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How to Intervene Against Microaggression

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, DO, MS on August 11, 2021

Microaggressions are tough to navigate. The lines that separate microaggressions from outright prejudice are blurry.

Starting a conversation about microaggressions can be done in a responsible, informed, and empathetic way. If you catch on to these subtle, unconscious biases, making the aggressor aware can further the conversation.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are inconspicuous words or actions that are rooted in unconscious biases. They convey a stereotype or prejudice toward a marginalized group, often masked by a seemingly innocent remark.

The victims of microaggressions. Marginalized people are the frequent victims of microaggressions. Microaggressions typically target a person's:

  • Race
  • Gender
  • Sexual orientation
  • Ethnicity
  • Age
  • Size

Microaggression vs. prejudice. What separates microaggressions from blatant prejudiced remarks and actions is the intention. Microaggressions are often unintentional. The comments intend no harm.

Examples of microaggressions. One way to identify a microaggression is if it fits the formula, "You're [positive adjective] for a [marginalized person]." Some examples include:

  • You're a good speaker for an immigrant.
  • You're funny for a woman.
  • You're quiet for a gay man.

Each of these statements implies an unconscious prejudice.

  • Immigrants aren't capable of speaking well.
  • Women aren't supposed to be funny.
  • Gay men are typically talkative or loud.

The opposite is true as well. Minimizing a person's marginalized identity constitutes microaggressions. For example, the popular phrase, "I don't see color," is choosing to ignore an essential part of a person's identity.

Identifying microaggressions takes work. You have to understand your own biases and pay attention to what other people unknowingly imply when interacting with a person from a marginalized group.

What to Do About Microaggression?

Once you've identified a microaggression, there are a few paths to take. You don't need to point out every single microaggression. However, it's essential to know your stance and only tackle what you deem necessary.

Forget it. Letting the microaggression slide is the most common response. Many people are content with allowing the comments or actions to go uncorrected since they aren't intentional.

Confronting microaggression requires effort. Forgetting the comment is less emotionally draining. While it's easy, ignoring the microaggression has negative consequences, including:

  • Continuation of biases and microaggressions
  • Reinforces biases
  • Puts stress on the targeted individuals

Respond to it. Responding immediately to a microaggression is a high-risk, high-reward choice. The details of the scenario are fresh. So, an immediate response can quickly correct the behavior.

But, this choice is also risky. The people involved can become emotional, defensive, and stressed. Moreover, this approach can make people unwilling to resolve the situation.

Wait. You can meet in the middle by privately approaching the person later to start a conversation about the microaggression. Waiting gives you time to gather your thoughts and approach the situation responsibly.

Don't wait too long, however. Too much time can lead to forgetfulness, change of view, or even the appearance of being petty.

How to Resolve a Microaggression

Once you've decided to respond or wait to have the conversation, there are two parts to balance the discussion.

Confront the awkward and disarm the aggressor. You don't literally knock their pen from their hand. Instead, acknowledge that it'll be a difficult, uncomfortable, and awkward conversation. But, it would be best if you made it feel like you're going through this awkward discussion together.

Acknowledge and challenge what they said or did. For example, if the aggressor expressed a microaggression, follow up with, "What do you mean by that?"‌.

Turning the lens back to them will allow them to evaluate what they said or did. Questioning them also gives you the chance to understand their intent and where they are coming from.

Resolution. How the discussion resolves will vary. However, it's up to everyone to bring microaggressions to the forefront when battling stigma and prejudice.

Intervening Against Microaggressions as a Third Party

It's one thing for a marginalized person to stand up against microaggressions. It's another for a privileged person to intervene as an ally.

For example, there's a company that employs primarily white males. A white coworker expresses a microaggression regarding a black female coworker's hair. Someone needs to address the microaggression. If the black coworker speaks up, the white coworker may view her as emotional or petty for bringing it up.

However, if another white male coworker brings up the same concern, the aggressor would likely hear it. People often view the dominant social group as being the most knowledgeable and less biased in the circumstance.

It's everyone's fight. If you're a member of this privileged class or a marginalized group, you can use the above techniques to intervene against microaggressions and stand up for marginalized communities.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

American Psychological Association: "How bystanders can shut down microaggressions."

Harvard Business Review: "When and How to Respond to Microaggressions."

npr: "Microaggressions Are A Big Deal: How To Talk Them Out And When To Walk Away."

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