unhelpful to the target.

Helpful responses include (1) interrupting the act of aggression and (2) rectifying the situation. Interrupting microaggressive or macroaggressive behavior usually becomes the responsibility of the target, co-victim, or a concerned bystander. However, disrupting racist behavior can be challenging for even the most skilled conflict resolution specialist. Nonetheless, bystander intervention training and de-escalation training provide important and necessary skills that everyone should have because everyone is responsible for working to combat, reduce, and eradicate social ills like racism. Similar to the way individual citizens adapted to life in the post-9/11 world, where many were committed to reporting suspicious behavior and activity (as encouraged by the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign) (Department of Homeland Security 2016), interrupting race-based aggression requires a similar effort from individual citizens where they should adopt an “If You See a Racist Microaggression or Macroaggression, Say Something, Do Something, and Help the Target” approach.

Additionally, when institutions become aware of race-based aggression among their students, employees, or the population they are serving, they need to act swiftly to provide assistance to the victim/survivor, and should enforce penalties and implement practices to reduce the likelihood that the racist behavior will occur again. Not only does swift action help the victim/survivor but it also sends a message to the aggressor and “would be” aggressors that racist bullying and aggression will not be tolerated by our institutions and our society, and that such behavior will be met with negative sanctions.

When acts of racial aggression occur, perpetrators should take responsibility for their negative beliefs and actions and should also make efforts to rectify the situation (in a way that is appropriate to the circumstance and in a manner that does not further aggravate the victim/survivor). When a target is offended or harmed as the result of racist aggression, the aggressor doesn’t have the right to qualify the target’s feelings; instead, the aggressor should focus on apologizing, rectifying the situation, and embracing awareness education and unbiased behavior. Even when an aggressor is remorseful, the institution should provide awareness education to assist the aggressor in avoiding improper behavior in the future. In cases where perpetrators show no remorse, refuse to acknowledge their harmful beliefs and actions, and shrug the responsibility of rectifying the situation, institutions should enforce penalties (e.g. suspension, termination) and teachable consequences (e.g. community service, making amends with target) (see Chap. 7 for further information on interventions and solutions).

As seen in online spaces, there has been a trend of microaggressors and macroaggressors being reported to their supervisors or schools to face punishment and admonishment for their racist actions on the Internet . In fact, all institutions should have policies and procedures in place to address instances of racism, penalize perpetrators, and support victims/survivors of racism. Institutions that have disregarded or ignored instances of racism or that operate without a system in place to address racism, should implement anti-racism policies and procedures as soon as possible. As it relates to hate crimes, local and state law enforcement need to have better methods in place to effectively record hate crimes, penalize perpetrators , and support victims (Wagner 2015; Cassidy 2016; Jacobson 2016).

Unhelpful responses include (1) being an inactive bystander, (2) institutional inaction, and (3) excusing or endorsing the negative behavior. Inactive bystanders see, hear, or are aware of racist behavior but do not interrupt the behavior because of fear, willful ignorance, a lack of concern, a lack of bystander intervention skills, or a mixture of these reasons. An example of an inactive bystander would be an employee who hears a colleague disparage a customer because of the customer’s race but fails to intervene because they are fearful that their colleague may admonish them for intervening. In this case, a procedure should be in place that makes it possible for the employee to report such behavior without fear of retaliation and for the customer to be helped by another representative.

Institutional inaction, as well as disorganized and revictimizing responses to racism, is unacceptable. Our institutions, especially those funded by our taxes, need to be committed to protecting us and improving race relations. When we fail to talk about racism or ignore it when it occurs, we make the situation worse. Our silence becomes a sign of approval, and perpetrators are emboldened to continue their behavior while targets continue to be violated and harmed.

Excusing includes downplaying the magnitude of the event and suggesting that the event or behavior does not require attention or intervention. An example of someone excusing racist behavior would be a coach who hears athletes making racialized comments and “jokes” about a fellow athlete but downplays the behavior by saying that “boys will be boys.”

Endorsing the behavior involves supporting or defending the aggressor’s behavior. An example of endorsing racist behavior would be a political commentator who staunchly supports and defends a politician who makes racist comments.

In all of these examples, individuals and institutions can improve their responses by embracing awareness training, bystander intervention training, and by committing to developing empathy for targeted groups and individuals.

Victims/survivors of racism can also respond in ways that will either be helpful or harmful to their well-being. Helpful responses include (1) collecting and documenting evidence, (2) reporting the incident, (3) seeking physical and/or emotional care, (4) focusing on being empowered, and (5) engaging in community organizing. When possible, a victim/survivor of racial aggression should immediately collect and document evidence of the racist incident. Saving and storing backup copies may also be useful. The victim/survivor should also find an advocate who believes them and supports them during the reporting and healing process. They should then report the incident to relevant authorities (e.g. appropriate institutional offices and officials, local and state law enforcement agencies, or the local FBI field office). The victim/survivor should also seek physical and/or emotional care to ensure that they will recover from the incident. Another constructive response to racist aggression includes focusing on becoming empowered as well as engaging in self-care, advocacy, activism, and service.

When aggressors vandalize a home or neighborhood because of the race of the residents, community organizing can be a useful response. Communities can employ strategies like those outlined by the National Crime Prevention Council’s (2017) “Neighborhood Watch” program, where community members are encouraged to work together to protect its members and to report hate crimes and other crimes. By having a united front, participants can enjoy protection and strength in numbers and potential aggressors will learn that their behaviors will not go unnoticed, unchallenged, and unreported.

Unhelpful responses include internalizing racism. Internalizing can occur when targets absorb negative messages about themselves, resulting in the target believing that they are inferior. Internalizing may also lead the target to blame themselves for an act of aggression, even though racial aggression is solely the fault of the perpetrator. In these cases, victims/survivors should seek mental health care and engage in empowering responses (like those listed above).

Where Microaggressions and Macroaggressions Occur: Precarious vs. Protective Spaces

Microaggressions and macroaggressions manifest differently and have varying consequences depending on the social context, location, and space where the racist incident occurs. Therefore, I add to microaggression and macroaggression theory by making the distinction between precarious spaces and protective spaces as sites where racism occurs.

In precarious spaces, the person of color may be wary of racism occurring. I theorize that precarious spaces are usually public spaces, but not always. Based on personal or vicarious experiences, an individual may be cautious in going to certain locations, places, or spaces because it is viewed as potentially dangerous, or because they may experience racism from people (e.g. civilians, residents, or law enforcement) in those areas.

Examples of microaggressions in precarious spaces include people of color being avoided out of hatred, fear, or disgust in public; watched as if they are a threat to other people or property in their vicinity; stopped and frisked; or slighted or ignored when they seek help. Macroaggressions in precarious places include people of color being physically and verbally assaulted in public arenas like streets or common areas on college campuses.

