Before the summer I’v reached out to my contact at the CELT (Center for Enhancing Learning and Teaching) here on campus at UK. I wanted to pitch the idea of a workshop dear to me on microaggressions. To be honest, I' was expecting anything from rejection to laughter at my hubris … but no, I’ve got a very warm welcome. This speaks to the motto of “You won’t score any of the shots you don’t take!” or, as I like to say, “You won’t know until you’ve tried, and what’s the worst that can happen? They say ‘no,’ so what?!”
Little did I know what pit of information I would have to jump into in order to put together that workshop. It didn’t matter that I’ve already read the three part publications of Dr. Berk on microaggressions (including a part on how to develop a workshop on the subject; Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3), I was about to open some doors that will never be closed again … and that was a good thing, can you believe it?!
What are microaggressions?
"Brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights, invalidations, and insults to an individual or group because of their marginalized status in society”
Sue, D. W. (2010). Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact. John Wiley & Sons.
Sounds pretty straightforward when put this way doesn’t it? Well, I’ve found part of this definition pretty vague and open for interpretation. For example, what constitute a slight? One can argue that this depend on the victim’s perception and one would be perfectly correct. The whole point about microaggression is to raise empathy and awareness of our actions on other human beings around us. I like to think of microaggressions as aggression due to the lack of understanding of one’s words and/or actions onto other. In that sense I’ve distanced myself from the “intentional” part of the aforementioned definition, I’m well aware of that fact.
The image above provides some examples of microaggressions. It is by no mean meant to be exhaustive, microaggressions come in numerous forms and shapes, but it helps to start with some obvious ones that, to be honest, should really beg the question: “Do people really say that?!” Note that by asking this question I’m well aware that it speaks more to my privilege than to anything else (I’ve been sheltered from those behavior from my position of white male). However, I’ve felt my (small) share of microaggression and can relate to some of them. My “favorite” is the one below to give you an idea.
Assessing the situation
One way to take your own temperature on microaggressions is to use the very handy inventories that have been put together by the community, namely the “Student Microaggression Inventory” and the “Workplace Microaggression Inventory.” Go ahead and click on the link that correspond to your situation and take a few minute to take the inventory. You’ll get a percentage of microaggression exposure that will probably surprise you.
What to do about it?
Well, one way to look at microaggression is through the lens of its actors: the victim, the aggressor, and the bystander (or ally, hopefully).
As a victim, it is usually hard to even think of doing something on the spot. Often, one realizes that they were the victim of a microaggression only after the fact when they reflect on what happened. Sadly, not addressing what happened can cause as much if not more damage than the actual microaggression itself! Here are a couple of pointers for what to do when one finds oneself in this situation:
React on the spot by asking follow up questions like “Why did you say that?” or “Can you repeat what you said?” or “Do you think what you said was appropriate?”
Talk to the person privately to express the way you felt about the interaction following this handy template: calmly question the aggressor’s behavior by diplomatically asking a follow-up question (e.g., “Why did you interrupt me in meetings? I don’t interrupt you.”).
Change the subject. This last resort solution, in my opinion, is simply meant to provide the victim with a way out at a minimum cost. Ideally, an ally would pick-up on what is happening and intervene or the victim can talk to the aggressor later about the incident or report it to a superior for mediation.
As an aggressor, it is important to accept the blame from the victim and listen. What you will be saying to them after they are done asking about your behavior and/or expressing their feelings about your interaction can make or break the relationship between you two, so trade carefully. Equally important are those two things: listen then apologize. Apologies are way underrated, they are cheap, effective, and allow both parties to move on to address the roots of the problem(s) without emotional burden. Finally, as an aggressor you must respect the victim for their courage of speaking up, it takes guts to face the perpetrator of a microaggression directed toward them! So listen, listen, listen, apologize, work toward being a better human being, and thank whoever pointed your aggression to you (they provided you with the occasion to become better, this is a great gift that they gave you).
As a bystander/ally, you have the responsibility to act if you see something (assuming you feel comfortable enough to do so of course). At the very minimum, checking on the victim afterward is a must do. Victims can use all the help they can get and the simple fact that someone else noticed something can alleviate the persuasive feeling of gaslighting that too many isolated victims feel. There is a great way for allies to speak up right after a microaggression took place. It is called “microresistance” (Dr. Ganote):
Observe: State in clear, unambiguous language what you see happening;
Think: Express what you think or what you imagine others might be thinking;
Feel: Express your feelings about the situation;
Desire: State what you would like to have happened.
Where to go from here?
I want to leave you with a quote from Dr. Sue (the author of the two books pictured above, you can click on the books for a google search of the books if you want to buy/read them):
“Why are people of color raising these issues? Not because they see themselves as victims. Microagressions have empowered them by giving them a language of expression. It allows them to say this is happening, and given the fact that it’s happening, and doing all this harm, do they not have a right to say ‘this has to stop?'”
The way forward is awareness, empathy, and kindness.