4. Challenging Microaggressions
Knowing how to respond to a microaggression you have experienced as a victim or an observer can be challenging. It is stressful to inform someone that what they have said is wrong.
Considering how to approach this interaction and knowing what to say or how to behave may be difficult. Each individual should feel empowered to respond in a manner that is authentic to them.
Below are useful tips on how to address microaggressions. These are relevant to those on the receiving end, witnesses and those that are in a position of influence who are informed of the incident.
Step 1: Recognise a microaggression has happened and the message it is sending
Some microaggressions are easy to recognise. Others may be less obvious and therefore harder to identify.
Where there is uncertainty for the victim or observer, they could ask others present for an opinion, clarification, or validation.
If this is not possible, either because there is no one else who has witnessed the incident or the victim or observer does not feel comfortable with this approach, they instead may want to seek support from a trusted individual. It can help to discuss the incident with another person if uncertainty exists.
Step 2: Decide if you want to address the microaggression
When deciding whether to address a microaggression, the individual will likely be considering the risks of responding compared with the consequences of not saying anything.
This can be a stressful experience. These questions may support the individual in their deliberation:
1. If the person reacts in a defensive or argumentative manner to my discussion, am I in a position where I can manage this?
2. How might I approach this in a way that is constructive?
3. What language can I use? You could use a set of micro-interventions (word or deeds) to counteract the microaggressions.
- If someone asks you where are you from? You could ask "I’m curious, what makes you ask that?"
- You notice that a female colleague is constantly being interrupted in a meeting. You can address the group. "[name of person] brings up a good point. I didn’t get a chance to hear all of it [name of person] do you mind sharing that again"
- Someone making a homophobic joke: "I didn’t think that was funny. I would like you to stop."
4. Will my relationship to this person be affected positively or negatively?
5. If I don’t respond, will I regret not saying anything?
6. If I don’t respond, does this mean that I accept the behaviour or agree with the statement?
7. Is there another route that I would prefer to take to address this matter, for instance speaking with my line manager or an advocate to seek support?
Choosing not to respond:
An individual can choose not to respond. It is emotionally draining to respond to microaggressions, particularly if they are occurring pervasively. An individual may not feel able to respond on each occasion – this is OK.
However, both victims and observers need to consider the impact of silence and the emotional tax it can place on individuals. It can reinforce a message that they are not welcome in their workplace.
It is important that everyone reflects on their role in helping individuals feel empowered to respond to microaggressions.
3: Consider when and how to respond to microaggressions
When an individual decides to respond to a microaggression, consideration on how and when to approach this may help to achieve the desired outcome. The approach taken will depend on the individual and the scenario, and it can vary for different incidents.
The timing of the response can be immediate or at a later point.
- Responding immediately in an active way: this allows the microaggression to be called out and its impact explained whilst it's fresh in everyone’s mind.
- Responding later: addressing the microaggression privately at a later point to explain why it was offensive. The risk here is that there is a time delay, and the person may need to be reminded of the incident, the microaggression and the impact.
Microaggressions can be tackled in the following way:
- Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”
- Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t realize this, but when you said xxxx or behaved in a particular way, it was hurtful/offensive because of xxx, Instead you could (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 xxxx.”
In responding to a microaggression, it is constructive to highlight how the behaviour made the individual feel.
For example when describing what was offensive about the microaggression, it is impactful to use “I” statements, such as “I felt hurt when you said that”.
To ensure that the message is understood, it is important to address the behaviour and not the individual.
For instance, rather than calling an individual “a racist”, the focus ought to be the behaviour itself: “the comment is a microaggression which is racist and is offensive if this way…”. This is more likely to lead to an effective communication.
- Describing what was offensive about the microaggression and what was said. If you are addressing this as a victim, it may be important to use “I” statements for example “I felt hurt when you said that.”, instead of attacking statements such as “You’re a racist”
- It’s important to address the behaviour and not the individual
For example, don’t call the individual “a racist,” it’s best to say, “the comment is a microaggression which is racist and offensive”.
It’s important that there are ways for the victim to seek support. Organisations, employers and team leaders need to create a culture where raising concerns about behaviours is encouraged and are taken seriously.
Practical support can include being able to raise a concern in a safe and confidential way. Is there a network that individuals can join to seek social support to validate their experiences?
Education about microaggressions is important. The more people are aware of the term and concept, the less likely they will be defensive when confronted about their behaviours
Having like-minded allies to step in to respond can validate the experience for victims. Allyship is a supportive mechanism for tackling microaggressions. It is about building relationships of trust, consistency, and accountability with marginalised individuals and/or groups of people.
Allies support marginalised people by taking the time to understand their struggle. Allies can use their voice alongside marginalised individuals and help to tackle microaggressions.