3 Strategies for Responding to Microaggressions

Sep 11, 2023

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“I’m not biased against gay people. I have a gay friend.”

“You don’t sound Black,” or “How long have you lived in this country?”

Have you ever overheard or been on the receiving end of a comment like this? If so, did you know how to respond? Being prepared in advance can enable you to respond effectively, rather than being immobilized by the shock or discomfort of the moment. Here are three valuable strategies to consider.  

1. Ask for clarification

You can interrupt these microaggressions by asking a simple question, “What do you mean?” This non-blaming query encourages the person to reflect on the impact of their words.

2. Address the assumption

Alternatively, you can gently point out the underlying assumption. For instance, “I understand you meant no harm, but it sounds like you’re suggesting that having a gay friend automatically means one isn’t biased. In my experience, having a gay friend doesn’t necessarily eliminate bias.”

Similar responses can be used for the other comments. For example, “I know you meant no harm, but it sounds like you believe that all Black people sound the same.” Or, you could say, “I know you meant no harm, but it sounds like you’re saying that our colleague isn’t from the United States. Did you know he (or she or they) was born in Boston, just like me?”

3. Disarm the microaggression by expressing disapproval

Another effective strategy is to shake your head, say, “Uh-uh, let’s not go there” or simply walk away. Expressing disapproval of the statement, whether through words or nonverbal cues, sends a strong message.  

Please note: These suggestions are intended for bystanders—individuals who witness a microaggression and wish to take action. They can also be valuable for someone who has personally experienced a microaggression. However, self-care should always be the top priority. If you’ve been the target of a microaggression, it’s essential to assess whether this is the appropriate moment and environment to speak up. Are you feeling safe? Do you have the emotional energy to do so? It’s also crucial to understand that the responsibility to address microaggressions should not solely rest on the person who has been targeted. Bystanders play a pivotal role in interrupting and addressing microaggressions, and collectively, we should all strive to become more conscious of our own unconscious biases to prevent microaggressions from occurring.

 

Dr. Derald Wing Sue’s pioneering work on microaggressions and the Disarming Microaggressions eLearning course

These insights are drawn from the extensive research of Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a prominent authority on microaggressions. Dr. Sue, a faculty member at Teachers College, Columbia University, has authored numerous books and papers that shed light on what microaggressions are, their negative impact and strategies to address them in the workplace.

Most recently, Dr. Sue collaborated with SunShower Learning to create the Disarming Microaggressions eLearning course. In this 35-minute training, Dr. Sue emphasizes the importance of recognizing microaggressions and deciphering their underlying messages. For example, the question, “How long have you lived in our country?” may carry the hidden message: “You don’t belong; you’re not a true American; you’re an outsider.”

The next step involves what Dr. Sue terms a “micro-intervention.” This approach, more art than science, encourages individuals to respond according to their comfort level, safety and the context. Options include speaking up, expressing discomfort with an “Ouch!”, asking probing questions, disengaging from the conversation or seeking assistance from an ally to address the microaggression later.

Dr. Sue says, “Silence and inaction in the face of a microaggression is collusion and complicity. When no one intervenes and a biased incident goes unchallenged, it causes pain and suffering to targets, and creates a false consensus to onlookers that racism is okay.”

Disarming Microaggressions draws upon Dr. Sue’s extensive research and has earned multiple awards for excellence. It is currently utilized by hundreds of organizations. Learn more about this course and sign up for an evaluation here.