Racial harassment and racial microaggressions

Racial harassment and racial microaggressions

As defined by the Equality Act 2010, harassment is unwanted conduct related to a relevant protected characteristic, including race, that has the ‘purpose or effect’ of either violating dignity, or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment.

Harassment connected to a protected characteristic, including race, is unlawful in civil law.

Overt forms of racial harassment can include physical, verbal, and non-verbal harassment. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) report sadly found many examples of staff and students at UK universities experiencing these forms of harassment.




Example of ‘overt’ forms of racial harassment



Intimidating gestures, acts that fit into racist tropes, physical violence or assault, unprovoked assaults


Racist graffiti, defacing notices or posters, negative stereotyping of ethnic groups, written threats of a racial nature


Derogatory remarks about a person’s skin colour or appearance, unwelcome remarks reflecting racist stereotypes, racist jokes, and ‘needling’


However, evidence from the EHRC, and our report indicates that we fail to recognise the everyday, subtle, and insidious forms and acts of racism, known as microaggressions, as a form of racial harassment.

Psychologists Sue et al (2007) suggest that racial microaggressions appear in three forms:


are explicit racial derogations characterised by a verbal or nonverbal attack, meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behaviour, or purposeful discriminatory actions.


are characterised by communications that convey rudeness and insensitivity, and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity. Subtle snubs that are frequently unknown to the perpetrator, but clearly convey a hidden insulting message to the recipient.


are characterised by communications that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of colour.

These examples are to raise awareness of what a microaggression can look or sound like. They are not exhaustive and are not intended to provide a list of ‘things not to say’, but to illustrate that comments which may appear banal may serve to exclude, demean, or offend others. Readers are encouraged to reflect on these examples and consider the possible implications of the language we use.


Example of racial microaggressions

Possible implications

Alien in own land: Belief that visibly ethnic minority citizens are foreigners

Where are you from? Where are you really from?


Where were you born?


You speak good English.


Asking a Black Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME)/ global majority* person to teach a white person words in their ‘native’ language

You must be an outsider

Only White people can be British

Ascription of intelligence: Assigning a degree of intelligence to a person of colour based on their race

You are a credit to your race


You are so articulate

It is unusual for someone of your ethnic background to be so intelligent

Colour blindness: Denial or pretence that a White person does not see colour or race.

When I look at you, I don’t see colour


When you come to the UK, you have to follow our rules.

I do not understand or empathise with the specific difficulties you experience


I am not interested in your experience as a racial/cultural being

Assumption of criminal status: A personal of colour is presumed to be dangerous, criminal, or deviant based on their race

A White person avoiding sitting next to a person of colour

People from certain backgrounds are inferior


You are a criminal

Denial of individual racism: Denial of personal racism or one’s role in its perpetuation.

I’m not racist. I have several Black friends.


As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.

I can’t be racist/I’m immune from racism


I’m just like you, our experience is the same

Myth of meritocracy: Statements which assert that race does not play a role in life successes

I believe the most qualified person should get the job.


Everyone can succeed if they work hard enough.


Exclusion of a BAME staff member in key meetings or seminars


Exclusion of a BAME staff member in recruitment processes

You got this job because of quotas/positive action, you don’t really deserve it


The problem is with you, not anyone or anything else


I do not think you can make a valuable contribution

Pathologising cultural values/ communication styles: Notion that the values and communication styles of people of colour are abnormal.

Dismissing an individual who brings up race/culture in work/teaching setting

The way you do things is wrong


Leave your cultural baggage out of this

Second-class citizen: Treated as a lesser person or group

BAME person mistaken for a service worker


Being ignored as attention is given to the white person

People from certain ethnic backgrounds cannot be in high-ranking positions


I am not interested in the views of people who are not like me

Environmental microaggressions: Macro-level microaggressions which are more apparent on systemic and environmental levels

A university with buildings that are all named after White people


Over-representation of white students and staff in publicity about the university

Only certain kinds of people are valued here. You don’t belong


We don’t recognise the contributions that BAME colleagues make

Adapted from the research of Sue et al (2007) and Rollock (2012).


We recognise how language is important in contributing to a sense of inclusivity and belonging. Micro-affirmations are defined by Rowe (2008) as ‘small acts in the workplace fostering inclusion, listening, comfort, and support for people who may feel unwelcome or invisible in an environment. In the teaching and learning spaces, micro-affirmations can communicate to students that they are ‘welcome, visible, and capable of performing well (Powell et al, 2013).

Micro-affirmations can have value both when students are doing well and experiencing challenges. Some examples of micro-affirmations:

“I see you are making progress in this area ... excellent work.”

“I am concerned about you. Come visit me in office hours to talk more about this.”

“I know this is difficult news...”

“Have you thought about using this campus resource (share a specific example)? Many successful students utilise this campus resource.”

“I can tell that you are very outgoing/intellectually driven/social; have you considered participating in this opportunity/programme ...?”


Powell et al (2013) ‘The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal’ Micro-affirmations in Academic Advising: Small Acts, Big Impact available at https://journals.psu.edu/mentor/article/view/61286/60919

Rollock N (2012) ‘International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education’ Unspoken rules of engagement: navigating racial microaggressions in the academic terrain

Rowe M (2008) ‘Journal of the International Ombudsman Association’ Micro-affirmations and micro-inequities

Sue et al (2007) ‘American Psychologist’ Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life

Adapted from Tackling racial harassment in higher education.

*We have used a range of terminologies to describe our minoritised and racialised colleagues and students in this document, from Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME), people of colour and global majority. Global Majority is a collective term that primarily speaks to and encourages those so-called to think of themselves as belonging to the global majority. It refers to people who are Black, Asian, Brown, dual-heritage, indigenous to the global south, and or have been racialised as 'ethnic minorities'. Globally, these groups currently represent approximately eighty per cent (80%) of the world's population making them the global majority. https://www.leedsbeckett.ac.uk/-/media/files/schools/school-of-education/final-leeds-beckett-1102-global-majority.pdf