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Derald Wing Sue says microaggressions ‘constantly came out’ after the election of Barack Obama.

Susan Walsh/AP

Microaggression: The term was coined in the 1970s by Chester Pierce, an African-American professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard University, and it refers to the slights, putdowns and invalidating remarks that racial minorities experience every day when interacting with people who unknowingly engage in implicit racism.

But only now is the label gaining cultural currency. Google pulls up more than 8,000 mentions in professional papers, media and blogs. Some companies and institutions have initiated microaggression training as part of harassment-prevention policies. College campuses are awash in microaggression protests. And it's no longer confined to racial issues. Women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ community and religious minorities all call out others for the microaggressions that they perceive.

Is this the sign of a progressive society committed to equality or evidence of an overcompensating, hyperdemocratic culture that has taken political correctness to the extreme?

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Derald Wing Sue, author of the 2010 book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, and professor of psychology at Columbia University's graduate school of education, has been writing about microaggressions for more than 20 years. His extensive, decade-long series of studies on the subject, published in 2007 in American Psychologist, helped to broaden understanding of the term, he says from his office in New York, adding that he now conducts training sessions around the world on how to identify, and avoid, the problem.

Microaggressions are covert forms of racism. But it would seem overt racism is alive and well when you look at the things Donald Trump has said publicly.

Yes, he is prone to say directly things that people would not ordinarily say.

But does the widespread discussion about microaggression mean that generally there has been progress in racial issues and this is just the last frontier?

No. Over the years, forms of explicit, intentional racism have morphed and gone underground to what we now call implicit biases that are outside of consciousness. The reasons racism has gone underground is that the general population now thinks overt forms, as expounded by white supremacists, are abhorrent. On a conscious level, we have all bought into fact that we want equality and social justice and dignity. That's an overarching master narrative of our society. And most people aspire to it. Studies have traced the decline in explicit bias as the generations have gone on, but what is disturbing is that, over this same time period, implicit bias has not declined. It has remained up there, although people are unaware of it, and it comes out in the form of microaggressions.

How has having a black U.S. president affected this discussion?

Barack Obama made many Americans feel good because they voted for and elected a black man. They could say, "See? I am not prejudiced. Our society is not prejudiced." But underlying that were microaggressions that constantly came out. And that was that Barack Obama is an exception. He is not a typical black person. Most blacks aren't like him. And that [commentary] allows people to hold onto the stereotype that blacks are inferior, unintelligent, not good-looking.

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How did your interest in this subject start?

In my day-to-day interactions with people, they would say things or do things that appeared to be compliments but that left me feeling insulted, invalidated and hurt. One example I like to give to people is that I'm often complimented for speaking good English. [He was born in the U.S.] To the person saying it, it's perceived as a compliment, but it happens to me so often, as an Asian-American, that the underlying, hidden message is that "You are a not a true American. You are a perpetual alien in your own country."

Why has it resonated so much?

Because we have found how to talk about microaggressions. When we began to do our research, we found that most people of colour had these numerous experiences that they couldn't voice. When we put language on it, described it and the psychological impact, it resonated with their experiential reality. They said, "I now realize I'm not crazy. This is really happening to me." I believe it has created a shared culture where people now support one another.

But there has been quite a backlash. Other academics have written that microaggressions are the result of a hypersensitive "culture of victimhood."

It's not a culture of victimhood. People think it's a culture of victimhood because they see these complaints coming forth as trivial, insignificant slights and insults that any of us can experience. That's the major criticism – that these are innocent mistakes, so why are you making a mountain out of a molehill? Buckle up and be stronger! They think that we're snivellers and complainers; that we should develop a thicker skin. In essence, that's saying to an individual, "Accept your oppression. Accept the way things are. Accept your unhappiness. Accept being a lesser human being." To talk about this is a sign of liberation and empowerment.

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Yet everyone experiences incivilities and insults. Isn't it better to turn the other cheek, as our mothers might have said?

Microaggressions and the everyday insults and incivilities that any of us can experience are not race or gender or sexual-orientation based. If you're insulted by an insensitive clerk or waitress, you don't feel good about it. You're angry. But the emotive reactions of an insult based racially is very damaging psychologically to the recipient. And people might say, "Why should it be?" Well, our research indicates several things – that, if you are a marginalized-group member, microaggressions are constant and continual, without an end date. If you're an African-American, you experience microaggressions from the moment of birth until you're dead … from the time you get up until you go to bed.

I say to white people: Do you know what it's like to be a black person in this society where you go into a subway and you sit down and people never sit next to you? Do you know what it's like to pass a man or a woman, and they suddenly clutch their purses more tightly? The issue is that many white people don't live that reality, so they don't see it. It's invisible to them. When I do training at these workshops, whether they be middle managers, parents or students, I tell them our goal is to make the invisible visible to one another and to understand other world views that we may not be aware of.

Some people, though, seem to take the notion too far. I read about college students who complained about a conservative speaker on campus as being evidence of microaggression toward more liberal viewpoints.

If it is a real microaggression, it can't be taken too far. What has happened, however, is misunderstandings where people now label every insult, every difference of opinion, a microaggression. People are misusing the concept. For example, there was a white, male elementary school teacher doing a workshop, talking about microaggression he experienced as a white male elementary teacher. That's a misapplication of the concept. What he's saying is that we all experience stereotypes and put-downs. There is a major difference between stereotypes, incivilities and putdowns that are not group-based and those that are group-based, constant and continual. One point is that a marginalized group's experiences of microaggressions symbolize past historic injustices. For example, Jews and the Holocaust. For people of colour, it is the enslavement of African-Americans. For indigenous people: the taking away of their land. And for Asian-Americans, it is the incarceration during the Second World War.

It's very confrontational to accuse someone of a microaggression. Isn't that counterproductive to trying to sow the seeds of social harmony?

My thought is that there's no better language. I don't see the need to whitewash it or dilute the impact of it. Still, your issue is interesting – how do we reach people who become defensive when they're told that they've engaged in behaviour that is harmful and detrimental to others, especially when they experience themselves as good, moral, well-intentioned individuals? That requires a tactic. One thing I do when I give examples of microaggressions is say that I've engaged in it, too – that all of us have what we call biases that come out in ways that are outside the level of our awareness. I share with people how I have responded to African-Americans and other marginalized groups. We are all in the same boat. None of us willingly acquires these biases when we're born. We never state, 'I want to be a sexist or racist.'

How can someone be sure that behaviour is microaggression? Isn't there the danger of sometimes being overly sensitive?

That is really the million-dollar question: How do you prove something that has occurred to you is a microaggression? It's always possible that it wasn't. And that's the dilemma that people of colour are placed in. Whose racial reality is the right racial reality? And there are actual social-psychological studies that have looked at this. Those studies show that the groups that are most disempowered are most likely to have the most accurate perception of what has happened. For example, if you want to understand racism, do you want to ask people of colour – or white people?

Sarah Hampson is a Globe and Mail columnist and feature writer. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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