Unfortunately for people of color, many public, semipublic, semiprivate, and private places are precarious and unsafe. During the last few years, we have seen the deaths of Black people broadcasted throughout mainstream news media outlets and social media, reinforcing the idea that safety is not guaranteed even on busy streets, in broad daylight. Additionally, our homes and communities can quickly become precarious spaces when strangers, neighbors, or police officers treat us like criminals or intruders if we don’t “look” like we “belong” in certain neighborhoods or areas. We not only saw this in the case of Dr. Henry Gates Jr., a prestigious Black professor who was racially profiled and arrested outside his home in a middle-class, predominantly White neighborhood (Thompson 2009), we also saw this in the case of Trayvon Martin who was hunted and murdered for being in an area where he didn’t “belong” (Tienabeso et al. 2013).

As for protective spaces, people of color create, seek out, and invest in environments that feel safe and secure from racism. Many protective spaces shelter people of color as well as their loved ones, pets, or possessions. Protective spaces are usually private spaces and are similar to what hooks (1990) theorized as a “homeplace” (see section on Racism and Resilience). Microaggressions that take place in or near protective spaces can include a neighbor being unfriendly because they don’t want to live next to a person of color. Macroaggressions that take place in or near protective spaces include racial or ethnic minorities’ homes, dorms, or offices being vandalized with racist words or images.

Microaggressions and macroaggressions can cause stress regardless of where they occur. However, when they occur in protective spaces, individuals may experience a reduced sense of security, which will undoubtedly result in emotional stress and trauma . For instance, experiencing a macroaggression within your dormitory or your home (protective spaces) may have more long-term socio-emotional consequences than a macroaggression that occurs on the street (a precarious space). Relatedly, research shows that after experiencing acts of violence in their homes (presumably protective spaces), victims were more likely to report socio-emotional problems such as feelings of distress, major problems at work or school , and significant problems with family or friends (Langton and Truman 2014).

The Consequences of Racist Microaggressions and Macroaggressions: Stress, Trauma, and Death

Racism is a mental health and public health disease characterized by perceptual distortion, contagion and fatality. The vehicle for these characteristics is the cumulative effect of offensive mechanisms…

—Chester Pierce (1970: 268)

As a result of the White supremacist social structure that the United States was built upon and operates from, many people of color (and especially African Americans) live their lives in a constant state of awareness and caution since being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, and around the wrong people may result in them being mistreated because of their race and ethnicity. Furthermore, in some spaces, people of color may be completely ignored as if they don’t matter or exist, and in other spaces, they may be constantly watched and treated as a threat that needs to be eliminated. While people of color are strong and resilient, it is unsurprising that the constant bombardment of racist microaggressions and macroaggressions causes some to experience emotional stress and psychological trauma.

The Consequences of Racism Across the Life Course

Racism negatively impacts the mental health of targets, regardless of age or position in the life course. For instance, it contributes to poor adjustment among children and teenagers of color (Umaña-Taylor 2016); poor performance and stress among African American college students (Greer and Chwalisz 2007); self-consciousness among Black faculty as a result of having their qualifications questioned or challenged by students, faculty, and staff (Constantine et al. 2008); stress, frustration, and diminished self-confidence among Black women in senior positions in corporate America as a result of having their competence, capabilities, and intellect undermined and questioned (Holder et al. 2015); and high levels of race-related stress among elderly Black men (Utsey et al. 2002).

Umaña-Taylor (2016) conducted a review of research and concluded that perceived ethnic-racial discrimination negatively impacts the lives of youth, adjustment to their social environment, and their future. She notes:

[T]he potential negative consequences of ethnic-racial discrimination for youth adjustment are clear; the deleterious associations emerge across childhood and through adolescence, [and] are evident for youth across all ethnic-racial minority groups, and…are not limited to a single region of the U.S. (114).

The negative consequences that Umaña-Taylor (2016) refers to include post-traumatic stress symptoms, depressive symptoms, low self-esteem, suicidal ideation, poor academic adjustment (e.g. lower grades), and behavioral problems (e.g. substance use, physical aggression, delinquency, and risky sexual behaviors). She also notes that, “…across ethnic-racial minority groups, youths’ experiences with perceived ethnic-racial discrimination increase with age (114),” meaning that their experiences with racism are likely to intensify over the course of their lives.

Racism and Stress

Racism-related stress can be defined as the emotional and psychological strain that a target or recipient of racism experiences after a racist incident. Research has shown that racism-related stress can impact an individual’s well-being (Harrell 2000). In Harrell’s (2000) work on racism and stress, she found that experiencing racism can result in severe emotional and psychological reactions in people of color. These include feelings of vulnerability, anger, sadness, and anxiety.

Harrell also outlined six types of racism-related stress: (1) race-related life events: significant experiences that have major impacts on the individual’s life (e.g. losing one’s job because of workplace racism or being racially profiled and arrested); (2) vicarious racism experiences: gaining knowledge of racist acts through the reports of others or through observation (e.g. the disseminated video of Philando Castile’s death); (3) daily racism microstressors: covert microaggressions that accumulate and contribute to the overall stress load of individuals; (4) chronic contextual stress: when people of color try to cope with or adapt to challenging social environments (e.g. living in a predominantly White environment where there is a lack of support and protection from racist microaggressions and macroaggressions); (5) collective experiences: stress that develops when a person of color perceives their racial or ethnic group to be disadvantaged socially, economically, politically, as well as portrayed negatively in the media; and (6) transgenerational transmission: racist historical events and survival strategies that are passed down through the generations by way of storytelling, discussions, and lessons (Harrell 2000: 45–47).

Additionally, research has found that frequent, stressful, racist experiences can result in depression, anxiety, and anger (US Department of Health and Human Services, Surgeon General’s Report 2001). I found that experiencing racist macroaggressions produced negative perceptions of campus climate and higher levels of stress for non-White students (Levchak 2013). In their work, Greer and Chwalisz (2007: 399) found that African American students who attended a predominantly White school experienced higher levels of minority status stressors compared to their counterparts at a historically Black college and university. Carter (2007) explains that “many people of color…report that their stress is not because of one event, but [due to] a series of emotional wounds and blows [that] were experienced (91).” Similarly, Diaz et al. (2001) provide support for double and multiple jeopardy theories by showing that individuals who are members of several low social status groups suffer compounded mental and physical health issues.

Racism, Mental Health, and Trauma

Too often racism and its consequences are ignored or downplayed even though experiencing racism can be traumatic for people of color. Race-related trauma describes the psychological and physical symptoms that people of color experience following an encounter with racism (Carter 2007). Race-related trauma may include the following emotional, psychological, and physical symptoms: anxiety, anger , rage, depression, lowered self-esteem, shame, guilt, fear, hypervigilance, headaches, insomnia, body aches, memory difficulty, self-blame, and confusion after experiencing racism (Carter 2007; Jernigan et al. 2015).

In a 2015 article, Dr. Monnica Williams explains that race-based trauma can also occur vicariously when people of color learn about racist attacks like the church massacre in Charleston, South Carolina (Corley 2015). In the same article, Dr. Carl Bell explains that feeling helpless, powerless, or vulnerable in the face of the incident is what fuels stress and trauma and causes individuals to feel worried and anxious about things that would normally not be bothersome (Corley 2015). Unfortunately, when people of color seek mental health care, they are sometimes revictimized and experience racist microaggressions from their mental healthcare providers (Constantine 2007). Such poor treatment may reduce future help-seeking and will also result in people of color not receiving much needed care in a timely manner.

