Microaggressions are, as Professor of Psychology Kevin Nadal explains, the everyday, subtle, un/ intentional interactions or behaviors that communicate a bias toward historically marginalized groups.  In an earlier post we spoke about how to respond, when we are called out for that behavior. But what about those at the receiving end of such discrimination?

Says Hahna Yoon, New York Times author, “It’s tempting to ignore microaggressions, considering blatant, obvious discrimination is still a real problem, but the buildup of these everyday slights has consequences on mental and physical health that cannot be overlooked.” Responding to a microaggression can be empowering. So, if you don’t want to avoid it, how do you fight? There are two approaches:

  1. Responding in the moment. If you feel hurt when something was said and wish for the other person’s behavior to change, it is important to point it out immediately. But this can make people defensive or shut down. To bring down the emotional barriers while having such a conversation:
  2. Show that you value the person. If the person who made the hurtful comment is someone you care about, show that you value the relationship. It might be difficult to do that when you feel angry or upset. But don’t assume they did it on purpose. Put the relationship before the issue without ignoring the latter. “Be sure to criticize the microaggression, not the microaggressor,” suggests Professor Nadal.
  3. Give them a heads-up. This means sharing upfront that what you are about to say might offend them, but your intention is to understand the situation. So, say, “You just said something that got me curious, and what I’m about to ask may make you angry, but that is not my intent. I want to understand something better. Please help me there.”
  4. Share what happened for you. Instead of starting by asking why they said something, start by sharing your feelings. That opens the possibility of a more empathetic connection. Say, “When you said ……., it made me feel uncomfortable or hurt, because it landed like an othering of my community. I’d like to make sure I understand where you are actually coming from.”
  5. Responding later, which will give you a chance to think through what to say and avoid a knee-jerk reaction. Talking about the incident after a week might not be ideal. The aggressor might have forgotten what they said, and that might trivialize the impact on you. Choose to address it in a day or two.

In both the situations, the other person might say, “I didn’t mean that.” Stick to your stance and say, “I hear you, and I’d love to know more about your intent, as well as share what is going on for me as I listen. This happens often in other situations and it’s hurtful. If you could have this conversation, it might help both of us understand where things went wrong.”

If you’d like to learn more about responding to microaggressions, here is a wonderful resource by Professor Nadal. And this is another resource focused on the experiences of black people in managing microaggressions, published on the Harvard Business Review.

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