How to deal with microaggression

Written by
Julia Gumeniuk
Published on
August 30, 2021

Have you heard of microaggression before? Maybe it's something you have experienced yourself or even told to others without actually knowing it. To understand the issue better, let's figure out what microaggression is and how to deal with it.

What is microaggression 

The term "microaggression" first appeared in 1970 at Harvard University. Professor Chester M. Pierce described it as assaults and put-downs from white to black people, consciously or unconsciously. As time went by, the term evolved. Today, microaggression describes remarks, comments, and words addressed towards discriminated groups. The author doesn't mean any harm and usually says it as a joke; however, the receiver feels insulted and offended.

Some of the examples of microaggression:

  • At work, when a manager tells his female colleague, "Wow, you're really good with numbers. I guess I underestimated you, lady." 
  • At studies, when a student makes a compliment to her new Vietnamese student colleague, "That's a great essay! You wrote it as a Czech native."
  • In a shop, when a vendor tells a dark-skinned visitor who pulls out a wallet, "Ah, you're going to buy it."

When telling the comments mentioned above, the authors don't consider it an insult or a deliberate negative comment. They are impressed and think they made a compliment, but usually, it's perceived much more negatively. Analyzing the examples above, a female colleague feels discredited as only men can be good with math and numbers; a Vietnamese student is offended by perceiving him a non-native speaker based on his look; a dark-skinned customer is insulted by the vendor who automatically thinks he's going to steal. 

Now the question is, how not to become the author producing microaggression remarks? And, on the other side, how to deal with microaggression addressed to you or others if you notice some?  

Don’t be the one spreading microaggressions

Did you recognize yourself as an author in the situations shared above? It's possible it happened without you even thinking of it, and the reason was our bias hidden deep in the unconscious. Bias can form at a young age, influenced by the culture, family, friends. It's hard to change the personal program, but it's possible – if you're conscious enough. So, where should you start?  

  • Firstly, recognize your biases and fears connected with discriminated groups;
  • Be proactive and talk with people who are somehow different from you in race, culture, or ethnicity;
  • Be open-minded and accept the new way of pursuing the typical situations;
  • Don't be afraid to discuss the effect of microaggression with discriminated groups, understand their point of view;
  • Lastly, become an ally and spread your knowledge to other authors who might not know about microaggression yet.

Avoid becoming a victim of microaggression 

If you’re the one to whom microaggression is addressed, firstly remember that not everyone says it consciously. Usually it’s gender or cultural bias that talk on behalf of the person, but it still makes sense to reply to microaggression and educate the author. When you hear unpleasant comment towards yourself:

  • Determine if you want to respond to microaggression, as not every incident is worth the energy you invest in it. It would help if you thought of the relationship between you and the author, how you want to be perceived, and the number of feelings involved;
  • Disarm the author if you want to address the microaggression incident. Prepare the author for the conversation you're about to have;
  • Defy the insulting comment. Start by asking what the author meant by saying that. Try to get to the roots, and probably you'll be able to locate the bias together;
  • Decide how you behave in the following situations like these, and if you allow these situations to discourage or insult you. Remember that you can't change everyone, and not everyone is ready to be open-minded and accept they said something wrong.

As you can see, microaggression is quite a problematic term for both author and receiver. The author usually doesn't mean it, and the receiver doesn't always have time and energy to explain why it's insulting. However, the more we know about the term, the more we can be attentive and conscious of our own biases in different conversations. It's a hard way of improving ourselves, but we'll definitely get there!

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