Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository

Thesis Format

Integrated Article


Doctor of Philosophy




McLeod, Carolyn


This dissertation offers a robust philosophical examination of a phenomenon that is morally, socially, and politically significant – microaggressions. Microaggressions are understood to be brief and routine verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities that, whether intentional or unintentional, convey hostility toward or bias against members of marginalized groups. Microaggressions are rooted in stereotypes and/or bias (whether implicit or explicit) and are connected to broader systems of oppression.

Microaggressions are philosophically interesting, since they involve significant ambiguity, questions about speech and communication, and the ability for our speech to encode and transmit bits of meaning. Microaggressions prompt reflection about the nature of blameworthiness and responsibility, especially for unintended acts and harms. They involve questions about how we perceive and treat one another, and whether or not people are treated as true equals in our social and political worlds. For all of these reasons, microaggressions are a critical area in need of philosophical reflection, specifically reflection in feminist philosophy, philosophy of language, moral philosophy, and social and political philosophy.

This dissertation seeks to advance the philosophy of microaggressions through three distinct aims: a conceptual aim (chapters 2 and 3), an epistemological aim (chapters 1 and 2), and a moral aim (chapters 4 and 5). The conceptual aim involves clarifying how we should understand and categorize microaggressions. The epistemological aim involves identifying some of the epistemological assumptions undergirding discussions of microaggressions in the literature, including assumptions made by critics of microaggression theory, and arguing for an alternative epistemological framework for theorizing about microaggressions. The moral aim involves better understanding the harms of microaggressions, including their role in reinforcing structures of oppression and unjust social hierarchy.

Taken together, these chapters make some progress on the conceptual, epistemological, and moral questions that microaggressions generate, and which philosophers have not yet adequately analyzed. It thus offers a meaningful contribution to the conversations philosophers are beginning to have about the morally and politically salient phenomenon of microaggressions.

Summary for Lay Audience

My research focuses on the power that language has to shape our social and political worlds, often in subtle and difficult to detect ways. Our society is stratified along lines of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, socioeconomic class, gender identity, sexual orientation, dis/ability status, body size, and more. I am interested in the ways that our linguistic practices (e.g., how we use speech and engage in communication with one another) contribute to, or reinforce, problematic forms of social stratification and hierarchy. One speech phenomenon that I argue contributes to oppression and reinforces social hierarchy is what has been called “microaggressions.” Microaggressions are frequent and subtle comments (or gestures or features of our social environments) which function to reinforce stereotypes or biases about members of structurally marginalized groups. My work aims to get clear on what microaggressions are, how we should understand and study them, in what ways they can be harmful to their targets, and why they warrant our moral concern.

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Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 License.