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A Day in the Life of Black Men: Microaggressions, a Subtle Form of Racism

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By Frederick H. Lowe

CHICAGO—Marcus Murray was walking in Hyde Park the other day.

Murray was wearing sweat pants and a hooded sweat shirt, though he wasn’t wearing the face-concealing hood. However, his hands were in his pockets and that casual, non-threatening way of walking had the opposite effect on a white man walking with his children, Murray believed.

Woman clutches her purse as a black man stands in the elevator
A woman clutches her purse as a black man stands in front her in an elevator.

Murray quickly noticed how the white man, who spoke a foreign language, was looking at him with fear in his eyes, pulling his children closer, seemingly protecting them from Murray.

So Murray, executive director of Project Brotherhood, a black men’s group in nearby Woodlawn, did something to make the man comfortable.

Murray took his hands from his pockets so they could be seen.”You almost have to be perfect to ease whites’ concerns,” he said.

All black men are victims of microaggressions

Murray was a victim of microaggressions, a widely practiced and unfortunately more accepted form of racism that targets black men, causing them to live their lives in public as though they are walking across mine fields.

Marcus Murray
Marcus Murray

Women of all races and ethnic groups clutch their purses in fear when they see a black man. Sometimes they run across the street to avoid being near black men.

Store security guards follow black men because the guards are certain that men are there to steal, not to shop. A store clerk asks who is next in line, ignoring a black man clearly standing at the head of the line.

An African-American Chicago Transit Authority agent demands that a black man swipe his Ventra card a second time so the agent can be sure the rider’s card is legitimate.  The black man pays twice.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois recently reported that black Chicagoans were subjected to 72% of all police stops, although blacks constitute just 32% of the city’s population. In Englewood, a black police district, there were 266 police stops per 1,000 people compared to 43 police stops per 1000 in the predominately white district of Lincoln/Foster during a fourth-month period from May through August 2014, according to the report titled “Stop and Frisk in Chicago.”

Microaggressions don’t always come out the mouths of white, Hispanic or Asian women or men from other ethnic and racial groups. Murray is a nationally known speaker on issues concerning black men. When he went to University of Illinois at Chicago to give a speech, a black woman receptionist, without asking him one question, told him that he was supposed to make deliveries at the back of the building.

Black women can often behave in an overtly hostile manner. I know this from many personal experiences. One incident occurred at The Art Institute of Chicago, where I had a membership. My wife, Susan, and my son, Freddie, and I went to see a photo exhibit in the Modern Wing. After we had viewed the exhibit, I stopped at the gift shop while my wife and son perused brochures at a counter. A black woman security guard saw me and said to her white female partner ‘I am going to see what he’s up to.’  She stood a foot away from me, eying my every move to see if I touched anything. Her partner faced me.

When my wife and son walked up, the black woman security guard said ‘let’s go.’ to her partner and they both left. After the incident, I wrote a letter to the Art Institute’s management, and even though the museum’s director wrote a return letter of apology and sent me two coffee table art books, I didn’t renew my membership.

These are all examples of daily microaggressions against blacks and black men in particular; there are so many more forms of microaggressions, they are too numerous to mention.

Black men are not imagining these incidents

Last year, the New York Attorney General’s Office fined Macy’s Inc., one of the nation’s largest department store chains, more than $650,000 for following black shoppers at its 42 New York stores, and for otherwise mistreating their African-American customers. The fine was a mere pittance for Macy’s, which reported sales of $28.105 billion for the 52-week period ending Jan. 31, 2015. The Cincinnati-based department store chain operates a store in Chicago.

Microaggressions demoralize black men over time

Microaggressions are unlike overt forms of racism exhibited by the Klu Klux Klan, Skinheads, the police, or by individual women. While the Klan, Skinheads and police may beat and even kill black men, microaggressions chip away daily at black men’s self esteem, causing anger and paranoia.

Black men, however, are divided as to whether microaggressions are a cause of mental illness.

“Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group,” wrote the authors of the 2008 research paper “Racial Microaggressions Against Black Americans: Implications for Counseling.” The Journal of Counseling & Development published the paper in the summer of 2008.

“Racial microaggressions have a cumulative and harmful impact on people of color by assailing their sense of integrity, invalidating them as racial/cultural beings, sapping their spiritual and psychic energies,” the report states.

“African Americans frequently report feelings of racial rage, frustration, low self-esteem, depression and other strong emotions when subjected to microaggressions.”

Black men view microaggressions as hurtful

Ironically, the perpetrator of these racist acts may view microaggressions as trivial.

Black men, however, view microaggressions as hurtful. A major question is how black men should respond to microaggressions without being seen as being angry or having an already terrified woman scream for the police.

Jokes about angry black men

African-American comedians have joked about angry black men, but black men don’t see these daily insults as a laughing matter.

“Microaggressions can induce enormous stress and anger, ultimately generating feelings of invisibility and marginalization of blacks,” according to the paper “Racial Microaggressions in the Life Experience of Black Americans.”

The Journal of Black Psychology published in December 2013 a paper titled “Microaggressions and the Enduring Mental Health Disparity: Black Americans at Risk for Institutional Betrayal.” One aspect of the study addresses whether microaggressions perpetuate mental health disparities at the institutional level.

Are microaggressions linked to mental illness?

Do repeated microaggressions cause mental illness? Dr. Waldo Johnson, associate professor at the School of Social Service Administration at the University of Chicago, said not by themselves.

“None of these individual things create mental illness, but it is the collective experience of these, the cumulative experiences ofvarious kinds of microaggressions in which black men are viewed as untrustworthy,” said Dr. Johnson, who is the editor of the book, “Social Work with African American Males.”  “It does make you think differently. It is probably more likely that none of these individual things cause mental illness. It is the cumulative or collective experience of the black-male experience. In addition to other problems, involving racial discrimination on the job, the inability to find a job and other lost opportunities may contribute to various forms depression. If unattended to, it can result in mental illness.”

Waldo Johnson
Dr. Waldo Johnson Jr.
Daniel Jean
Daniel Jean

Murray believes, however, that microaggressions do cause or lead to mental illness among black men.”They cause anxiety, depression, elevated blood pressure and low self-esteem. Black men see ourselves the way others see us and it’s in a negative light,” he said.

Microaggressions have the effect of denigrating and humiliating black men daily, said Daniel Jean, former director of the Woodlawn Adult Health Center, which until 2012 treated mental illness among black men.

“They cause anxiety and sometimes depression,” Jean said. He added that women who see him in Hyde Park, Chicago’s so-called liberal mecca, clutch their purses in fear when they see him.

Black women also affected by microaggressions

Although black men bear the brunt of microaggressions, black women also suffer from the insults.

“I don’t consider them microaggressions because micro means small. These aggressions are actively used to destroy a black person’s self-worth,” said N’Dana Carter, a Chicago mental health activist.

Carter said she used to lift weights a part of her workout to stay fit. One day, she was walking across the bridge at Marina City when she saw a white man approaching her.

“He dropped his shoulders and bent over like he was doing the pimp walk,” Carter said. When he got near her, he said ‘hey, baby.’ Carter was carrying her weight belt. She yelled that she would hit him with it if he didn’t get away from her.

“Because he was a white man, he assumed I should be available for him since I was a black woman,” Carter said.

Carter said she copes with the feelings engendered by repeated  microaggressions by overeating. She said she has gained 100 pounds by eating cookies, potato chips and other foods that are not good for her and that will eventually endanger her health.

Dealing with microaggressions

African-American men cope with microaggressions in different ways.

When Darryl Gumm, chair of the Community Mental Health Board of Chicago, is followed in a store, he asks the security guard to help him find what he’s looking for. “Some do, but some others walk away,” Gumm said. He has also stopped shopping at certain stores because of experiencing unfair treatment.”I tell them you lost me as a customer,” Gumm added.

When I am followed in a store, which is all the time, I write letters to the management, which helps me psychologically but my letters don’t change the store’s racist policies towards black men.

Murray said when he was younger he would be angry all of the time about the way others treated him as a black man. Now that he understands microaggressions, he has mellowed. I used to believe that stores wanted black men’s money as long as we did not walk inside, but David Thierry, a business owner, disagrees.

“They don’t want our money or else they wouldn’t treat us the way they do,” Thierry said.

All photos were taken by Frederick  H. Lowe II, Rosemary Lambin and YouTube.

Frederick Lowe, the story’s author, is a Social Justice News Nexus Reporting Fellow through the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. This article was produced as part of that fellowship.


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  1. Great article that discusses what we all need to hear and read more about. Especially that remark about wanting our money as long as we weren’t inside. The reply is monumentally true. Wht ppl don’t want Blk folks money or Blk folks around them. FUBU had it right. Will WE ever get there? Like other ethnic groups who keep there money flowing amoung themselves. Can WE DO THAT!

  2. nathaniel moore

    what you wrote is the same thing i go through!!! the following around the stores. somebody had chatted to me, stop shopping at those businesses. i chatted back: THEY ARE ALL DOING THIS,AND I MEAN ALL!!!! i went to have a 1year car inspection at a dealer shop.i sign in ,went to sit down.pickup a paper to read it. me and five white men waiting with me.when i came in i did not see people standing around the waiting room.but when i look up from reading the paper, it was 7white men looking right it me!!! they stay there,when the car was ready ,3 of the men went to the counter behind me watching my every paying move!!!! supermarket i go to with my mother they have a different old lady following us through the store.and she would have her purse wide open,walking close to the cart that i will be pushing! i know she is bait. I’m there to shop not steal! been going to this supermarket for almost 20years!!! the same thing. white madness. and it is not getting any better!!! i don’t eat out,because if white folks showing dislike like this for black folks,what make you not think,they would add DNA in your food? I’M SERIOUS!!!!!

  3. The article is on point, well written and factual. The daily life for black men in America is full of microaggressions.

  4. These post illustrate a system that is dysfunctional. It is designed to divided and exhaust our talents with suspicions and mistrust. With all people are dealing with in the world, there is a practical solution that cannot be reached because so much energy and mental resource is wasted on putting our differences in the forefront. When someone follows you in the store, engage them. Help them use that energy to assist you. S/He will soon learn who you are and why you chose their site. Remember it is a choice. Use your power.

  5. Black women experience micro aggressions equally. I was harassed by 3 white female managers: giving me work 3 grade levels above my own, giving me unreasonable turnaround dates (I met the the dates anyway), getting in my face and yelling enough to be heard outside the walls of the office (I countered with calm, quiet & documented the incidents), giving me useless work (tracking how many faxes came in per day-she didn’t know the fax automatically prints a daily report), etc. On some deeper level, they all seemed pissed off that I was as intelligent as them (under two of them, I was working on my Bachelors, and the third, I was working on my Masters). My work was exemplary and I was viewed as a pleasant co-worker by my peers. These women were never able to honestly express what the hell was wrong with them! They were different age groups; 30s, 50s, and 60s. The only thing they had in common is that they were white, female, and out to do me harm. I suffered high blood pressure, difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite … I’m happily retired now with none of those ailments but as a result of those experiences, I reject the word feminism because it implies some camaraderie with white women, which is a myth. I embrace the word womanist.

