Raising the red flags on microaggressions, and how to stop them

How you can identify, address and stop microaggressions from
taking place.

Afy Rezaei Senior Copywriter
  • 6 minute read
  • DE&I

There’s a lot to unpack when it comes to microaggressions. And I don’t think it would do the entire subject justice to condense it into a short post.
So, could this become a series? Well, stay tuned.

For this blog, we’re going to approach the topic with a focus on race and

So, what are microaggressions?

The Oxford Dictionary defines microaggressions as: a statement, action or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group.

They’re comments, gestures or behaviours that are sometimes completely accidental and unintentional, sometimes veiled, or sometimes, downright brazen. And, I think that’s what makes them such a hard thing to address.

Oftentimes, people don’t realise they’re doing it. It comes from a place of unconscious bias. So, when we call them out, our feelings are met with defensiveness, dismissal or lack of understanding. Sometimes, silence feels like the easier option. Smile and wave. Look to the floor. Change the subject. Move on.

But the thing is, for many of us, microaggressions are experienced on a daily basis. So, it’s time to educate ourselves and others on how to manage something more significant than its name suggests.

How do you spot a microaggression?

Let’s start with what they look like. For some surveyed, it included comments like:

  • “You’re not like the other [insert race] people I’ve met.
  • “Is that your real hair? Can I touch it?”
  • “Where are you really from?”
  • “You’re [insert ethnicity]? How exotic!”
  • “I’ve always wanted to date someone who is [insert ethnicity].”
  • “Your English is really good.”

And behaviours such as:

  • Continuously mispronouncing or misspelling a person’s name.
  • Pulling faces at ethnic food.
  • Assigning tasks that don’t reflect a person’s talents or abilities.
  • Introducing someone by a nickname or first name when others are introduced by their full name.

It’s difficult to navigate these situations. Especially if you’re at risk of being labelled the ‘angry Black girl’ or the ‘feisty Latino’ or the ‘sensitive woman’ (I could go on). But whether you’re on the receiving end or a witness to microaggression, I’ve collated advice, insights and tips from across the internet, so you don’t have to.

On the receiving end?

Consider the environment. Is it a safe space for you to have a productive conversation? Think about whether it’s best to be had in the moment or afterwards, one on one.

A great question to ask is “What do you mean by that?”. It gets people thinking about what they’ve just said and the true intent and impact of their words. Often, they’ll retract what they originally said and apologise.

Ask yourself, are they worth it? Is it a close friend or family member? Or are you dealing with someone who you’ll rarely cross paths with? Perhaps a work acquaintance or a stranger on the train. Maybe it’s
someone who you know is combative. Always be aware of yourself and your mental health. Sometimes, your own peace is more important.

Have you seen a microaggression take place?

If you’re not sure how to identify microaggressions, take some time to educate yourself. Whether you head to the bookshop, Spotify or switch on Netflix, there’s lots of content out there to help you understand more about microaggressions. At the end of this blog, you can find some recommendations to get started.

When and where appropriate, address microaggressions when you see them. Chances are, if something feels wrong or uncomfortable, that’s
because it is. It’s important not to speak on behalf of someone or assume you know how they feel, but intervening can be as simple as saying ‘That
comment made me uncomfortable.’ Being complicit will encourage the person to think it’s ok, or worse, that you agree.

Reach out. Sometimes this can simply be letting a person know that you saw what happened and validate their feelings. If you’re in a situation
where public confrontation isn’t appropriate or safe, focusing on supporting the person on the receiving end can make a big difference.

And if someone says you’re being microaggressive?

Take a moment to pause. Being called out can put us on the defensive so taking a second to pause, breathe and think can keep the conversation that follows calm and productive.

If you’re unsure about what you did to offend your colleague, ask for clarification – “Could you say more about what you mean by that?”

Listen. Even when you disagree. And try your best to understand and see it from their perspective. You could even make sure you’ve understood what you’ve heard by paraphrasing – “I think I understand you’re saying [insert their comments]. Is that correct?”

Acknowledge and apologise. This is your moment to be sincere. Whether you were being insensitive or lacked knowledge of a certain history, this is your chance to acknowledge the offence and be honest.

Things to read:

  • McKinsey & Company: Women in the Workplace 2023
  • Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to understand, identify and stop microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran
  • So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
  • The Good Immigrant by Nikesh Shukla

Things to listen to:

Things to watch:

  • Netflix – Dear White People
  • Netflix – Self Made
  • Netflix – Hello, Privilege. It’s Me, Chelsea

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