Microaggressions: What they are and how to deal with them

Microaggressions are words, actions, behaviours, and images that may be construed to covey negativity, hostility, disrespect, and resentment towards targeted groups. Big or small, intentional or unintentional; they can cause physical, mental, and emotional harm to the targeted person(s)


What are microaggressions?


Microaggressions are words, actions, behaviours, and imagery that can be construed to convey negativity, hostility, disrespect, and resentment to the target person or group, usually underrepresented or excluded groups like people of colour, people of ethnic minority background or people whose characteristics makes them a target. Individually, microaggressions may seem small; but when compounded over time, they can have a long-lasting damaging impact on the physical, emotional and psychological health of the targeted person(s).

Microaggressions can be intentional, but mostly unintentional. Here are a few examples of microaggressions according to various themes (adopted from: Wing, Capodilupo, Torino, Bucceri, Holder, Nadal, Esquilin (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice.)

Belonging

“Where are you from?”

“Where are you from originally”

“Where were you born?”

“You speak good English.”

Asking a black or brown person to teach you words in their “native language”

Attribution of intelligence

“You are a credit to your race.”

“You are so articulate.”

Asking an Asian person to help with a Math or Science problem

Denial of Race and Racism

“When I look at you, I don’t see colour.”

“America is a melting pot.”

“There is only one race, the human race.”

“I’m not a racist. I have several Black friends.”

“As a woman, I know what you go through as a racial minority.”

Assumption of Criminal Intent

A White man or woman clutching their purse or checking their wallet as a person of colour approaches or passes.

A store owner following a customer of colour around the store.

A white person waits for the next lift when a person of colour is in one.

Meritocracy Myth

“I believe the most qualified person should get the job.”

“Everyone can succeed in this society, if they work hard enough.”

Cultural stereotypes

Asking a black person: “Why do you have to be so loud / animated? Just calm down.”

To a Chinese person: Why are you so quiet? We want to know what you think. Be more verbal. Speak up more.”

Dismissing an individual who brings up race / culture in work / school setting as pulling the ‘race card’

Second class citizen

Person of colour mistaken for a service worker

Having a taxi pass a person of colour and pick up a white passenger

Being ignored at a store counter as attention is given to the white customer behind you

“You people…”

Environmental

A college or university with buildings that are all names after white heterosexual upper class males

Television shows and movies that feature predominantly white people, without representation of people of colour

Overcrowding of public schools in communities of colour

Overabundance of corner shops stores in communities of colour

Dealing with microaggressions require multiple solutions in various spheres – culture, policy spaces, the environment, workplaces etc. But there are few things you can do about microaggressions as an individual.

According to the Harvard Business Review (Adapted from "When and How to Respond to Microaggressions," by Ella F. Washington) here is how to deal with microaggressions at individual level. The best solution is increasing awareness of microaggressions, insisting that employees stop committing them, and calling out those who do. But in the absence of those changes — and understanding that complete prevention is probably impossible — how should employees of colour and managers respond to the microaggressions they face? Here’s a framework to follow: Choose.

Determine how much of an investment you want to make in addressing the microaggression. Do not feel pressured to respond to every incident; rather, feel empowered to do so when you decide you should. Don't label or blame.

If you choose to confront a microaggression, be prepared to disarm the person who committed it. Perpetrators of microaggressions typically fear being perceived — or worse, revealed — as racist. Explain that the conversation might get uncomfortable, but that what they just said or did was uncomfortable for you. Avoid labeling people them or their actions as 'racist', 'sexist', 'homophobic' etc. Focus on explain how their words or actions made you feel. Challenge.

Challenge the perpetrator to clarify their statement or action. Use a probing question, such as “What do you mean by that?” This gives people a chance to check themselves as they unpack what happened. And it gives you an opportunity to better gauge the microaggressor's intent. Protect your joy.

You control what this incident will mean for your life and your work — what you will take from the interaction and what you will allow it to take from you. Let protecting your joy be your greatest and most persistent act of resistance.