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“Was That a Microaggression?”: Unpacking the How, When, and Why of the Target Sensemaking Process

When it comes to discussions of race and diversity in the 21st-century workplace, perhaps no term has gained greater traction than that of microaggressions. However, noticeably absent in the organizational literature is a systematic understanding of precisely what they are, how targets come to see transgressions as microaggressions, and what factors shape a target’s sensemaking process. To develop this understanding, we first review cross-disciplinary scholarship to elicit a clear definition of the microaggression construct. We then integrate perspectives on sensemaking and organizational inequality to develop a theoretical model that delineates how, when, and why a minority target construes a perpetrator’s transgression as a microaggression. We end by considering multilevel factors that likely influence a target’s sensemaking process as well as issues of temporality. The upshot of our theoretical model is new theory on the dynamic nature of microaggressions at work that contributes to research on workplace inequality and diversity.

Summer Jackson
Harvard Business School
United States

Basima Tewfik
MIT Sloan School of Management
United States


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