Racism, Physical Health, and Death

When examining the link between racism and physical health, one might readily think about the physical harm people of color and their allies suffer at the hands of racists. However, it is also important to recognize that racism-related stress and trauma manifest into physical ailments that may contribute to the demise of targets.

Acute stress or sudden emotional stress can potentially cause heart attacks, arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythms), and even sudden death (Krantz et al. 2011). Unlike acute stress, chronic stress kills people slowly, and oftentimes painfully, by making existing illnesses worse. Chronic stress increases the risk of the following: hypertension, heart attack, heart disease, diabetes, stroke, ulcers, severe stomach pain, diarrhea, constipation, erectile dysfunction, irregular menstrual cycles, painful menstrual cycles, intensified premenstrual cycle symptoms, and a decline in sexual desire (American Psychological Association 2016).

There is also the tragic case of Kalief Browder (1993–2015) who committed suicide after being arrested on false charges and imprisoned for three years without conviction. During his imprisonment at New York City’s main jail complex, Rikers Island, Browder endured beatings and harassment from guards and inmates as well as roughly two years in solitary confinement (Gonnerman 2014, 2015). He was arrested because of racial profiling, and his mistreatment in prison was rooted in vertical and horizontal race-based oppression.

Racism and Resilience

People of color are resilient, both individually and collectively. Resilience is the ability to successfully adapt to change and to recover from challenging circumstances. We see resilience and strength at work in the way that people of color survive and thrive after enduring personal experiences with overt and covert racism, vicarious racist experiences, and historical trauma that is felt across generations, because of horrors like slavery, genocide, and forced removal from native homelands (Brave Heart and DeBruyn 1998).

For example, in the Black community, there are many extraordinary individuals, groups, and families who support each other, share survival strategies, love each other, and live together within healthy and supportive environments. In her essay Homeplace (a site of resistance), bell hooks explains that Black women have created safe spaces or homeplaces in order to ensure the physical and emotional safety of their families and loved ones (1990). In her essay, hooks (1990) writes:

[B]lack women have resisted white supremacist domination by working to establish [a] homeplace… [they cared] for one another, for children, for black men, in ways that elevated our spirits, that kept us from despair, that taught some of us to be revolutionaries able to struggle for freedom… Those of us who were fortunate enough to receive such care understood its value…Working to create a homeplace that affirmed our beings, our blackness, our love for one another was necessary resistance (385–387).

Aside from the support and protection that people of color receive from their families and homeplaces, it is essential that individuals and institutions throughout society become more culturally competent, aware, and committed to anti-racism efforts to ensure that people of color don’t have to experience r acism-related stress, trauma, sickness, or death.

Core Concepts of Microaggression and Macroaggression Theory

In the following paragraphs, I present core concepts and propositions that advance and bring clarity to existing microaggression and macroaggression theory. While many of the concepts and propositions have been presented above, I have collected and summarized them below so they can be easily reviewed:

  1. 1.

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions fall on a continuum (see Fig. 2.1). The continuum shows that microaggressions manifest covertly and macroaggressions manifest overtly. The diagram also shows that race-based aggression can either be intentional or unintentional.

  2. 2.

    A single act of aggression can be considered significant to some, but insignificant to others. While a victim/survivor of racist aggression has the right to define the racist incident as microaggressive, macroaggressive, trivial, or severe (see point 11 below), dominant social groups and oppressive authorities use their power and social influence to set standards about victim worthiness and about what acts of aggression should be taken seriously. Unfortunately, such standards often undermine targets’ narratives and dismiss their perceptions (especially when a target is a member of one or more marginalized groups).Furthermore, since “slights” are often perceived as a lesser form of aggression, their impact and venom are often ignored. However, slights should be perceived as a cornerstone of racial oppression that more intense forms of verbal and physical aggression are built upon (see Fig. 2.3). Regardless of outside perspectives about the severity of an incident, victims/survivors of racist aggression should be believed, empathized with, and supported if they request or require our help.

    Fig. 2.3
    figure 3

    Intensity of aggression

  3. 3.

    Negative beliefs often precede microaggressive and macroaggressive behavior. Therefore, it is likely that persistent and/or emboldened racist beliefs will lead to race-based microaggressions and macroaggressions.

  4. 4.

    The target may know the aggressor, or the aggressor may be a stranger. Target and aggressors may have a close relationship, be acquaintances, or be strangers. The type of relationship might determine how the act of aggression is responded to. It may also impact the healing process. If the victim/survivor lives or works with the aggressor, their close proximity may impede the healing process.

  5. 5.

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions manifest differently and have varying consequences depending on the social context, location, and space where the racist incident occurs. An act of racist aggression will have negative consequences regardless of where it occurs, but, when it occurs in protective spaces, individuals may experience a reduced sense of security, which will undoubtedly result in emotional distress and pain.

  6. 6.

    Not all microaggressions are intentional, but perpetrators are still responsible for their words and deeds. Microaggressions can be the result of a lack of awareness about cultural differences and cultural diversity. For instance, someone might unintentionally commit a microaggression by insulting a cultural practice because they haven’t been exposed to a particular culture or custom. However, the onus is on the offender to apologize, make amends, and attain education so they can avoid engaging in microaggressive behavior in the future.

  7. 7.

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions are experienced by targets and perpetrated by aggressors at all levels of society (see Fig. 2.4).

    Fig. 2.4
    figure 4

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions occur at all levels of society

  8. 8.

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions are symptomatic of greater social problems and patterns of injustice. There is a connection between racist beliefs, words, and actions at the individual level and racist practices, procedures, policies, and patterns at the institutional, cultural, and structural levels. The below quotes show us the connection between racist microaggressions and larger patterns of injustice as it relates to the criminalization and harassment of Black people in public spaces:

    Target’s Experience

    I get followed by cops all the time and get stopped. I was once pulled over while walking out of the library and a group of police got out of the car and asked me a bunch of questions saying I “fit the profile (Black man, 21).”

    Vicarious Experiences and Bystanders’ Perceptions

    I have seen friends who are Black be singled out by police for nothing other than their race (White man, 19).

    Police watching Black people at the mall “[i]f they’re wearing hoodies and talk like criminals, they might be criminals (White woman, 20).”

    The police here HATE African Americans with a passion (White man, 20).

    I’ve heard Black people may get followed by police for no reason (White woman, 19).

    The above quotes capture the criminalization and harassment that individual Black people experience, which reflects larger patterns of racial profiling as well as the over-policing of Black bodies.

  9. 9.

    Microaggressions and macroaggressions harm targets (see the section The Consequences of Racist Microaggressions & Macroaggressions: Stress, Trauma, and Death). Microaggressions and macroaggressions negatively impact targets mentally, emotionally, psychologically, professionally, and academically.

