‘Micro/Aggression’: How Ant-Man and The Wasp Offers Longed-For Alt. Terminology

When Black psychiatrist Dr Chester Pierce (1970) coined the term ‘microaggression’, he couldn’t have predicted its development into everyday speech. Yet, I do not think it effectively articulates the ‘impact’ of those small but heavy loads of violence — there is an alternative: deriving from sociology, ‘science’, and comics.

Tré Ventour-Griffiths
19 min readNov 11, 2023
Ant-Man goes subatomic (Credit: Marvel Studios)

“Forty years ago, I created a formula that altered atomic relative distance. I learned how to change the distance between atoms. That’s why [the Ant-Man suit] works” — Hank Pym to Scott Lang.

Quantum mechanics is a theory in physics to do with natural behaviours of scales of atoms and subatomic particles (smaller than an atom). Furthermore, what these — along with theories of quantum gravity imply — is there are worlds within worlds that would be viewed as considerably alien to our prejudiced view. Films such as A Beautiful Mind (2001), The Theory of Everything (2014) and The Man Who Knew Infinity (2017), illustrate this in the work of John Nash, Stephen Hawking, and Srinivasa Ramanujan. As much literary feats as global wonders in the case of the fictional Pym Particle. Something I, as an artist, find quite agreeable!

Yet, as a historian-sociologist, I was surprised to find myself lead down an unfamiliar path into theoretical physics. However, my path was no chance encounter; it was Marvel characters Ant-Man and the Wasp that instigated that such a provocation (via the Pym Particle) may offer an alternative language to ‘microaggression’ — described by psychiatrist Dr Chester Pierce as:

“…black-white racial interactions [that] are characterized by white put-downs, done in an automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion” (Pierce, 1974: 515, in: Williams, 2020).

Yet, ‘quantum realms’ in Marvel’s comics and films (at least as far as vibes / feeling) provoked me to think of ‘new terms’ as lots of my Black and Brown friends find ‘microaggression’ ineffective in describing the impact of everyday racism. Maybe the fictional worldbuilding, exotic organisms and unruly landscapes in those Ant-Man and Wasp films may be of use here!

“Imagine a soldier the size of an insect, the ultimate secret weapon” says Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). What the Pym Particle does as Cross also explains is: “…change the distance between atoms, while increasing density and strength.” For most of the films, this explanation holds up. i.e Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) falls from the bath cracking the tiled floor. Similarly, he and Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lily) punch full-size humans as if they too are full-size. In Ant-Man, Cross is hit by a speeding toy Thomas the Tank Engine only for it to be de-accelerated on impact — by the density of a man.

Ant-Man and The Wasp (Credit: Marvel Studios)

Knowing this, some may argue Ant-Man and Wasp are too dense to run on top of people and objects — or even the believability of the tank attached to Hank’s keyring, it’s a real tank! Here, I began to think Hank was lying about the science or his theories were wrong — probably the former so it is more helpful to stay within the realm of fiction, fantasy and makebelieve! In the comics, Dr Hank Pym is a biochemist who ‘comes across’ a set of subatomic particles that he later calls Pym Particles — and it is these that allow him to become the first Ant-Man changing Earth 616 forever.

So, I take “subatomic racism” and “subatomic whiteness” to describe how everyday white racism is distributed upon Black / Brown people’s bodies attacking us at a level below the skin (i.e anatomically within). This also means to include how institutional and structural racism operates in corrosive ways in our bodies — i.e dying early. My thinking originates largely in sociology and arts, not physics!

The ‘science’ of Marvel’s version of subatomic particles that makes Ant-Man and Wasp possible is changing the distance between atoms — also for Giant Man (see Captain America: Civil War, Ant-Man and the Wasp, and Quantumania). This ‘science’ provoked me to consider what we call ‘microaggressions’ (so-called), should be more in tune with how small can still be powerful. It shows racism’s size can shrink / expand without changing strength— like Ant-Man and Wasp. So, it was superhero sociology, that brought me to the term ‘molecular violence’, then settling on the terms ‘subatomic racism’ and ‘subatomic whiteness.’

In some contexts, those ‘microaggressions’ have been described as ‘death by a thousand cuts.’ This ‘invisiblised’ bio-warfare waged on us is — in some cases — the impact of what Friedrich Engels (1845) wrote about as ‘social murder’:

“When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another such that death results, we call the deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call his deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death […] its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual [,,,] because the death of the victim seems a natural one …” (p64).

More recently, historian and political theorist Achilles Mbembe writes about this through contexts driven by racism as “deathworlds”:

“New and unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead” (p92).

In my view ‘subatomic racism’ and ‘subatomic whiteness’ do a better job of articulating how racism’s size can shrink and expand while increasing strength and density — like how Pym Particles do to people and objects. For targets, in some cases — like me — it has altered my perception of time. Just as in Jordan Peele’s Get Out and his imagery of The Sunken Place, the Quantum Realm (the Microverse in the comics) is, as Hank Pym further says, “A reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant as you shrink for all eternity. Everything that you know, and love, gone forever.”

Science fiction, especially those superhero(ine) narratives in comics, including X-Men and Fantastic Four have long been a commentary of social issues. The Ant-Man comics from the early 1960s, albeit fictional, attach themselves to histories of quantum mechanics (at least in the Global West) that lead to some of the most remarkable inventions. Now, I begin to consider how ‘microaggression’ is unable to articulate the impact of those ‘everyday-isms’ defined by psychiatrist Dr Chester Pierce — suitable in his Civil Rights-era but increasingly divisive now in the early 21st century.

Over the past few years my friends and colleagues in social justice advocacy have expressed unease with the term. Microaggressions are described as subtle verbal and non-verbal ‘put-downs’ that position certain groups as inferior. And consistent exposure to them may results in psychological, emotional, and physical exhaustion. e.g., in workplace environments where targets are both victims and expected to come up with solutions!

Derald Wing Sue (2007) writes:

“Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, sexual orientation, and religious slights and insults to the target person or group” (p5)

So, I do not think Pierce’s (1970) original articulation or Sue’s (2007) more recent definition go far enough in presenting the impact of those everyday-isms — because routinely, at least in the context of racism, that ‘death by thousand cuts’ is frequent dismissed as ‘small’ and ‘unimportant’ to be ‘shrugged off’. However, the pervasive size-based metaphors in Marvel’s Ant-Man and Wasp comics, their films, and the characters’ wider appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe— show how the shrinkage of violence can be operationalised in such a way that increases the density and strength of these small yet heavy assaults. Especially if it is / was happening many times a day over many weeks, months, or years?

To recap, the Pym Particle changes distance between atoms, while increasing density and strength. Following three Ant-Man films as well as appearances in Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, I began to think about how these insect-size heroes can cause real problems for many opponents. Sue’s use of ‘indignities’ does not go far enough, when these micro-isms, should one experience them enough, — and many do over extended periods — could be more likened to a a regular concentrated dose of mosquito bites with the effects internalised.

When I was in the first year of my undergrad, I went to visit The 8 in India where I was welcomed by mosquitos. It was June 2016 — and and my legs were covered in bites.They could not be shrugged off. Likewise, the same thing happend when I was a boy visiting Grenada — the island my maternal grandparents come from. I experienced a bit of discomfort but others are not always so lucky. Insect bites may seem small but some insects can render humans unconscious, paralysed, or dead. For example, the Murder Hornet native to East and South Asia — Murder is not just an honourific!

The way Ant-Man dismatles Tony’s (codename Iron Man) suit is not so different to how racism can impair the human immune system’s ability to fight alien threats like disease (i.e COVID-19). Furthermore, Ant-Man’s strength is not dictated by his size. In Civil War, he completely bamboozles Black Widow and the way his fight scenes are filmed continue to this effect in his own films and other franchise properties. Likewise, with Hope van Dyne (codename: The Wasp, played by Evangeline Lily), few of their targets ever see them coming, and when the targets defend themselves … many do so with extreme difficulty such as in the case of Black Widow, Iron Man, Rhodey, and Falcon (Credits: Captain America: Civil War, 2016 + Ant-Man & The Wasp, 2018 — Marvel Studios).

In the Marvel films, the introduction of Ant-Man (Scott Lang) and the Wasp (Hope van Dyne) in 2015 with Ant-Man and 2018 with Ant-Man and the Wasp added a new dynamic to a slate of characters whose abilities until that point you could see coming. An ant has no quarrel with a boot, yet if you tried to step on Scott or swatt Hope, the relationship between size, density and strength is as such, that they could send you through a window. Even for someone like Black Widow (see above GIF), who was trained to kill by Soviet Intelligence later recurited by SHIELD — Ant-Man got one up on her!

To summarise, the effect of racism can exist at a micro-level (or smaller) while its impact feels like being repeatedly punched. We know too well racism harms, no less over time. Those regular so-called ‘indignaties’ put us at a disadvantage while having internalised biological warfare waged on our very bodies. While some have passed these off as silly children’s films, a closer reading suggests small everyday violences could have — at least abstractly — a disproportionate ratio between size, density, and strength.

