Microaggressions Part 2: How can you respond to microaggressions?

In MicroaggressionsPart 1 we looked at a foundational understanding of microaggressions. We learned that microaggressions are everyday slights and insults that communicate negative messages to target marginalized groups like IBPOC, often on a subconscious level. Due to their pervasive yet subtle nature, microaggressions can be difficult and emotionally taxing to confront.

Over time, microaggressions can lead to serious impacts on mental health, overall wellbeing and our work culture. So let’s dive into ways to respond to microaggressions that prioritize your wellbeing, especially as an IBPOC or other marginalized employee group.

Simplified three-step approach

A key part of what makes microaggressions so dangerous is that they can happen so casually and frequently in everyday life. While there often isn’t any malice behind these comments or behaviours, it doesn’t diminish its impacts on marginalized individuals.

Next time a microaggression occurs, try using the following simplified three-step approach:

1. Did this microaggression occur?

The first step is to recognize that one has occurred and dissect what message it may be sending.

Microaggressions can be as overt as clutching onto valuable belongings as an IBPOC approaches or as subtle as discriminatory comments disguised as compliments. Therefore, a person may find themselves questioning whether or not a microaggression has even occurred. (For more real-world examples, see Microaggressions — Part 1 or this table from the School of Public Health, University of Minnesota.)

2. Should I respond to this microaggression?

If you believe a microaggression occurred, you need to weigh the risks and consequences of responding or not. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • If I respond, will 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., co-worker, 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 behaviour or statement?

It is important to understand that there is nothing wrong with choosing not to respond. Pick your battles and prioritize your joy, peace, and wellbeing.

3. How should I respond to this microaggression?

Before you proceed with any form of response, assess your goals: Do you simply want to be heard? Or are you more interested in educating the other person and helping them understand what they did is wrong?

This will help determine your method of response. While your response may vary by context, relationship or your goals, the general rule of thumb is to remain assertive, but also allow yourself to be vulnerable and honest.

Since microaggressions are mostly unconscious biases, sometimes a person may not realize they have committed one unless you point them out. Try to focus on the microaggression, not the microaggressor. Instead of calling them racist which may make them immediately defensive, explain how their statement or behaviour made you feel and why it is offensive.

Dr. Diane Goodman, a social justice and diversity consultant, recommends using the following tactics:

  • 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 [insert comment/behaviour], it was hurtful/offensive because [insert reason]. Next time, maybe you could [insert different language or behaviour].”
  • Share your own process — “I noticed that you [insert comment/behaviour]. I used to do/say that too, but then I learned [insert experience].”

Communicating about your discomfort with racism and microaggression takes courage and practice. For more tips and guidance, we encourage you to read our article on the four steps to navigating difficult conversations.

Seek support

Remember that there is no single right way to disarming microaggressions and your safety and wellbeing should always be your priority.

Drawing boundaries and seeking support among allies is key to dealing with microaggressions. It can be as simple as speaking with Human Resources or talking to loved ones or peers with similar intersectional identities who can validate your experience.

Here are some resources you may find helpful: