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Microaggressions: How to spot them, handle them, and protect your peace

School should be a safe place for you to learn, grow, and prepare for the “real world”. But it’s sometimes the first place where you experience situations that reveal people’s biases.

Maybe your teacher misgendered you or made comments about a classmate’s slow internet. Maybe someone used an outdated or offensive word in a group discussion. These situations can be really uncomfortable, but you don’t have to shake them off or ignore them.

If you feel like your teacher or a classmate has made you feel less than or disrespected you somehow, you have the right to speak up and address it. And, in fact, this is a really good muscle to strengthen. Because these situations don’t just happen in school. They happen at work, too.

Still, we know these situations can be awkward to navigate. So, in this post, we’ll walk through examples of moments where you might need to advocate for yourself or others, and give you tools to help you handle these interactions.

How to identify microaggressions

The examples above are actually called “microaggressions”. Microaggressions are everyday comments, questions, actions that are harmful because they perpetuate negative stereotypes, usually about marginalized groups.

Microaggressions happen all the time. And while they often aren’t intended to be hurtful, they can make people feel unsafe and uncomfortable. With microaggressions, it’s the impact that matters. Even if the microaggressor didn’t mean to offend or hurt anybody’s feelings, you still have every right to address them.

Microaggressions might seem small or insignificant in the moment, but they add up and can make people feel like they don’t belong. It’s kind of like having someone poke you hard and in the same spot on your arm over and over. One poke might not hurt too much. But over time, that spot gets bruised, and each poke hurts a little more than the last.

Why is it important to advocate for yourself?

It’s not always easy to do, but responding to a microaggression and advocating for yourself (or someone else) can do a lot of good for everyone.

Speaking up can help the microaggressor understand the impact of their actions and why they were hurtful. It also gives them a chance to apologize and make amends. Your actions could even spark a larger discussion around inclusivity or inspire your classmates to advocate for themselves if they’re in similar situations.

Advocating for yourself and others is also a skill that you can take with you when you enter the workplace. For example, if you’re ever in a situation where you notice your boss or co-workers making offensive or disrespectful comments, you’ll have the experience and know-how to handle it with confidence.

How to handle microaggressions

Of course, saying it’s important to advocate for yourself is one thing. But how do you actually handle a microaggression in the moment?

Let’s say you’ve just witnessed someone say something (or do something) offensive. First things first, you need to think about your safety. People can get defensive or even combative when confronted, so before you address the person, take a few minutes to think over what you can do to protect yourself.

Can you record your conversation with the microaggressor or take screenshots of the chat window where the comments appeared? Evidence can be valuable if you need to report the incident to a higher-up. Also, make sure you can safely leave the situation if it gets too tense.

Lastly, do you have someone around—a family member, a friend, or a mentor—who can comfort you or give you some space to debrief after you finish your conversation? Advocating for yourself can be stressful and draining, but talking to people you trust can help you cope.

Keep in mind, you don’t have to respond to every microaggression you experience (more on that later). But if you’ve decided that you do feel safe enough to confront the microaggressor, take a breath and call the person aside or open a direct message chat with them. Once you have their attention, restate what the person did or said. You can use a simple statement like, “I think I heard/saw you (paraphrase comment/behavior). Is that correct?”

From there, you can use the following tactics:

Ask for more clarification: “Could you say more about what you mean by that?” “How have you come to think that?”

Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t realize this, but when you (comment/behavior), it was hurtful/offensive because (explain impact). Instead, you could (outline different language or behavior.)”

Share your process: “I noticed that you (describe comment/behavior). I used to do/say that too, but then I learned (describe the new process).”

Throughout the conversation, try to focus on the microaggression itself, not the microaggressor. This will help make sure that the aggressor doesn’t feel like they’re under attack, so they’re more open to dialogue.

How to prepare for different reactions to your actions

Microaggressions are a touchy subject. Because they’re often the result of unconscious bias and privilege, people may struggle to understand how or why what they’re doing is hurtful. Unfortunately, they won’t always respond the way you want them to, so it’s good to be prepared.

Here are a few of the most common reactions you might get when you confront a microaggressor:

Hostility. If the microaggressor gets angry or aggressive, make sure you have an exit plan to leave the conversation or space safely.

Defensive. Not everyone will see the situation from your point of view. Remember to stick to your points, focus on the action and its impact, and do your best to remain calm as you explain your side. If you feel yourself getting emotional or overwhelmed, it’s perfectly ok to pause the conversation and come back to it later.

Dismissive. The person may try to laugh it off and try to make it seem like their actions weren’t that ‘big of a deal.’ In this scenario, remind them of the impact of their comments or behavior, and, depending on your comfort level, you can try to push them to have a deeper conversation.

Apologetic. When we’re confronted with our own privilege, we sometimes react by centering our own shame and guilt. Know that you don’t have to accept an apology, especially if it seems insincere; it’s not your job to make anyone feel better. You could share further resources with the microaggressor (but again, don’t feel obligated to do so).

Depending on what reaction you get, you can choose to either:

  • Take up the issue with them again later,
  • Escalate the issue and notify a higher up (like a department head or your principal), or
  • Accept the outcome, even if it’s not the one you hoped for, and make a decision about how you’d like to handle this class, classmate, or teacher in the future. For example, you could switch classes or avoid interacting with this person if they continue to make you feel uncomfortable.

“What if I don’t want to respond to a microaggression?”

It can take a lot of courage to call out or call in someone who’s being disrespectful towards you, so know that it’s okay to pick your battles.

If you don’t feel comfortable advocating for yourself in the moment, you can jot down some notes on what was said or done, along with the date, time, and other crucial details. That way, you’ll have some evidence that you can refer back to if you decide you want to talk to the person later.

Also, know that you don’t have to speak on behalf of your entire race, gender, ability, or orientation. For example, if someone asks you to teach them why their comments or actions were disrespectful, you don’t have to engage with them. You can send them links to educational articles or simply choose not to respond.

Final thoughts

In an ideal world, we’d all be able to study and work in places where we feel immediately seen, heard, and understood. While you (hopefully) won’t have to deal with microaggressions everywhere you go, knowing how to deal with them can help you protect yourself.

You have to teach people how to treat you, and that starts with setting boundaries and advocating for yourself when people overstep them. While the first couple of times you speak up for yourself may be nerve-wracking, the more you do it, the easier it will get.

By Jasmine Williams

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