Is racism’s impact small? No. The ‘fictional’ relationship between these three things in a context of racism may give language (based on art, not science) to show how racism’s effects is absorbed into the body. So, this ‘subatomic racism’ exists in a ‘quantum world’ where subatomic whiteness is operationalised through institutions, structures, and on an individual basis. Inspired from this ‘fictional’ language, these terms may go some way in articulating how millions experience this subatomised violence upon the body — racialised, gendered, classed, ability-determined bodies.

In the UK, Black women experience a collected racial stress that sees them up to four times more likely to die in pregnancy than white women. This arrives as many Black people have experiences of their pain being taken less seriously than white people’s— encapsulated under institutional racism in the NHS. Subatomic racism and subatomic whiteness situate themselves as results of interpersonal, institutional, and structural encounters — of a violence that also exists beyond the ‘surface world’ … like Ant-Man and Yellowjacket having a fight in your subprotons. The duff duff duff duff of two 160–180-pound men in the upper-echelons of the body.

So, the Marvel Cinematic Universe pushed me to think about how science fiction within a framing of sociology and arts may be of help in creating a new language for the impact of those micro-isms. As the Ant-Man and Wasp mythology, a work of science fiction (not in fact quantum mechanics itself) helped me think these ideas through. So, I am still surprised that Ant-Man and Wasp’s origins story in Hank’s ‘Pym Particle’ got me thinking about the juxtapositions between size, density, and strength — and racism’s effects.

Thinking about the everyday acts of racism that people not racialised as white experience all the time, the impact on our bodies must be internally monumental. The trauma of colonialism is also something that is remembered in our genes. In Ant-Man, the dangerousness of the Quantum Realm is always there — one flashback scene back to 1987 shows Hank’s wife Janet (the first Wasp) ‘going subatomic’ to take down a titanium-cased missile and she is left marooned in the Quantum Realm for thirty years.

This world is depicted further in Ant-Man & The Wasp, Avengers: Endgame, and Ant-Man & The Wasp: Quantumania with the arrival of Kang. And that experience of being ‘shrunk out of existence’ (so-called) like Doctor Doom returning in Fantastic Four #16 The Micro-World of Doctor Doom reminds me how consistent exposure to racism and other forms of discrimination can in cases make us want to be invisible. What some call ‘imposter syndrome’, Dr Muna Abdi called “the psychological impact of systematic gaslighting.”

Likewise, bell hooks talked about forming ‘communities of resistance’ as a counter. American poet Gaunte further says “white supremacy is not the shark, it’s the water.” So, thinking of racism as something you live in rather than something that happens to you, like the Quantum Realm, racism and thus white supremacy may create isolated realities where our individual perceptions of time can become muddled for those most exposed to it.

The Quantum Realm is a fictional subatomic dimension that exists within Marvel’s multi-dimensional universe. “A reality where all concepts of time and space become irrelevant as you shrink for all eternity” says Hank Pym. As far as the ‘real science’, theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili further illustrates:

“While we are often burdened with regrets about the choices we make in life, quantum mechanics tells of a very different reality at the subatomic level. Meeting it for the first time, the quantum world may seem unbelievable to us when judged according to the prejudiced views of our everyday experiences — what we call ‘common sense” — From ‘Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed

My good friend The 8 also told me that white supremacy is a “corrosive, antithetical force that goes against the core nature of our existence … it is supernatural and superimposes a surreality, a fiction upon our collective experiences and does not even exist on a quantum level” — but its effects, I believe do! And if intersectional violence exists in the ‘surface world’, surely it may act out in ways in the subatomic dimension? Like many Black women’s horrific experiences in hospitals, pregnant while Black left ‘in the wake’ in the afterlife of enslavement … to parrot Christina Sharpe.

Hank’s fear of the subatomic universe may seem like hyperbole, but could well be observable via its potential to change how we discuss how the body carries those collected small heavy loads of violence. The Pym Particle as a fictional child of quantum mechanics made me think mixing the language of sociology and physics may ‘give words’ to articulate our pain… while also articulating the culprit— whiteness and racism moving (sub)atomised.

