What are microaggressions? Screen Shot 2021 07 28 at 3.50.40 PM

Microaggressions are verbal, non-verbal, or environmental slights or insults that are derogatory, hostile, or negative, either intentionally or unintentionally given, against someone based primarily on their marginalized group identity. While primarily based on a person's unconscious bias regarding specific stereotypes around race, sex, or gender, they can also encompass areas such as (but not limited to) age, ability, or religion.

Why are microaggressions harmful?

As the name suggests, while microaggressions can seem like small acts, they can severely diminish the value and humanity of an individual and negatively impact their mental, emotional, and even physical well-being. Microaggressions undermine inclusivity and take away a person's sense of belonging.

Some examples of microaggression.

  • "Where are you really from?" By asking a person of color this question, you are assuming and sending a clear message that they do not belong because they are being viewed as foreign or different.
  • "I don't see color" To not see the color of a person's skin is not acknowledge or celebrate the diversity of their racial and ethnic experiences and implies that you won't hold the color of their skin against them. There is a distinct difference between color blindness and color consciousness.
  • "Your English is so good." Depending on the tone and context, while it may seem that you are paying someone a compliment, you may be conveying your expectation that the person of color wouldn't be capable of commanding the English language in a condescending manner. 
  • "You should smile more." Telling a woman to smile more may seem polite on the surface, but it is a sexist way to demean or make a woman feel underappreciated and/or unwelcomed. It creates a sense of loss of control over her own presentation of herself and can hurt her ability to communicate and present herself directly.

How to address microaggressions.

Here are a few solutions that can be used to respond to microaggressions.

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  • Pause. It is important to understand that you do not have to react right away. Take a step back and try to understand why it happened and use empathy.
  • Examine Your Assumptions. Help the instigator understand how the slight or insult made you feel. This will not work each time because the aggressor may believe that they are right or cannot see why it is an issue. The goal is to have a productive conversation and not to get defensive or engage in an argument. Remember, this will only continue to hurt others in the workplace.
  • Cut Some Slack. As soon as we hear something offensive, we are quick to judge the character of the other person. It is important to test this assumption. However, since workplaces do require respect, if this person becomes a repeat offender, I do advise reporting it so it can be handled properly and not become a constant point of contention or anger.
  • Share Another Perspective. While it’s not your job to educate the whole world, we are enabling it by ignoring it.
  • Above all else, remember to approach it with a growth mindset and not a fixed one and it will be possible to change future interactions to more positive ones.

Source: Advancing Justice - LA

  • Ask yourself the following:
    • Did this microaggression really occur?
      • With some encounters, you may question whether a microaggression has happened. For example, if a woman hears someone whistle as she walks down a street, she may think, “Did that really just happen or am I hearing things?” Similarly, if a coworker makes a seemingly transphobic comment in front of a transgender female colleague, the recipient might question whether she heard the statement correctly. When there are people around (particularly people who you trust) to verify and validate the microaggression, it makes it easier for you to definitively label the event as a microaggression. When there is no one around, it may be helpful to seek support from loved ones. For instance, with modern technology, people can easily call, text, email, or communicate with their social media networks about microaggressions. Most of the time, people respond in supportive ways.
    • Should I respond to this microaggression?
      • If you are certain (or moderately certain) that a microaggression did in fact occur, consider the potential risks or consequences of responding or not responding. Some questions include: 
        • If I respond, could my physical safety be in danger?
        • If I respond, will the person become defensive, and will this lead to an argument?
        • If I respond, how will this affect my relationship with this person (e.g., coworker, family member, etc.)
        • If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something?
        • If I don't respond, does that convey that I accept the behavior or statement?
    • How should I respond to this microaggression?
      • If you decide to take action, consider how to react. 
        • First, you can approach the situation in a passive-aggressive way. For instance, perhaps you make a joke or a sarcastic comment as a way of communicating that you are upset or annoyed. Perhaps you roll your eyes or sigh. Or, you do nothing in that moment and decide to talk to others about it first, in the hopes that it will get back to the perpetrator. 
        • Second, you can react in a proactive way. This might be effective when you do not have the energy to engage the perpetrator in a discussion. Sometimes, individuals who experience microaggressions regularly may feel so agitated that they just want to yell back. For some individuals, an active response may be a therapeutic way of releasing years of accumulated anger and frustration. 
        • Finally, you may act in an assertive way. This may include calmly addressing the perpetrator about how it made you feel. This may consist of educating the perpetrators, describing what was offensive about the microaggression. Oftentimes the perpetrator will become defensive, which may lead to further microaggressions. It may be important to use “I” statements (e.g., “I felt hurt when you said that.”), instead of attacking statements (e.g., “You’re a racist!”). It also may be important to address the behavior and not the perpetrator. What this means is that instead of calling the perpetrator “a racist,” it might be best to say that the behavior he or she engaged in was racially charged and offensive. People don’t like being called a racist, sexist, or homophobe, so if you want to have an effective dialogue with a person without being defensive, it may be best to avoid using such language. 
        • When the entire interaction is over, it is important to microaggression to seek support. Seeking support can include practical support (e.g., if you microaggressions at a workplace, you should file a complaint with Human Resources). You can also seek social support (e.g., talking to your loved ones or peers with similar identities who can validate your experiences). Processing your emotions is also important because microaggressions have been known to lead to an array of mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and trauma. Therefore, you may find it helpful and necessary to discuss your cognitive and emotional reactions with your loved ones or mental health professionals. In doing so, you may avoid accumulating negative and detrimental feelings, which may affect your mental health.