There have been many times in my life when I’ve faced microaggressions head on and been proud of it. But the words that remain with me, the ones that gnaw on me and create a sinking feeling in my stomach, are the ones that have stayed unresolved. Figuring out what to do about this — how to unsilence myself when faced with small everyday injustices—is no easy feat. On my journey as a womxn of colour, and through my training as a therapist, I’ve gathered a number of ideas. I’ll share a few with you today. I think it’s important that we openly talk about and share our experiences as people from underrepresented backgrounds because, compared to other groups, research about our experiences is just that: underrepresented. Yet, we know that there are specific elements of our experiences that can harm our health and wellbeing. The good news is that there are ways to prevent this harm, and we can find these preventative measures within ourselves. As Michelle Obama said: “We can’t wait for the world to be equal for us to start feeling seen. We have to find the tools within ourselves.”
Disclaimer: This article is meant to help someone in an uncomfortable situation to think things through. It’s not meant to suggest that the onus of creating change lies on underrepresented groups. Our wider environment should change. This is for while we wait for change to happen, and to sustain ourselves so that we can continue to catalyse change in the wider world with our full selves.
What are microaggressions?
“I think I’ve realized that I have thin skin,” a friend of mine shared when we were both early on in our careers. We’d just graduated from college, and had yet to learn what the word “microaggressions” meant. She felt that people were always questioning her professionalism and qualifications, whispering not so quietly about whether she had simply benefited from affirmative action and she felt that she should be able to shake that off. But she couldn’t... and it was putting her on the fast track to burnout. I knew exactly what she was talking about. Because even though the specifics of the whispers might be different, it was a shared experience.
As folks from underrepresented groups, most of us share the experience of facing seemingly small, constantly recurring, sometimes superficially insignificant putdowns. That is what microaggressions are. “Microaggression” is a term used for brief and commonplace — potentially daily— verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative prejudicial slights and insults toward culturally marginalised groups. These can be intentional or unintentional, but the end result is the same: you feel hurt, disrespected, belittled, dehumanised, or all of the above. My friend might have thought that she had thin skin, when the reality was that she was facing a constant stream of small injustices when others did not.
Microaggression is just another word for the everyday sexism and racism we all experience, and it can take many forms. It can be subtle, like when someone mistakenly assumes you’re more junior than you are at your job. Or it can be more explicit, like when someone says demeaning things directly referring to your race or gender, such as saying “you look mixed” as a compliment - suggesting that looking less “ethnic” is better. Microaggressions reflect social inequality—while anyone can be on the receiving end of disrespectful behavior, microaggressions are directed at people with less power in society, such as women, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities, or people of color. It’s important that we take this seriously, because not only has experiencing microaggressions proven to cause burnout, the constant increased heart rate that it causes can have serious consequences for your long term physical health too. And if you suspect that you are on the receiving end of this, you are not alone. The 2018 McKinsey Women in the Workplace Survey found that for 64% of women, microaggressions are a workplace reality - and unfortunately things have not improved much since.
So what do you do when faced with microaggressions?
The first step is to understand that a microaggression has happened. When I first started my training, I realised that I had a lot of experiences that I could recognize as microaggressions when other people pointed them out, but that I didn’t think of at the time because they seemed small. But I recognized that these messages bothered me, because their accumulated weight suggested my inequality in my workplace. What really helped me was starting to write these statements down and pulling them apart to identify what about them was problematic.
For instance, as a child, I was complimented that my accent sounded native. What’s problematic about that is that there is an underlying message that people who don’t look “White” should not be well spoken, and are perhaps of lesser value — with fewer opportunities — because being well spoken is often associated with intelligence. I think that even if the wider world cannot clearly see what is happening when microaggressions are said, we — as recipients of these microaggressions — should at least see ourselves clearly, and understand that what was said to us was clearly wrong.
I find that what makes microaggressions difficult is the perceived inability to respond. I end up with a headrush, increased heart rate, and feel bothered by them long after whoever said them has completely forgotten about it. The person who is bothered and suffering the consequences is me, not them. What’s helped me is responding to the microaggression and pointing out the fallacies of what was said. For instance, a response to my accent might be: “It’s often a misconception that a person’s way of speaking is a reflection of intelligence.” The upside of this is that the other person’s false belief does not end up being accepted for truth just because it was left unquestioned. Of course, this is easier said than done. Sometimes the moment passes and I haven’t said anything because what was said made me dizzy, or it just seemed small and I didn’t want to “overreact”.
Other times, microaggressions are environmental rather than verbal. I don’t have enough fingers to count the number of times when I’ve said something in a meeting and it was ignored, only for a guy to repeat what I said and get credit. The thing about microaggressions is that they are usually systemic, so if something was said or happens once, it's likely to be said or happen again. For me, writing the statement and my response down in my journal means that I’m prepared. If it happens again, you can rest assured that it won’t go unchecked!
Of course, responding is not always a possibility. A lot of us are in environments where this feels unsafe. I’ve definitely been in spaces where the power dynamics were not in my favor, and I was in a place that I depended on (my workplace). I decided to not say anything, and I don’t regret it. From Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s book, Microaggressions in Everyday Life, which I highly recommend, I learned that one option in a situation like that might be to write down a detailed record of interactions filled with microaggressions, James Comey style, and take it to HR. But it’s important to think through the potential consequences before doing this. A friend of mine tried this when her boss constantly referred to where she was from as a place “with no economy,” suggesting that she was from a less civilized place and perhaps of lesser value because of it. It was uncomfortable, and she still had to work with him for a month while it was investigated. But she had thought carefully through the situation and decided that the glass ceiling was so low that it was a de-risked move anyway, and is now happier in a more inclusive team. Another way to voice your disapproval that appealed to me is to join or organize a local activist group - that way you might not be voicing your opinion head on, but you are not silent. As Amanda Gorman said: “silence is not always peaceful” - in more than one way!
Lastly, this article would be remiss if I didn’t mention that I’ve learned that the best response if I’ve made a mistake, and uttered a microaggression myself, is to apologize and learn without trying to justify myself. “Sorry, it won’t happen again,” is enough. We can all make mistakes, but what is not okay is to not learn from it.
If you’ve read all the way to this last part (thank you!) and are facing microaggressions, the main thing that I want you to know is that you are not alone. There are a lot of us that share your experience, and we are rooting for you. That’s the thing about microaggressions: sometimes they seem like a one-off thing, but they are not. They are systemic. And that’s why talking about this is so important.