Based on the ‘science’ in the Ant-Man mythology, as I said earlier, I am thinking about ‘subatomic racism’ to describe the bio-warfare waged via those mini-terrors individuals enact on each other — and the effects of the practices institutions and structures act out on indivuduals. The suffix of racism may be used interchangably with the violence experienced by others too. i.e ‘subatomic patriarchy’ but I am unsure I am fit to coin other terms for other ‘protected characteristics’ — where those living in those groups too, sit on the knife-edge of violence. I will leave that job to others!

The term ‘microaggression’ fits aptly under necessary critiques of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion [EDI] and the vague language that benefits institutions that do not want to make changes. It joins other empty terms like ‘unconscious bias’ and ‘cultural competency’. My thoughts introduce ‘subatomic whiteness’ (a thought experiment) — and aims to join other articulations of whiteness like on institutions, terrorism, and possession to show how racism and thus white supremacy operates with impunity on a micro-level. Racism has power and the body absorbs it, racial weathering!

If Hank was telling the truth about ‘his science’, Scott wouldn’t be able to ride the ants — unless they have been dosed with a variant of Pym Particles too. Another reason why he was probably lying to stop other — more evil people — from using it. There are probably contradictions that we need to overlook in favour of a good story … so suspend believability. “Just get on the damn ant, Scott!” (Credit: Marvel Studios)

If you have followed my possibly discombobulated meandering thoughts so far without dropping off, well done! As I expect many reading this may think I have lost my faculties! Routinely, storytelling via films and television has been my springboard into our ‘real-world’ including not just for understanding sometimes ‘inaccessible’ academic theory — but also better understanding society (see my article on Barbie and Critical Theory).

As far as thinking critically about ‘racism discourse’ and the language used to convey it to the masses, the arts is an underrated area in relation to what is viewed as the ‘more serious’ social sciences — or even Law (where Critical Race Theory began). Yet, I think many cultural texts — should we have the imaginative bandwidth to look — have the capacity to commentate on many pressing topics today including X-Men and Neurodiversity as well as Black Panther and (Post)Colonialism. So, as the late great feminist, revolutionary and activist bell hooks further reminds us: “Without a way to name our pain, we are also without the words to articulate our pleasure.”

So, I remind you it was the Pym Particle and films such as Quantumania, not quantum theory that made me consider alternatives to the term ‘microaggression.’ As an artist and historian-sociologist, it was my interest in art, sociology, and history — not science(ish) — that made me consider the microverse’s application to racism’s figurative strength-density-size within the body like those characters. And how even a tic bite, for example, via Tickborne encephalitis can cause neurological problems and even death.

These daily micro-versal occurences are anything but small, accumulating upon and in the body — because their impact is big. These isms collect, and like the ants are lead into battle taking down targets a lot bigger than themselves (like Ant-Man and Wasp). It was these films, primarily aimed at children and families, that pushed me into thinking about new terminology to name the pain I, and my friends/colleagues experience on a daily basis.

Terms like ‘subatomic racism’ and ‘subatomic whiteness’ may provoke a conversation showing a level of murderer-less violence as a slow genocide that sees, for example, an ‘acceptable level’ of violence as normalised doing astonishing levels of harm. A more generalised term could be ‘particle violence’ — as our bodies exist in a hauntology of state-owned imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-hetero patriarchal culture, we are already dead. Under captialism, many living things — humans and non-humans alike — are treated as disposable, but like mitochondria, as all our school science teachers repeated — we are “the powerhouse of the cell.”

In fiction, the Pym Particle changes the distance between atoms, while increasing density and strength. The premise of the Sci-Fi mythos of Ant-Man and Wasp is an apt place to think how racism’s size can shrink and expand without losing its strength or density. Some of the most helpful articulations of ‘racism’ (for me) is in Sci-Fi & Fantasy, including comics. It wasn’t cool to like superheroes when I was a child, now it’s the in-thing.

Despite my dad always pushing comics at me as a youth, I preferred the cartoons and did not read those books until later in life! Yet, growing up autistic (I did not know it then), I saw (and still see) myself in places like Mos Eisley and Wookie homeworld Kashykk than real ‘Black Films’ that get made, including the brilliant Rye Lane. Why? Because even among people that look like me, due to my intersectionality, I often feel like an alien.

My friends The 8 will tell you how science has always confounded me — so, I am sure they are as surprised as I am that I dared think about physics. In their article ‘Could the Quantum Realm Exist?’ Zia Steele writes “subproton scale life is already a stretch, but so far we’re mainly pushing the principles of biology to their limit. If we go small enough, we’ll reach the limits of modern physics” — and that is why Ant-Man & the Wasp: Quantumania is fiction testing the limits of believability showing how their time works differently.

