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How do I respond to a microaggression?

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We held a Webinar on June 18, 2020, on the subject of investigating microaggressions which clearly resonated with people. During the course of the session, a large number of participants wrote in to tell us about their own experiences with microaggressions. We weren’t surprised that many people had experienced microaggressions, but we were surprised at how many people responded to say they had said or done things that they now, on reflection, thought might be microaggressions. We had more questions than we could possibly answer in an hour and many of them related to responding to microaggressions. Since the Webinar was focused on investigating cases involving microaggressions, we decided to tackle the subject of responding to them in a blog. Here I will be discussing not only different ways to respond to microaggressions themselves, but also things to keep in mind if someone suggests that you have engaged in a microaggression.

Deciding Whether to Address a Microaggression

It is important to first recognize that many people choose not to address microaggressions. Because the slights often seem minor on their face, or because the person on the receiving end is sometimes not even sure whether a microaggression occurred, it can be tempting to just ignore them. However, over time, microaggressions can compound to the point that they have significant psychological and physiological effects.¹

To help with deciding whether to address a microaggression, Dr. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at John Jay College, developed a “Guide to Responding to Microaggressions,”² in which he suggests asking yourself the following five questions:

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 (i.e. co-worker, family member, etc.)

If I don’t respond, will I not regret saying something?

If I don’t respond, does that convey that I accept the behaviour or statement?

I still remember a racist comment made by my future father-in-law’s best high school friend who we had travelled to visit and whom I had just met. As much as it pained me to say nothing (so much so that I still remember it to this day), it would simply not have been appropriate for his son’s young, relatively new girlfriend to say something in this group setting. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I likely went through something like the above list intuitively and decided that it didn’t make sense to address it in the moment.

Although it is becoming increasingly clear that it is unfair to put the onus on the subjects of microaggressions to have to weigh these factors and decide how to handle the situation, until we have more progress in this area, this seems to be the reality we face.

Addressing Microaggressions

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychology professor at Columbia University, has written several books on microaggressions and notes that because microaggressions can occur so quickly and are sometimes over before a counteracting response can be made, it is worthwhile to be adequately armed with strategies for responding.

Diane Goodman, a social justice and diversity consultant, recommends memorizing the following three tactics³:

Ask for more clarification:

“Could you say more about what you mean by that?” or

“How have you come to think that?”

Separate intent from impact:

“I know you didn’t realize this, but when you                  [comment/behaviour], it was hurtful/offensive because                        .  Instead, could you                          [different language or behaviour.”

Share your own process:

“I noticed that you                     [comment/behaviour]. I used to do/say that too, but then I learned                   .

Knowing the damaging effects of microaggressions, those who study them also underscore the importance of relying on support networks, and engaging in self-care if you have been the victim of a microaggression. This applies regardless of whether you decide to engage in an intervention, or choose to ignore the comment/behaviour.

When Someone Speaks to you about a Microaggression

It takes courage and personal fortitude for someone to decide to engage in an intervention and address a microaggression directly. If you consider the above list of questions and the analysis they will likely have undertaken in deciding “is it worth it,” the fact that they have decided to discuss this with you directly is likely a credit to you/them/your relationship. For this reason, how you respond to this discussion is critically important.

It helps to keep in mind that, because microaggressions are subtle forms of discrimination which are often unintentional, we have all engaged in them whether we realize it or not. So there is no shame in having someone bring this to your attention. In fact, you can consider yourself fortunate to have someone who is willing to intervene, and use this as an opportunity for education and self-reflection.

Another common response to someone who identifies a microaggression is anger and defensiveness. As Robin DiAngelo canvasses in her 2018 book entitled, “White Fragility: Why it’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism,4” people often have an idea in their head of the kind of person they are, which may be at odds with the concern now being brought to their attention. This can create a barrier to having a meaningful discussion about a microaggression. As Dr. DiAngelo points out regarding racial microaggressions (but the same likely holds true for many types of microaggressions), they are often informed by our unconscious biases formed over years of socialization. Ideally, when someone brings a microaggression to our attention, the focus will be on the comment/behaviour itself and its impact, not our intent. If we can focus on this, and resist the temptation to hear this as an accusation that we are a bad person, we can move past any anger and defensiveness and focus on empathy and learning. This is really where we find the greatest opportunities when people speak to us about microaggressions.

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1  G. Torino, “How Racism and Microaggressions Lead to Worse Health,” Centre for Health Journalism, November 10, 2017.

² CUNY Forum, 2:1 (2014) 71-76.

³ H. Yoon, “How to Respond to Microaggressions,” The New York Times, March 3, 2020.

4 2018, Beacon Press.