Why I think “microaggressions” are wrongly titled and how we should respond to them

Microaggressions are defined by Websters-Dictionary as “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority)”. Microaggressions go against our social identifiers (the labels we give ourselves describing who we are in terms of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, ability, ethnicity, socioeconomic status and more). The “micro” portion leaves the impression that these are small injuries and therefore not significant. I disagree. Allowing people to continually experience microaggressions sends a message of lack of importance and allowing conveyors to continue delivering microaggressions sends the message of approval. I would like to change the name microaggressions to ‘sustained aggressions”, recognizing that sustained injury caused by microaggressions effects self-esteem, the ability to be a self-advocate, and leads to a sense of numbing from emotions.

Microaggressions are often minimized by saying that they are experienced by all. It is true, that microaggressions are experienced by all social identifiers and it is also true that they are not experienced equally. Majority groups (white, male, upper class, native English speaking and others) experience some microaggressions. But marginalized groups (women, people of color, poor, gender non-binary and others) experience microaggressions so often they may become expected, ignored, or not worth addressing.

Anticipated responses challenges addressing microaggressions. Some people do not confront microaggressions because of concerns for employment or relational security. Some may find microaggressions occur so frequently addressing all of them would be exhausting. Others may find their cultural norms do not support ‘rocking the boat’. One of the most consistent comments I hear is that the norms of the community suggest if something is not addressed immediately it cannot be addressed, should not be addressed, or is viewed to be unimportant.

Alex, the one black teacher in her school, recently told me about her experience which is not uncommon. Alex entered the faculty room on a Monday morning where teachers were sharing stories about their weekend and shared she had been canoeing with friends. A teacher whom Alex always liked responded, ‘it sure was hot out, good thing you can’t get sunburned!’ Alex laughed a little, got her coffee and went to class. After hearing another similar comment, Alex wanted to tell her colleague that black people indeed have to worry about sunburn as do white people, but felt it was too late to do so, knew the teacher was a nice person and didn’t mean to offend, so Alex said nothing.

Alex’s story is one I hear too often. We can create communities of collaborative conversation around microaggressions and reduce the frequency and impact of them, but we can only do so if we change the rules. As a society, we often focus on going directly to the problem, but when addressing microaggressions, we must first allow for the elasticity of time and process. In other words, while these may not be direct, in the moment conversations they are no less relevant. Kerry Ann Rockquemore of Inside Higher Ed talks about microresistance, asking ‘ Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”?’ In other words, “Instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?”

Schools can become cultures of communication by agreeing to adjusted timelines and communication patterns such as:

  • Address it directly with the conveyor (person initiating a microaggression). Upon hearing the concern, conveyors should:

  • Listen

  • Think

  • Own their role

  • Learn from the experience

  • Address it with an ally. The ally may:

  • Listen to it as venting (all that was needed was to be heard)

  • Support the recipient to address the concern

  • Seek Support from:

  • Human resources (or person assuming the tasks of human resources)

  • Colleagues/friends

  • Supervisor

Conveyer of microaggressions please listen, think, own and learn:

  • Track for yourself the frequency of microaggressions you convey and the social identifiers they are against. Research and learn more about those social identifiers

  • Focus on reducing defensiveness

  • Develop a “script” for yourself to use when your role in a microaggression is highlighted. The script should be free of defensiveness and full of openness. Charlene Drew Jarvis, former D.C. Council member and former president of Southeastern University, recently attended a Board of Trustees I led and shared a strategy I have taken to heart ‘When you said... What I heard was…’

  • Seek to educate yourself and others

  • Own your mistakes

  • Demonstrate you are willing to learn

  • Focus on how to collaborate

  • Be a microresister

  • Become an ally

  • Develop a script answering “How will I respond if someone approaches me about a microaggression?”

  • Identify and talk with your ally in learning more about this work?

  • Be a leader in creating a culture of communication

Conveyors, please do not:

  • Justify or explain your words

  • Try to convince the recipient that you are a good person

  • Expect the person to whom the aggression was conveyed to make you feel better

  • Question the timing of the discussion such as "Why didn't you come to me right away?"

  • Focus only on how “not to offend” in future

  • Make generalizations

Recipient of microaggressions:

  • Ask for a culture of collaboration

  • Assume good. Remember microaggressions are not intentional but at the same time, find your resources and sources of support.

  • Provide direct feedback

  • Bring to attention of others when microaggressions are identified Allow for clear and consistent boundaries

  • Do not assume you need to educate others!

Please do not “Let it go”, it is vital for communities to create a culture of responding to microaggressions in a new manner, on a more elastic timeline, and with consistency.