What is Microaggression
Microaggressions are the everyday indignities and insults that members of marginalized groups endure in their routine interactions with people in all walks of life. In the workplace, these “subtle acts of exclusion” come in many forms.
Such remarks and behaviours may happen casually and often without any harm intended, but they offer a clear demonstration that the initiator harbors unconscious bias. Meanwhile, the person on the receiving end who belongs to a group that’s discriminated against — be it because of their race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, or religion — is often left to suffer in silence.
Amidst the current conversation on race and equality, we are increasingly holding people accountable. If you’ve been called out for committing a microaggression you need to respond with compassion, concern and humility. Here are some tips.
Take a breath.
Being called out for a microaggression does not feel good. You may experience a range of emotions — “stress, embarrassment, defensiveness, and your heart rate may even go up,”. This is normal. But do not let these sensations rule how you react. Instead, take a breath and calm yourself. Understand that while you may have made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, you can still be “a good person with positive intentions, who slipped up.”
And there’s an upside to being called out for a microaggression: It’s an indication of trust. The person who labelled your comment believes that you can be better. If they don’t think you’re capable of, or interested in, evolving they probably would not have wasted their breath.
Don’t make it about you.
While being called out for a microaggression may be awkward and uncomfortable, you don’t want to get defensive. You must not make it about you, instead you need to focus on the injured party. It can be helpful to remember that every callout may have an entire history’s worth of unsaid context behind it.
Your first priority is to ensure the other person feels heard. As difficult as it may be to receive the criticism, they are taking a risk by putting themselves on the line. Listen to what they say with an open heart and an open mind. Be grateful. Express appreciation, and then follow the other person’s lead. Sometimes the individual calling you out may want to explain to you all the ways that what you said was harmful and give you a history lesson to go along with it.
Next you need to replace your instinctive defensiveness with curiosity and empathy and offer a genuine apology. Your apology must include three elements: You must address the harmful comment, acknowledge the impact it had, and commit to doing better.
You may start by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s hard to hear. And I appreciate you trust me enough to share this feedback.” Then say, “I am sorry that what I said and did was offensive.”
Your apology must be sincere. “Don’t say, ‘I am sorry if you felt offended.’ The insertion of the ‘if’ makes it seem like you’re humouring them. Finally, say, “I care a lot about creating an inclusive workplace, and I want to improve.
And don’t overdo it.
Upon being called out for an offensive remark, some people have a tendency to over-apologize. They go on and on, saying things like: ‘I am so sorry. I feel so terrible. I am not a racist. What must you think of me?’ But these histrionics do not help, and in fact, they contribute to the insult. You are flexing your power by ‘asking’ this employee to take care of you. It’s not your colleague’s job to assuage your guilt, and make you feel better about the situation.
How to respond when you’re called out publicly
All of the above steps become much harder if the conversation is happening in front of others. Most callouts for microaggressions tend to be private interactions because of the sensitive subject matters. If your colleague draws attention to your behaviour in a public setting, it’s likely because they don’t feel psychologically safe with you or they’re at the end of their rope.
In situations like these, tread carefully. First, pause. Then say, ‘Thank you for sharing that feedback. I am not going to use that word in the future”. Keep your response short and non-defensive. Later, maybe message the person privately and go through the same steps of acknowledging the hurtful comment, recognizing the impact it had, and committing to doing better.
Seek to understand on your own time.
In the event that you don’t quite grasp how what you said or did was prejudiced and hurtful, do not force your colleague into a drawn-out conversation or try to persuade them of your benign intent. Instead, “Google it or ask other people” to help you understand.
Consider following up
After a bit of time has passed reach out to let your colleague to let them “know that you care” and that you’re “grateful that they were vulnerable with you.” Essentially you’re saying: “Your intervention worked. I could have gone through the world blind to that and I understand a bit more now. Thank you for helping me grow.”
Keep working on it
Finally, recognize that becoming a better, open-minded, anti-racist, anti-sexist person is hard work. You’re doing the best you can; you’re human and fallible; and you’re going to mess up from time to time.
The important thing is to commit to opening your eyes and be willing to course correct at every opportunity.Let your team know that this is a priority for you. Say, “In the future I am going to work on this, and if you can, please keep holding me accountable.”
Principles to Remember
- Make the other person feel heard and follow their lead in the conversation.
- Offer a genuine apology that acknowledges the impact and harm your comment caused.
- Keep striving to be better. It requires grace, humility and commitment.
- Fall prey to the fundamental attribution error. You can still be a good, well-intentioned person who said something offensive.
- Make the conversation about you. Instead, express gratitude for your colleague’s trust and belief that you’re capable of evolving.
- Overdo your apology by laying on your privileged guilt. Your apology should be sincere.