  10. 10.

    Responses to racist aggression may help the target or harm the target. In the aftermath of an incident, the victim/survivor should focus on healing and self-care, and all other parties involved should avoid revictimizing the target.

  11. 11.

    Targets have the right to tell their story. Many aggressors and their apologists endeavor to silence targets, dampen discussions on racism, and ignore how racism harms targets.

    In their work, Clark et al. (1999: 808) define perceived racism as the “subjective experience of prejudice or discrimination” and show that the perception of racism is the most essential aspect of its impact. Their work is incredibly important because it shows that racism does not need to be “objectively” proven or verified in order for it to cause harm to targets. Similarly, Harrell (2000) elucidated the relationship between the subjective experience of racism and race-related stress, as captured in the quote below:

    The subjective judgment of the individual is the critical point of analysis in understanding the impact of racism on well-being. However, it is not uncommon for experiences of racism to be questioned or challenged by others. Such requests for “proof” can create a my-perception-against-yours dilemma that may include accusations of paranoia, hostility, oversensitivity, manipulation, self-serving motives, or having a chip on one’s shoulder (Essed 1991). Thus, the stress–and potential damage–of racism lies not only in the specific incident, but also in the resistance of others to believing and validating the reality or significance of one’s personal experience (44–45).

The exchanges that occur when individuals perceive racism and when aggressors or the aggressor’s sympathizers deny that racism occurred, happen daily but are rarely documented. Occasionally, however, such exchanges are captured, as seen during a CNN 2016 presidential debate commentator panel. Directly after the debate, panelists argued about whether terminology used by the Republican presidential nominee was racist or not. The nominee’s supporters argued that their candidate’s language was not offensive and that we are simply living in a culture where people become offended easily. However, political commentator and activist Van Jones responded to the denial of racism by saying the following:

You don’t get to determine what offends me, I don’t get to determine what offends you…if I say something to you, that you find offensive, it’s my job to listen to you and figure out in the name of civility [how to make things right] – we used to call it civility…the basis of civilization, but it became politically correct only when certain other people [oppressed groups] started insisting on civil treatment.

Two of the major challenges in combating modern racism, microaggressions, and macroaggressions are the lack of civility toward targeted groups and the lack of respect for the humanity, feelings, perceptions, and experiences of the targets of racism. Therefore, as we pursue racial justice and strive toward living peacefully together, we need to validate targets’ perceptions and stop validating the excuses of aggressors and their apologists. We need to boldly shut down aggressors and their apologists when they try to define what is considered racist, whether targets and their allies should be offended, and when they absurdly call targets and their allies racist for calling out racism.

  1. 12.

    Cultural competence and awareness training may reduce racist beliefs, microaggressions, and macroaggressions. Cultural competence allows us to work and live effectively with people across cultures. In my research, Levchak (2013), I found that students who had higher levels of cultural competence reported lower levels of racist beliefs. Since I theorize that racist beliefs precede racist microaggressions and macroaggressions, it makes sense that future research and practice should focus on the direct link between racist microaggressions, racist macroaggressions, and cultural competence.

Modern Racism

Systems of oppression and struggles for liberation have been present in the United States since the country’s formation. According to Bell et al. (2010), “[r]ace is a sociopolitical [construct], not a biological construct…[that] emerged historically in the United States to justify the dominance that people defined as ‘White’ held over people defined as ‘non-White’ (60).”

Furthermore, the country was established and developed because of the coercion, cruelty, tyranny, subjugation, exploitation, repression, and oppression of people of color. We see this in the past and present maltreatment of American Indians and people of African descent within America. For centuries, Americas’ First Peoples were dominated, subjugated, and had their land stolen (Roppolo 2010). Similarly, for centuries, Africans and their descendants were enslaved, abused, slaughtered, and forced to provide free labor to ensure the growth and prosperity of this nation (Coates 2014). After slavery was abolished, restrictive laws and practices were enforced to ensure that African Americans remained subjugated and oppressed scholastically, professionally, financially, and socially (Gold 2016). Presently, even with the elimination of such overtly racist laws, people of color are still mistreated and disadvantaged because of racist ideologies and practices throughout society.


Earlier definitions and conceptions of racism have usually focused on overt racism. However, in recent years, scholars have argued that racism has transformed, becoming less overt and more covert, shifting from blatant “old-fashioned racism” to subtle “modern racism” that is frequently exhibited through institutional, cultural, and especially interpersonal practices. Considering this shift, I find Bell’s (2010) definition of racism to be very useful. Bell defines racism as the “institutional, cultural and interpersonal patterns and practices that create advantages for people legally defined and socially constructed as White, and the corollary disadvantages for people defined as ‘non-White’ in the United States (60).”

As discussed earlier, to truly understand how racism and bigotry manifest and endure, we must consider the Oppression Dynamics Conceptual Framework and recognize that White people and people of color can engage in behaviors that harm other groups, their own groups, and race relations in general. However, to be clear, while racial bigotry can be committed by anyone regardless of race, racism can only be committed by those with individual, group, cultural, and institutional power and privilege granted on the basis of their race.

Since we live in a White supremacist society, White people are afforded such power and privilege , and must make the decision of whether they will collude with the racist system or use their power and privilege to dismantle racism and improve race relations. Furthermore, because of the White supremacist social structure, people of color do not enjoy power and privilege on the basis of their race, and instead are targeted because of their race, and experience oppression and injustices on the basis of their race. Therefore, I define racism as the mistreatment and harm that people of color experience throughout the social structure on the basis of their race.

The Covert Nature of Modern Racism

There are multiple manifestations of modern racism; however, racist microaggressions deserve special attention since they explicitly focus on covert racial aggression and interpersonal interactions. In the past, it has been challenging to expose covert racism because of its underhanded and invisible nature. As briefly described earlier, covert racist beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors flourished in the post-Civil Rights era and during the politically correct movement of the 1990s, when blatantly racist speech and actions not only were morally condemned but could lead to a host of negative consequences (legally, socially, academically, and professionally) that could damage the life and livelihood of the offender. To some, the assumed decline of blatant racist behavior appeared to be a great racial and social justice victory. However, not only did blatant racism endure, it mutated, creating covert strains of racism that are, in many ways, more complex and insidious than its original form. Modern racism, a mutation of flagrant racism, manifests through a variety of contemporary racist attitudes and actions that include: new racism (Bonilla-Silva 2014), laissez faire racism (Bobo et al. 1997), and Racism 2.0 (Wise 2010).

According to Bonilla-Silva (2014), even though new racism is more covert and concealed than earlier forms of racism, it is a powerful force that preserves White privilege while keeping people of color subjugated. To Bonilla-Silva (2014), new racism operates by being more subtle than earlier forms of racism and by hiding in plain sight. For instance, he describes how under the guise of liberalism, individuals “rationalize racially unfair situations” and reject “almost all practical approaches to deal with de facto racial inequality” (Bonilla-Silva 2014: 76). In effect, liberalism serves as a shield that some individuals use to avoid taking responsibility for their role in maintaining the racist status quo.