  6. black women do not equally experience micro aggressions. Many of the micro aggressions I get come form black women on the job that want to fit in with the other racist whites and asians that do it. the commenter that left this comment is full of shit and not qualified to make such a statement.
    Whenever there is a space or topic for black men, black women always try to bud in and take over. they assume their plight is always worse and eventually take the spotlight. this in itself is a microagression
    For example. there is a black girls code program but there is not black boys code program.
    if there was a program for boys 1st black women would have screamed bloody murder, but if you make it black girls only, they do not complain “what about the boys?”
    In the work place black women are not apart of black america, they readily join into the discrimination when it suits them and will help anyone abuse a black male.
    I think thi sis a prime example of people not living within color line. Im ok with this because I have no desire to be black anymore or maintain the race. The last thing i want is for my kids to be black.

  7. I agree with you. I see this everyday.

  8. These microaggressions against black men by non-blacks and black women are done with malicious intent. They want you to know that they think lowly of you, although you have done nothing more than walk past them.

    As I walk down any street, women; white, black or otherwise, clutch their purses, check zippers, pat down pockets, and in some extreme cases, cross the street. It happens so often, I now look for it, and expect it. Most telegraph the microaggression, preparing to clutch their possessions upon sight, even though you’re still several feet away from them. Immediately, I do the same. I’ll clutch my bag if I’m carrying one, and pat down my pockets as we pass each other. What makes me think you’re not capable of doing what you think I might do?

    Same with white men who cough, sneeze or yawn in my direction whenever I’m walking by them in the street, or sitting/standing near them on the subway. I refuse to believe this is coincidental. It happens too frequently. Are they trying to make me sick?

    I have been followed in stores. When I notice it, I immediately walk toward the follower, or even ask them to assist me (as mentioned in the article). Sometimes, I like to have fun, and just lose them, only to reappear in the aisle I was originally shopping in.

    Just today, at 7-11, the indian man behind the counter saw me perusing the aisles (I was craving a snack, but not sure which snack I actually wanted), and I literally heard him call an associate and say, “I might need you. Stay close”. I literally heard him! When I finally chose my snack (Ritz Bitz with Cheese!), and presented it at the counter with my money, he couldn’t be more pleasant. Why then, did he assume I was up to no good?

    Why do people worldwide behave in this manner toward black men? Where is this taught? And why don’t black people have an appropriate response to this behavior, that is practiced daily and taught to our children? Because we don’t want to make the world more divisive? Two wrongs don’t make a right? Or, through generations of slavery, intimidation, punishment and control, we have been taught not to fight back? We can’t win.

    I often wonder to myself, “if they really thought I was going to rob them, would simply clutching of purse, or patting down of pockets stop me?” I don’t think so. It’s simply not a realistic deterrent. If I had a gun, all your clutching, patting and zipping would be for naught. So why do it? And blatantly so, ensuring I am aware of your “precautions”? I believe, to denigrate me. To non-verbally assail me. Possibly to incite me. Ultimately, to control me.

    I am not a physically intimidating man, so I do not believe these people are afraid of me. It is simply to belittle me. So, imagining one is bombarded by these, and other forms of microaggressions on a daily basis, it is not difficult to understand why we may actually be suffering from a mental illness.

  9. We also have to understand that the psychological affect goes both ways. Yes we are humiliated by these micro-aggressions, but on the other hand, the persons that commit these offenses are actually living in paranoia and fear! When they see a black man they become distracted from what they normally do. Their thoughts become interrupted. Their focus is shifted. They become distracted and the quality of their conversations change. They temporarily stop being themselves! We, the black men, become the center of attention! That is called POWER! So when this happens to you, ask yourself these lofty questions: Who are they? Why the hell do I care what they think? What value do they have in my life? Why do I care that they even exist? Are they my friends/family? Or….you can have a little fun with it once in a while. Walk quickly toward them. Look right into their faces. Stop temporarily close to them. FEEL THE POWER! WATCH THEM COWER IN FEAR! FEAR ME! Then laugh as you walk away from those ignorant strangers whom you never knew existed until this moment. Peasants!!! Hurry, before the catch on to the fact that you’re just a normal human being like the everybody else. LOL

  10. “Black women can often behave in an overtly hostile manner. “ 👈🏽 Sounds like a microaggression to me!

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