At their usual crime-fighting size, Ant-Man and Wasp stand at around a few millimetres from the ground. Yet, as Zia Steele continues, “the exact size of objects in the Quantum Realm is unclear, but it’s shown that reaching it requires characters to shrink smaller than a proton, which has a diameter around 1.7/1⁰¹⁵ meters” — beyond the capabilities of the standard human eye. If we use the language of ‘Sub-Atomica’ to think about racism, we would need to think how the effects of white terror linger in our bodies as Zia Steele continues: “… 10 million times smaller than the smallest virus.”

If we are looking for language to describe the impact of these so-called ‘indignaties’, the Ant-Man and Wasp stories allegorise a link between density and strength relatable enough for laypeople to see how the effects of whiteness can shrink and expand without losing power. Thus, ‘microaggression’ is ineffective for 2023 where more people are looking for words that help themselves and those they are in community with. So, it was arts that sent me down this path — not ‘proper science’ I settled on the language of ‘Sub-Atomica’ from Marvel’s microverse not from physics, because for no reason than linguistic sense (immaculate vibes, not science).

My more recent thread of academic work has meshed comic book media, sociology, history and politics. In this lecture for Brighton and Sussex Medical School in May (at their campus in Falmer, UK), I explore the metaphors of neurodiversity in Marvel’s X-Men stories (main franchise films + comics), and how they relate to our everyday conversations about neurodivergent belongings and violence against disabled people.

Today, I am constantly inspired by children and their ability to have thinking without boundaries. Given space to breathe (figuratively), they are equal contributors to fighting inequality — and having delivered work in schools, I see children’s understanding of these issues fascinating in contrast to their teachers. Their questions and engagement always blow me away. As Master Yoda says, “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”

Can fiction be used to influence the real? Yes. Do I see it happening? No. As children, most of us have our imaginations and wings clipped at school-age — and / or by adults telling us to ‘grow up.’ In Feminism is For Everybody, bell hooks says we must plant our thinking in reality while “imagining possibilities beyond that reality.” Ants can lift up to fifty times their weight and devestate when organised — like how the effects of racism organise in the body. Both ‘racism’ and ‘whiteness’ are abstract, but their impact isn’t.

So, I take “subatomic racism” and “subatomic whiteness” to describe how everyday white racism is distributed into Black / Brown people’s bodies attacking us at a level below the skin (i.e anatomically within). This also means to include how institutional and structural racism operates in corrosive ways in our bodies — i.e dying early. My thinking originates largely in sociology and arts, not physics!

The World of Ant-Man and the Wasp shows that size matters. Here, we may think about how the science fiction of changing distance between atoms, while increasing density and strength could — at least as far as vibes — depict how those small but heavy loads of racism flatten us. So, these tales to astonish, may give us a new way to interpret racism and its effects — where science fiction and wider genre fiction, not just ‘facts’ gives life meaning.

keywords: subatomic whiteness, subatomic racism, subatomic patriarchy, Quantum Realm, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Pym Particles.

NB: the notion of ‘subatomic violence’ can be applied in many contexts, including violence against disabled people and women and girls [VAWG], even more so on the grounds of intersectionality and multidimensionality (and those idea of quantum in the MCU via Sci-Fi is even more exciting after the fallout of The Marvels). This article is a thought-experiment that could be developed further and I welcome anyone to just run with it!

Works Cited and Some Further Reading

Black Maternity


  • Avengers || Stan Lee et al, 1963–67.
  • Tales to Astonish || Stan Lee et al, 1962.
  • Micronauts Vol 1 31 || Bill Mantlo and Pat Broderick, 1981.
  • Fantastic Four Vol 1 282 || John Byrne, 1985.
  • Fantastic Four Vol 6 11 || Dan Slott et al, 2019.

Film + Televison

  • Ant-Man || Marvel Studios, 2015.
  • Ant-Man & The Wasp || Marvel Studios, 2018.
  • Ant & The Wasp: Quantumania || Marvel Studios, 2023.
  • Avengers: Infinity War || Marvel Studios, 2018.
  • Avengers: Endgame || Marvel Studios, 2019.
  • Captain America: Civil War || Marvel Studios, 2016.
  • Loki || Marvel Studios, 2021-



Sociology and Politicised Lives





Tré Ventour-Griffiths

Award-Winning Educator | Creative | Public Historian-Sociologist | Speaks: Race, Neurodiversity, Film + TV, Black British History + more | #Autistic #Dyspraxic