Laissez faire racism is a contemporary racist attitude where individuals view Black Americans as responsible for their own economic dilemma and are therefore unworthy of any special government support (Bobo et al. 1997: 28). Individuals who hold this attitude disregard the structural and institutional causes of racism and “blame the victims” of racism.

Modern racist attitudes are also captured in the concept of Racism 2.0 . Wise (2010) argues that there has been a shift in society from “Racism 1.0 to Racism 2.0 , an insidious upgrade that allows millions of Whites to cling to racist stereotypes about people of color, while nonetheless carving out exceptions for those who, like [President] Obama, make us comfortable by seeming so ‘different’ from what we view as a much less desirable norm.” With Racism 2.0 , individuals preserve their racist beliefs and attitudes, and even engage in racist behavior, while presenting the image that they are open-minded.

Below, I propose and highlight various examples of speech and behavior related to modern racism, including: obstruction, racist jokes, racist gaslighting, dog-whistles, cultural appropriation, support of bigoted speech and racist artifacts, and expressing disapproval of interracial relationships and friendships.

Obstructive Racism

Here, I propose a form of racism called “obstructive racism,” in which racists use physical or nonphysical barriers to block the progress of people of color. When obstructive racists are called racist, they often deny allegations or cite other reasons for their uncooperative behavior. Obstructive racism can range from blocking promotions to blocking legislation. An example of obstructive racism is seen in how some Republicans blocked many of President Obama’s efforts to generate positive change—change that would have undoubtedly benefited their constituents and the American people as a whole. Without a clear, rational reason of why they were uncooperative, one can assume that some Republican politicians engaged in obstruction because of President Obama’s race, given the racism that The First Family experienced before, during, and after their time in the White House. President Obama experienced racism in the form of “birtherism” (D’Antonio 2016), where racists suggested that he was not a natural-born US citizen, and therefore ineligible to be president. Racist vitriol was spewed at Malia Obama and Sasha Obama (D’Onofrio 2016; Guzman 2017). First Lady Michelle Obama has also endured a constant onslaught of racism (Chavez 2017). Obstructive racism has also been used by Republican politicians to placate their racist supporters as illustrated in the following quote:

Republican lawmakers, fearing pressure and primary challenges from extreme conservatives, refused to engage in anything that might be perceived as cooperating with Obama—and so the legislature ground to a halt. The failure to produce, or to do much to address the nation’s economic and security woes, caused more disgust with Washington. This, in turn, allowed the rise of a populist demagogue (Milbank 2016).

Racist Jokes

Racist jokes are also referred to as liquid racism. Weaver (2011) uses the term liquid racism to describe the difficulty of identifying behaviors as racist, particularly when racist behaviors are presented in a so-called humorous way. Weaver (2011) explains that racist humor “… is fluid, difficult to collect or identify because it may escape or dissolve before it can be contained, and is explicitly encouraged or given coverage in mass media (252).”

Additionally, racist jokes are often fueled by hidden intentions. For example, if an individual tells a racist joke or does a racist impersonation with the intention of being offensive, if confronted about their behavior, they can hide their true intentions by saying that they were simply joking. This fluidity and inability to hold offenders accountable makes racist jokes powerful because it provides the aggressor or antagonist with a way to downplay or conceal their racist behavior by labeling it “harmless” or “a joke.” In other words, with this form of racism, aggressors’ jokes are similar to a Trojan horse because the offender can present their venom in a seemingly harmless way (via a joke) when in reality the contents of the joke may cause a great deal of embarrassment and pain for the target . As seen in the below comments, it is apparent that racist jokes are commonplace and problematic:

Vicarious Experiences and Bystanders’ Perceptions

I believe that people think it’s “funny” to make jokes about other races without realizing the gravity of their words. I also believe that some people truly have a dislike or a hatred for other cultures/races [on] campus. However, I have encountered many open-minded, friendly people on campus [as well] (White woman, 18).

Microaggressions related to race [are] often humor related, or the person defends themselves with “it was a joke, relax” (even if it wasn’t) and I’m supposed to hang out there and accept it (White woman, 21).

My roommates often make racist jokes… It pains me and I have asked them to stop numerous times (White man, 20).

Racial jokes are thrown around in a casual manner (Black man, 19).

It’s not uncommon to hear racist remarks—although it’s uncommon to hear people stand up and say something back when these jokes are made (White woman, 20).

Pretty much only around close friends when people of [color] aren’t around racist jokes are made, not much else (White man, 21).

People make rude comments or jokes/stereotype and people accept it because now it’s ‘ok’ (White woman, 19).

I’ve heard a lot of jokes, mainly about African Americans, Arab Americans, and Asian Americans. A lot of these comments are based on … their language, actions, things they eat, facial features etc. People just can’t handle anything that is different from themselves (White woman, 20).

I often hear my peers say extremely derogatory things about individuals from the Black, Hispanic, and especially Asian communities (White woman, 19).

It is clear that racist jokes are one of the most common and stealthy forms of modern racism. Furthermore, they are prevalent not only on campuses but also in our workplaces , media, and throughout the social structure .


Gaslighting, is a term that originated from the play Gas Light (Hamilton 1938) and its film version Gaslight (1944), in which an abusive husband wants to make his wife question her reality and her perceptions. Over time, the term gaslighting has been used to describe a form of psychological abuse and manipulation in cases of intimate partner violence, where the abuser attempts to make the victim question their reality and sanity. However, gaslighting does not only apply to intimate partner abuse. The tactic can be used by those who aim to be racially oppressive. Therefore, I define racist gaslighting as a tactic that racists use to make targets question their own sanity and perception of a racist incident.


Dog-whistles epitomize covert racism . Dog-whistles can be defined as coded language used to stealthily convey racist rhetoric. Dog-whistles are common in American politics, and birtherism is a prominent example of it. For years, racist “birthers” accused President Obama of not being born in the United States in order to disqualify his victory, and for years they relentlessly grumbled that they would “take back their country.”

While there are countless examples of dog-whistles in American politics, they are also ever-present throughout society, including in workplaces, the media, popular culture, and as seen in the below quotes, they are also present in academic environments. In my research (Levchak 2013), I found that dog-whistles were used when speaking about Asian students on a predominantly White campus. Dog-whistles manifested in comments about Asians “not wanting to acculturate,” Asians “setting curves,” there being “too many” Asians, and about how Asians “are taking spots away from American students.” However, a deeper analysis of these statements reveals that some students did not want Asian and international students in this country and certainly not on “their” predominantly White campus:

Aggressors’ Perceptions

There is racism on our campus towards the mass amounts of Asian students on our campus. I don’t think they try to get to know our culture, but that doesn’t mean we should be as harsh to them, I guess. It’s just a shame we have so many Asians going to school here setting our curves when they have perfectly good schools in Asia and there are American students that don’t get to have a college education because they are taking their spots because they can afford it. I know that statement sounds racist but it’s just unfair (White woman, 20).

