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How to Confront a Microaggression

And the conditions you need to do it right

A true flock of multicolored balloons floating into a blue sky.
Photo by Al Soot on Unsplash

Hi. I’m a woman of color, and I field microaggressions every day. Webster’s defines it 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),” but I think this definition can be broadened. Anyone can experience a microaggression; they can be leveraged on anyone who doesn’t occupy the dominant demographic in every aspect of their life all the time.

Not any one person is a monolith; we all contain various facets of demographics. A middle-aged white man might be gay; or he might be Jewish; or he might be disabled. A young white-presenting woman might be Muslim or short or chronically ill. (This, by the way, is an example of intersectionality.)

How not to confront a microaggresssion

A lifetime of microaggressions, though, doesn’t always prepare a person to confront them. I’m 47, and it wasn’t until recently that I was able to deal with a microaggression in a way I felt was in line with who I am and how I want to leave a situation.

Morose Irish Setter lying on a striped blanket. We only see its head in profile; its gaze is somewhere to the right of the picture.
Photo by Ryan Stone on Unsplash

I’ve tried joking along with microaggressions, which led other people around me to believe I was okay with them, like the time a friend of mine called me, variously, his “Korean wife,” his “Vietnamese wife,” his “Cambodian wife” (the “wife” part was meant to imply our closeness; the ethnic bit was the offensive part, as if we’re all interchangeable).

I’ve tried sitting on it and then writing a long explanation letter, which just led the person to write back that he understood, “no reply needed,” and then allowed him to sit on it and lash out with a long e-mail saying he wasn’t racist and explaining all the ways in which he wasn’t.

I’ve tried just calling it out right then and there, which has led to commentary like, “Lighten up, it’s just a joke.” The last time I used this tactic, I did it in front of a group of people, feeling like I needed some evidence, some witnesses, and I know that just made everyone feel uncomfortable; the witnesses, the person I was calling out, and me. Not satisfying for anyone.

What I learned

Here’s what I learned from these experiences:

  1. A microaggression is no laughing matter, so I shouldn’t treat it as a joke. If it hurts me, the people in my circle should know that it’s hurtful, and I should treat it with as much gravitas as I would any difficult situation.
  2. One-sided communications are useful to no one. Letters are good between friends, but they don’t allow for the back-and-forth that needs to happen with a difficult conversation. Each person in any engagement should be allowed room and space to ask questions and ask for clarification.
  3. Sometimes, calling a thing out can make everyone involved think a little. It might defuse a situation or it might make someone defensive. The odds are 50–50, at best.

From all of this I built what I thought would be a better way of confronting a microaggression. So far, it’s worked for me, and I’ll share it with you below. First, I want to address some pre-conditions.

Optimal conditions exist

If you’re going to confront a microaggression — or really, have any difficult conversation — it’s good to have the right setting.

First, you need some level of psychological safety. This is an environment in which you are free to voice your opinion or ask questions without feeling like your social standing or professional standing is at risk. In the case of the most recent microaggression, I had this: I have good standing and longevity with the organization both the micro-aggressor and I work for, so I checked that box.

Second, you want to know you have some allyship around you. I did not do this alone. I checked with some friends, both professional and social, about the situation. (Yes, I was gaslighting myself — “am I nuts for caring about this?” — but that’s not a discussion for this post.) I needed to feel secure that I was reading the situation correctly. Box checked.

Three friends spotting a fourth, who is bouldering up the side of a rock.
Photo by Mark McGregor on Unsplash

Third, I wanted to give myself enough time to process my thoughts before I did anything. I booked a meeting with my micro-aggressor and I booked meetings with folks to follow up with after my meeting.

Fourth, I wanted to make sure I understood the right way to do things in terms of the nature and hierarchy of the organization we both work for. I checked with some colleagues who had more longevity than I did and they offered a few suggestions that I took.

The game plan

Here’s how it all went down.

First, I used the time between the aggression and my meeting to consult with my trusted colleagues and friends.

Second, I practiced what I was going to say with my husband, who is a good sounding board for such things. I ran over things like verbiage and tonality, too.

Third, I wrote these down so I wouldn’t forget in the heat of the moment. I referred to this sheet throughout our meeting.

I opened our meeting by thanking my colleague for making time for me. Then I asked a few questions that were easy for both of us. They involved things that would allow us both to give answers that we both knew like the backs of our hands: What their holiday plans were; how I was finding some recent company changes; what my role was at the organization. This helped to set us both at ease and balanced the scales of power: we were each talking about things we were expert in.

miniature set of scales on some colorful wood planks. Each dish on the scale is empty.
Photo by Elena Mozhvilo on Unsplash

I then asked him what he had hoped my reaction would be to his microaggression. This put the ball squarely in his court. I gave him lots of time and said very little in response to whatever he said. This I have had to practice over the years.

No matter what he said, my follow-up was and would have been, “Thank you. Let me tell you how I perceived your commentary.” Then I explained myself, and added on that I felt open communications were important to our working relationship both present and future.

I did not use terms like “microaggression,” “mis-centering,” “psychological safety,” or anything else that could be seen as a buzzword. I also did not want to derail the conversation by getting into definitions.

The upshot

I don’t know if this worked for him. I know that we ended our conversation back on the safe ground of our working relationship and some future steps to take in terms of some unrelated matters.

For me right now, what’s important is that this method was in line with who I am, and it feels like I’ve closed this chapter. I also feel confident that if this person has any other problems along these lines, he will feel he has an ally to check himself against.

Every person is different, and we all have different ways of handling difficult situations. This is what has worked for me. Maybe you can take something from it that will work for you, too.

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A publication from Medium on personal development.

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Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun Lai

Diversity&Inclusion educator. Author, Pin Ups (9/20). Columnist, The Writer mag. theGooddirt.org; @gooddirt. Psst: Say “yeeshun.” You can do it!

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