A microaggression (according to the merriam-webster dictionary) is a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalised group (such as a racial minority). Behaviours such as asking people of colour where they’re ‘really from’, or making subtly sexist remarks like “he throws like a girl” fit into the category of microaggressions. Because microaggressions are so deeply embedded in our culture, it can be hard to notice or call out. However, the repetitive nature of some microaggressions have significantly negative impacts on people from marginalised and minority communities.
Additionally, when it comes to making microaggressions around identifiers such as pronouns, ethnicity, or religion, we have to understand that the context matters. What may feel like a genuine question or attempt at camaraderie for one person can be received entirely differently by another. It comes down to accepting that the effects of our actions are more significant than the intentions behind them. We can hurt people even when we don’t intend to.
The fact of the matter is that we don’t want to be hurting people with our words, so how do we learn what is and isn’t going to be received as a microaggression?
Microaggressions are hard to learn, because if we don’t have that lived experience we may just feel it’s a well intentioned comment or question like “your English is so good” or “unlike normal people, people with disabilities……”, “but how Aboriginal are you?”. All of those statements are microaggressions (but also racist and ableist) often delivered from a place of ignorance. The trick is to become more aware of what might be received as a microaggression and one by one stop using them.
Here are some ways you can raise your level of understanding:
However, despite how seriously we take this task we are still going to make mistakes and hopefully, if people feel safe to, they are going to call us out. Accepting feedback on our language can be really hard, our natural response is to defend ourselves. After all, we are good people just doing our best. However, there is more to inclusion than good intentions and we can’t be inclusive if we aren’t prepared to listen to the experience of others and then act to create more safe, supportive workplaces.
If we do deliver a microaggression and someone calls us out on it, our nervous systems can be triggered into a fight or flight response. This can result in us making a bad situation worse by defending our position, our good natures and maybe even telling the other person they are being too sensitive. The good news is that we can train ourselves to respond more positively.
The first step is to recognise the impact of the comment, while validating the receiver’s feelings. This could sound like:
Your words of recognition may include a simple apology, or information about how you might approach the situation differently in the future –but these aren’t mandatory at this stage. The most important thing about this statement is recognising harm, and giving both yourself and the receiver time and space to process the interaction. Keep it short, and keep it authentic.
The second step is to process the information you received and find out more information. But it’s not always ok to ask the person why that was so hard for them to hear, this may place a greater emotional load on that person, or force them to lie to you or share personal stories or hurtful experiences. Perhaps a simple internet search would answer your questions?
The third step is to re-engage with the receiver, to offer them a heartfelt apology and talk further.
A good apology (a) acknowledges the wrongdoing, (b) is worded intentionally, and (c) lets the receiver know that the behaviour will change. This could sound like:
Apologising is an act of vulnerability and strength, maybe from this position the person feels safe to engage in a meaningful conversation about their experiences, maybe not. Either way you have learnt something new and can continue to build on this knowledge going forward.
So next time someone calls you out for saying something that is deemed to be a microaggression, pause and think about your response and take this as an opportunity to be a better ally and colleague.
For extra support, Bree Gorman can help. We offer coaching with our Managing Director Bree Gorman, who will provide advice around microaggressions and guide you to the other actions your organisation should take.
13 March 2022
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