A lot [of racism] against Asian students because they make up a good majority of the university and set curves (White woman, 18).

Bystanders’ Perceptions

I’ve heard comments about the abundance of Asian students here (White woman, 18).

I see racism in the dorms, through comments, and through room changes. Most people want to be with those from their same culture. I have also heard people complain that there are too many Asians (White female, 19).

I’ve heard a number of people comment on all of the Asian students or how they don’t belong in America (Multiracial woman, age undisclosed).

Most of the racism grows out of the fact that White students are a huge majority on this campus. We must all be more wary of the way we speak about International Students (White man, 21).

The belief that Asians don’t belong in the United States and that they shouldn’t attend school in the United States is connected to the perpetual foreigner sentiment and stereotype threat. With the perpetual foreigner sentiment, individuals assume that all Asian people are foreign-born, that English is not their first language, and that they will never truly be “Americans.”

Additionally, students at the predominantly White school accused Asian students of setting the academic curve or outperforming other students. Students at the same school have also created social media pages devoted to anti-Asian memes, with many of those memes accusing Asian students of setting curves. This preoccupation with Asians outperforming White students can be linked to stereotype threat and the declining power of White privilege in some spaces. Stereotype threat occurs when members of a social group believe that they are at risk of confirming negative stereotypes about their group (Steele and Aronson 1995; Steele 1997). In this case, Asian students are expected to be better students than White students. Therefore, the White students who were reacting negatively may have been doing so because of their perception of their own academic inferiority and of Asian students’ academic superiority.

Dog-whistles also teach people that the hatred and mistreatment of certain groups is acceptable. The consequences of the dog-whistles are seen below:

Bystanders’ Perceptions

I know a lot of people who talk bad about Asians and say that they’ve become more racist against Asians being here (Latina, 18).

People making fun of groups—especially Asians, is very popular (White woman, 20).

I know a lot of the international students get weird looks, and jokes are made at their expense, particularly Chinese students (White woman, 19).

Asian international students are separated/isolated by …other students (White man, 20).

The majority of the racism I see deals with the large Asian population. I have never heard anyone make comments about race to their faces only behind their backs. There are many jokes about Asians, especially with the meme page. I hear jokes about race a lot (White woman, 18).

According to the above comments, it is clear that hatred and mistreatment toward Asians on college campuses are in part fueled by dog-whistles.

Cultural Appropriation

Cultural appropriation is a nefarious manifestation of modern-day racism. Cultural appropriation is a “ power dynamic in which members of a dominant culture take elements from a culture of people who have been systematically oppressed by that dominant group” (Johnson 2015). People who engage in cultural appropriation often ignore the history of the targeted culture, and they exploit and misuse creations from that culture (with the creator or originator of a particular artifact, genre, or practice never receiving appropriate credit, respect, or recognition) (Johnson 2015).

Cultural appropriation is related to what I refer to as faux-awareness, where some claim that they are culturally aware individuals whose cultural appreciation is being mistaken for cultural appropriation. An example of faux-awareness is seen in the case of Rachel Dolezal, a White woman who pretended to be Black (and by some views, performed blackface) (Sanchez and Brumfield 2015). Although Dolezal claims to be pro-Black, some have argued that her behaviors were no more than an attempt to appropriate Black culture and Black womanhood for her own benefit (Gibson 2015). While I applaud cultural competence and cultural appreciation, cultural appropriation is harmful to people of color and does not help race relations.

Support of Bigoted Speech and Racist Artifacts

Racists and bigots frequently spew hatred under the guise of “free speech.” Freedom of speech is a right bestowed upon American citizens; however, it is wrong for that right to be interpreted as the freedom to bully, be microaggressive, be macroaggressive, or to use racist speech without consequence. There needs to be repercussions for racist actions and speech.

Furthermore, just like racist actions and speech are unacceptable, the flaunting of racist artifacts is also deplorable. Examples include the parading of confederate flags and the display of confederate statues. While some argue that confederate flags and confederate statues do not represent hate, many rightly disagree (Suerth 2017). Let it be clear, confederate flags and statues represent hate and horror for many Black people. The flag and statues are inextricably linked to racists who wanted to preserve the institution of slavery, a system that perpetuated horrific atrocities against Black women, men, and children. Furthermore, confederate flags and statues (as well as other racist symbols) continue to be brazenly supported by White nationalists and supremacists (as seen in the racist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017) (Washington Post Staff 2017).

On another note, speech, artifacts, and symbols that are indicative of Black empowerment, solidarity, power, and love are hated because they are a threat to White supremacy. Consider the Black Power salute made famous by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. In a 2016 article, John Carlos explains that while he is proud of performing the Black Power salute with fellow athlete Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics, he did not anticipate the backlash that resulted from making the gesture that symbolized the need for Black rights and equity. He explains that his family received death threats, and his wife eventually committed suicide because she couldn’t bear the stress from being targeted (Matthey 2016). As seen in this tragic example, Black empowerment, liberation, and power have been and continue to be portrayed as deviant and wrong because they are a threat to the White supremacist power structure.

As it stands, hate and symbols of hate are commonplace throughout society and even plague educational institutions where understanding and cultural awareness should be rampant, as shown in the examples below:

Target’s Perception and Bystander’s Experience

My second week at [school] during my freshman year, someone spray painted a swastika on my dorm room door. I didn’t socialize with my floor so I was stunned that someone knew I was Jewish first of all. When I spoke to campus police all I got was a police report and nothing else. [My school] prides itself on “acceptance” and “diversity” … [but] the university and campus police [should] have done more (Multiracial, Jewish woman, 21).

I’ve seen some racist vandalism … Nazi stuff (Latino man, 18).

While champions for racial justice work to expose and end covert and overt racism, bigots are also working to create environments where racist speech and racist artifacts can be celebrated without consequence. At the time of this writing, bigots have seemingly been emboldened by the racism spewed during in the 2016 presidential election season. Therefore, we must continue our anti-racism efforts wholeheartedly and make it clear that racism in all of its forms (i.e. words, actions, symbols, and artifacts) is disgraceful, intolerable, and unacceptable.

Expressing Disapproval of Interracial Relationships and Friendships

Even though interracial relationships and friendships have become increasingly common over the last few decades, hatred is still directed at those who choose spouses, partners, and friends from different racial backgrounds. While family, friends, and acquaintances may object to interracial relationships and friendships, strangers also expose their racist beliefs through blatant and underhanded objections, as seen in the below comments:

Vicarious and Border Identity Experiences

Going to the bars I had noticed racism, like trying to get in with my boyfriend who is African American. The security guy wouldn’t even take our ID’s and just stared at us (Multiracial woman, 19).

[I] faced some [racism] since my girlfriend is Black (White man, 18).

Occasionally someone will holler (scream) at me and my boyfriend. I’m always cautious of it because he’s Black (White woman, 20).

