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How to Respond to Microaggressions

Ehimetalor Akhere Anuabona/Unsplash

Source: Ehimetalor Akhere Anuabona/Unsplash

“You know this is the second time you suggested salsa dancing lessons, right?” said Ray sharply.

Ray, a Latino American man, had been exploring ways to meet new people and my suggestion had been off-putting to him. I immediately felt an urge to protest. I have extensive training in multicultural competence. I am a therapist. I am Black. I can’t make those mistakes, right?

Wrong. I made assumptions about him twice based on one of his cultural identities instead of exploring what he thought was appropriate. Without being aware of it, I had committed a microaggression against Ray.

The term “microaggression” was coined by a Black psychiatrist named Dr. Chester Pierce in the 1970s. It was later researched in more depth by an Asian American psychologist named Dr. Derald Wing Sue. Microaggressions are daily occurrences that invalidate the experiences of marginalized people. For instance, it has been asserted that Black professors are often challenged more on their level of competency than White professors (Pittman, 2012; Thomas, 2020). This is important to note because microaggressions have the potential to cause serious harm over time. One study found that microaggressions contribute to mental health problems reported by Black, Indigenous, and people of color—especially trauma and depression (Auguste, Cruise, & Jimenez, 2021).

I am reminded of a time when my younger brother Malcolm and I were watched carefully in an electronics store. We were asked to lift our shirts as we were leaving. I recall feeling saddened in that moment but not wanting to make a big deal of the situation. I dismissed it and thought that any “good” store owner would want to ensure that their merchandise wasn’t stolen. The problem was that we were the only children accosted in this manner.

Microaggressions may be verbal, environmental, or behavioral. Though these offenses can be covert, they are more often committed subtly by well-intentioned individuals who are unaware of their behavior. My examples so far have included racial microaggressions. However, microaggressions may also include gender, sexual orientation, religion, and disability. (Here is a list of various examples of microaggressions. Additionally, here is a video by Dr. Sue that explains microaggressions in greater detail.)

How Victims of Microaggressions Can Respond

Now that we know what microaggressions are, here’s how to call them out:

1. Respond in the moment.

State the offense openly and let the person know how their behavior has affected you. While I cannot tell you how to feel, I have found that it is best to confront people in a calm tone if you are able to. As seen by my encounter with Ray, the perpetrator’s first reaction is often to defend themselves and deny any wrongdoing. An aggressive confrontation often causes people to either shut down or dismiss the discussion entirely. This can cause the victim to question the validity of what they experienced.

2. Respond later.

It is sometimes valuable to wait until a later time to call out a microaggression. For instance, you may be activated in the moment and unable to calm yourself down. Further, you may not want to address someone in front of a crowd. This may cause them to become defensive, which may make you feel further invalidated. Additionally, waiting may give you more time to formulate your thoughts.

What to Do After Committing a Microaggression

How about if you are a perpetrator of a microaggression? Here is how to respond when you are called out:

1. Don’t argue.

There is a reason someone is bringing this to your attention. We want people to bring mistakes to our attention as it presents an opportunity to mend the relationship. When people appear to “let it go,” it could mean the loss of a friendship, customer, or other valued person in your life.

I am grateful when people, like Ray, bring perceived slights to my attention. It doesn’t take much effort to nurture relationships when things are going well. It is much more impactful when we can stand up during times of discomfort.

2. Validate the person’s feelings.

We want to try and empathize with the other person. It might not be a “big deal” to you if you were in their shoes. However, you can at least acknowledge that you may have caused them distress. This alone may be enough for people to see you in a more appropriate manner.

3. Apologize.

Take it a step forward by acknowledging that you committed an offense and that you are wrong. Be mindful of using a backhanded apology such as, “I am sorry you feel that way” as it will only make matters worse and cause you to appear more insensitive.

4. Encourage future corrections.

We are all subject to subconscious biases. It is likely that we will make other offenses in the future. This, by itself, does not make us bad people. By encouraging people to continue to call you out, it removes the pressure from them and may make others feel safer speaking with you.

Why Microaggressions Matter

Critiques on microaggressions have suggested that the concept lacks scientific evidence and that it may potentially be problematic (Haidt, 2017; Lilienfeld, 2017). Another criticism is that the research has focused largely on the actions committed by the aggressor in lieu of the harm done to the recipient (Freeman & Stewart, 2021).

I am biased. I am from a marginalized group and believe that I experience microaggressions regularly. I do not think it is appropriate to view victims as “sensitive” or looking for oppression where none exists. Whether you agree that your actions are offensive, or not, they may be causing harm. I view microaggressions as tiny fractures that eventually lead to a major break. Fortunately, one microaggression by itself is not cataclysmic. In fact, we can use these occurrences as powerful opportunities to deepen our relationships with others.

Ray has credited my openness to being challenged—and corrected—as a main driver behind our strong therapeutic relationship. What has been your experience with microaggressions?

Brittani Burns/Unsplash

Source: Brittani Burns/Unsplash

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