I’ll also add that bigots who are opposed to interracial relationships can be from any racial background. Such aggressors engage in verbal and nonverbal sanctions (e.g. rude looks, comments, and actions) because they want to share their disdain for such pairings in the hope that the pairings will dissolve. However, while negative sanctions and a lack of support may cause some issues and tension, in the end, interracial couples and friendships that are successful can attribute their success to honesty, open communication, commitment, awareness, support, and allyship.

Next, I propose a number of attitudes and characteristics associated with modern racism. The following categories are not mutually exclusive. An individual may embody one or multiple attitudes and characteristics listed below.

The Ambiguous Ally

For this particular group, appearing aware and unbiased is seemingly more important than being aware and unbiased. Ambiguous allies also brag about their interracial friendships, relationships, and in-laws while still holding onto prejudices and behaving in bigoted ways. The frustration of not seeing real positive change and awareness among White “friends” and “allies” is felt in the comment below:

White people don’t even know how racist they are. They don’t have a fucking clue as to what’s really going on in regards to cultural diversity (e.g. “you’re my awesome Black friend (Black woman, 20).”

At the institutional level, some organizations claim to be committed to fostering diversity and providing a safe space for people of color, but their eloquent mission statements and publicized declarations often fail to translate into reality. Sometimes, institutions may offer, (and in some cases, require) short-term or day-long “diversity training” to combat racism and racial biases. However, research shows that in some cases, prepackaged, short-term diversity training does not have a positive long-lasting effect on individuals, and therefore, they fail at helping individuals increase cultural competence and decrease their racist biases and actions (Kalev and Dobbin 2015).

Specifically, colleges and universities may tout how culturally diverse they are, but they may not be engaged in efforts to effectively reduce racism, bridge cultural gaps, and create a sense of community on their campuses, as seen in the below examples:

We find our own communities, but do not believe the University truly cares about culturally diverse groups outside of “appearances (Black woman, 20).”

My concern is the University’s false diversity advertising (White woman, 19).

There could be more of an effort to integrate the different cultural groups (White woman, 20).

No, I rarely see different groups of races co-mingle, [no] opportunities to meet another race . [The school] pride[s] themselves on having many races of people, but no sense of community is visible. Asians hang [out] with other Asians, Latinos with other Latinos. Still tension [and] not knowing how to converse with other groups; I [try] to be open but I [am] shunned when I attempt to try to say hi. (Latino man, 26).

It is apparent that racism at the individual and institutional levels must be addressed if real change will ever be achieved. Individuals must be committed to addressing racism at all levels of society, andwithin themselves, and institutions must be actively engaged in creating a climate that is welcoming, inclusive, and safe for all people. In organizations with a lack of racial diversity, recruitment and retention efforts should be prioritized, and exit interviews should be implemented so that the organizations can make necessary changes that might benefit people of color who are connected to the organization.

Apathy About Racism

Some individuals are apathetic and disengaged when it comes to racism in modern-day America. These individuals don’t take advantage of opportunities to learn about racism and to become culturally competent. Apathy toward racism, in itself, can be considered racist because silence can mean collusion with the oppressive system. Furthermore, within the contexts of intimate and close relationships, showing a lack of concern about the race-based struggles that a “loved one” (spouse, partner, family member, or close friend) experiences is a form of emotional neglect.

Apathy toward racism is also present within institutions. In recent years, there has been a move toward hiring “diversity officers” in various organizations (but particularly in colleges and universities). Many of these individuals are expected to coordinate diversity trainings and investigate and resolve race-related issues. However, there is a huge disparity in the level of preparedness and effectiveness of diversity officers across institutions. While some are very engaged, impassioned, and effective at providing learning opportunities, addressing racism, and creating a welcoming climate for people of color, others are sorely ineffective, imprudent, and essentially apathetic figureheads.

Apathy about racism and Black lives is also seen in the lack of media coverage on missing Black people compared to the coverage on missing White people. The website Black and Missing, but Not Forgotten (founded by Deidra Robey) is dedicated to bringing light to this issue and finding the missing individuals.


Many people of color are raised to understand their culture and the dominant White culture in order to survive and thrive. Many people of color are therefore adept at code switching or changing between their culture and White culture out of necessity. Unfortunately, many White people don’t have to learn about other cultures, because they can rely on White privilege to help them succeed within American society and beyond. As seen in the below comments from college students, racism fueled by ignorance is common:

I think there are often off-color comments that people don’t fully understand are racist. People say things about every racial group that goes to this school and so I guess racial ignorance is a large problem (Native American man, 18).

I [was] born and raised in Asia. [There] are too many ignorant [people]… Americans need to be educated more about the world (Asian woman, 21).

To me, there’s too many ignorant White people. Things seem to be good …in groups of culturally diverse people, but [we] still have to interact with ignorant people (Latina, 20).

Ignorance [of] racial issues outside [of] social science majors; much racism [and] White superiority on campus (White woman, 22).

White supremacy and ignorance reigns, in part, because many people are not expected to do the intellectual and emotional work required to challenge and change their own bigotry and ignorance. However, in order to dismantle racism, people everywhere need to take responsibility for their own attitudes, words, and actions, and should embrace social justice education and anti-racism efforts.

Willful Ignorance

As it relates to racism, the willfully ignorant are fully aware that racism exists, but they refuse to acknowledge racism and refuse to admit that their words and behaviors are racist. Those who are willfully ignorant may express their “anger” at the phrase “Black Lives Matter” even though they know that the expression really means “Black Lives Matter Too” and is a response to the violence inflicted on Black bodies. President Barack Obama has even addressed the criticism of the phrase during an ABC town hall on race relations titled “The President and the People: A National Conversation”:

I know that there are some who have criticized even the phrase ‘black lives matter,’ as if the notion is… that other lives don’t matter. And so, you get ‘all lives matter’ or ‘blue lives matter.’ I understand the point they’re trying to make. I think it’s important for us to also understand that the phrase ‘black lives matter’ simply refers to the notion that there’s a specific vulnerability for African Americans that needs to be addressed. It’s not meant to suggest that other lives don’t matter. It’s to suggest that other folks aren’t experiencing this particular vulnerability and so we shouldn’t get too caught up in this notion that somehow people who are asking for fair treatment are somehow, automatically, anti-police, are trying to only look out for black lives as opposed to others. I think we have to be careful about playing that game, just because that’s not obviously what is intended.

One must reflect on why word expressions that are meant to empower and encourage Black people like “Black Lives Matter [Too],” “Black Power,” and “Black is Beautiful” are so offensive to some non-Black people. Furthermore, education, awareness, and honesty are key in combating willful ignorance. The more people are educated, the more ridiculous willful racists will appear and the less likely it will be for them to ignore the truth that racism is prevalent and that they have a responsibility to do their part to help end it.

The “Race Card” Sentiment

Relatedly, there are individuals who subscribe to the “race card” sentiment. These individuals acknowledge that racism exists, but they choose to dismiss the lived experiences and pain of targets by accusing them of trying to manipulate others. Individuals who hold this sentiment do so because they don’t care about the impact of racism, don’t want their racial privilege questioned, or because they want to relinquish their responsibility for perpetuating racism.


Individuals who hold post-racism beliefs think racism is no longer a major social problem. They may also believe that those who discuss race are rabble-rousers and are discussing outdated issues. People of color who hold this sentiment may want to imagine that racism is dead and that race is no longer important because doing so allows them to detach themselves from the negativity that is unfairly associated with being non-White. They seemingly believe that the low social status attached to their race can be removed if they imagine racism away. Dominant racial group members also benefit from post-racial and post-racist thought because it relinquishes them from the responsibility of doing their part to end racism. Examples of students making arguments aligned with post-racism and post-racial thought are below:

I don’t think it’s a problem. Minorities make it a bigger deal than it is. It’s B/S (White man, age unknown).

I believe certain races are too sensitive. I am a hard-working student with my high scholastic achievements …On the other hand, I know some minorities and women that do not have nearly the same scholastic achievements I have yet, they receive substantial tuition assistance based on race/sex. This is not fair and I believe the call of racism and sexism no longer has the same meaning as it did in the past. I believe today, people use those words to their own advantage to get ahead (White man, 22).

With the recent highly publicized murders of Black people, the subsequent protests, and the increase in hate crimes during and following the 2016 presidential election season, it is illogical for anyone to claim that the United States is a post-racial or post-racism society. However, some still embrace post-racism beliefs and insist that racism does not exist and that any harm done to people of color is their own fault.

The Fearful Racist

Fearful racists choose to embrace fear and overblown stereotypes about people of color. Additionally, they are fueled by the threat of their White dominance ending. By believing that Black and Brown people are violent and dangerous, they are able to justify segregation, a fixation on guns and loose gun laws, and the over-policing and police brutality directed toward people of color and their neighborhoods. Fearful racists embrace the “angry Black woman,” “angry Black man,” and “dangerous Black youth” stereotypes. They are susceptible to dog-whistles, and watch news pundits and social critics who continuously fuel racial animus, prejudice, and race-based fear. These are the people who justify shootings of unarmed Black people. These are the police and security guards who follow Black people around unjustifiably and unreasonably. These are the journalists and writers who disproportionately report Black crime. These are the individuals who say that they are “threatened” by Black people or that Black people are “aggressive” when such claims are unfounded. Furthermore, these types of people are dangerous because fear is irrational and contagious. When such negative messages about Black and Brown people are shared, other White people and some people of color start believing the lies too.

People with this mind-set, unjustly view Black men as deviants who should be feared and criminalized and Black women as hostile, unfriendly, and intimidating. Racist messages, kindled by fear, are still prevalent throughout the social structure and in social institutions, with examples from college campuses seen below:

People fear the different races due to the stereotypes that they have (Indian woman, 21).

At times, others are intimidated until they get to know me (Black man, 37).

People tell me they don’t ride the bus at certain times of day because of Black people (Indian man, 20).

Having some people fear me or my intentions because I’m Black (Multiracial man, 19).

[W]omen…who I know, have been scared of seeing a Black or Latino man [at night] (White woman, 18).

Depending on how wealthy the suburb is that they came from, people are generally intimidated. Or generally befriend me quickly if they don’t judge my appearance; people also act surprised when I tell them my major, electrical engineering (Black man, 20).

Again, fear is contagious, and it breeds ignorance, discrimination, and violence toward people of color. The hypocrisy is that, even though there has been more publicity involving the mistreatment, abuse, rape, and murder of Black women, men, and children, fearful racists, and those they infect, still believe that Black people are violent and that the behavior of civilians and authority figures who harm Black people are justified. Until the unfair representation and fear of people of color stops, racism will continue to flourish.

“Oppression Olympics” Claims

I was inspired to create the term “oppression manifestation” after an unfortunate encounter with an individual who claimed to be a champion of social justice. It is important to note that not all social justice workers are created equal. Some are interested in working toward equity and fairness for all people while others are only interested in serving their own agenda. The individual wanted a platform to speak about how gender-based oppression impacted them, but when I asked them to also share their opinions on race-based oppression, they shut me down, arguing that they didn’t want to engage in a discussion about race and racism because they wanted to avoid participating in “Oppression Olympics.” Oppression Olympics is the idea that different forms of oppression are “competing” or “contending” for the spotlight or attention.

For Black women, having a conversation solely about gender does not fully explain how we are impacted by oppression. So, I am always wary when people begin using the term Oppression Olympics because they often do so in an attempt to shut down narratives that don’t support their agenda. Also, such attitudes continue to marginalize people with multiple low social statuses and people with border identities. For instance, as a result of this thinking, Black women were marginalized during the First and Second waves of feminism when White feminists argued that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss race and racism and during the Civil Rights Movement when Black men argued that it wasn’t appropriate to discuss gender and sexism.

The reality is that we all balance multiple identities linked to our race, gender, age, class, sexuality, skin color, education, and a variety of other identities, and we all experience both privilege and oppression. Therefore, I prefer my concept of “oppression manifestation” to explain the intricacies of oppression: who you are or how you are perceived (e.g. Black woman), the time period or social climate you are living in (e.g. 1962 vs. 2017), where you are (e.g. your workplace or the grocery store), and who is around you (e.g. close friends or strangers) determine how you will experience oppression in its various forms (e.g. racism, sexism).

Oppression manifestation challenges the notion that privilege and oppression are static. More specifically, depending on the variables described above, one form of oppression (e.g. racism) may be more pronounced, while other forms of oppression you experience (e.g. sexism, classism) will be more recessed. For instance, a woman of color is more likely to experience racism on a predominantly White, all-female campus and less likely to experience sexism. That same woman of color may be more likely to experience sexism on a racially diverse male-dominated campus and less likely to experience racism. The same argument can be made for privilege. For instance, a White woman may receive privileges as a result of her “whiteness” in some arenas but may experience sexism in other areas.

The interaction of our privilege and oppression also impacts our actions. For instance, a White man may actively fight against class-based oppression, but he might not want to check his White and male privilege and may even perpetuate racism and sexism. Therefore, we cannot be imprudent and assume that awareness in one area generates awareness in other areas. The reality is that our social identities are complex, and we are constantly contending with our privilege and oppression depending on who we are, the time period or social climate we are living in, where we are, and who is around us. Therefore, it is possible for a White woman to engage in racism while protesting sexist policies, and for a Black man to engage in sexism while working to dismantle racism.

As we make efforts to understand and dismantle modern racism, we have to remember a few key points: (1) modern racism is largely covert, and is strengthened by silence and invisibility; therefore, we must become familiar with covert racism in all of its forms and address racist beliefs, behaviors, and actions as they arise; (2) modern racism is complex and multifaceted; therefore, we must engage in critical thinking about race, racism, and racial privilege; and (3) we must be willing to self-reflect, take constructive criticism, and address our own shortcomings as they relate to racial justice because being “a good person” or “progressive” is not enough (and effectively meaningless) if we are not checking all of our privileges, if we are not actively engaged in generating positive social change, and especially if we are perpetuating any form of racial oppression.