Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
“You don’t sound black.”
“Are you the maid?”
“Excuse me, this is the first-class area.”
“Is this a green card marriage?”
“You’re so exotic.”
“You have such a chip on your shoulder.”
“Are you the nanny?”
“That fiery Latin blood.”
“Did you grow up in a teepee?”
“Are you visiting this neighborhood?”
“Your accent is adorable.”
Microaggressions aren’t always delivered in words. It’s the woman who grabs her purse as you walk by. The store clerk following you around to see if you need “help.” The person speaking loudly and slowly to you because you probably don’t understand English. The person locking their car doors as you walk past their vehicle. The
high-end sales clerks who assume that you didn’t come to shop. The fellow customers who assume you are an employee. The people who decide to “take the next elevator instead.” The professor who asks to check your sources, and only
sources, “just to be sure.” The kids whose parents say that they can’t come play with your kid. The not-so-random random security checks at airports. The crowded
bus where nobody will sit next to you. The cab that won’t stop for you.
For nonwhites, racial microaggressions find a way into every part of every day.
Microaggressions are constant reminders that you don’t belong, that you are less than, that you are not worthy of the same respect that white people are afforded. They keep you off balance, keep you distracted, and keep you defensive. They keep
you from enjoying an outing on the town or a day at the office.
Microaggressions are a serious problem beyond the emotional and physical effects they have on the person they are perpetrated against. They have much broader social implications. They normalize racism. They make racist assumptions a part of everyday life. The assumption that a black father isn’t in the picture reinforces an image
of irresponsible black men that keeps them from being hired for jobs. The assumption that a Latinx woman doesn’t speak good English keeps her from a promotion. The assumption that a child of color’s parents wouldn’t have a college degree encourages guidance counselors to set lower goals for that child. The assumption that black people are “angry” prevents black people from being taken seriously when
airing legitimate grievances. These microaggressions help hold the system of White Supremacy together, because if we didn’t have all these little ways to separate and dehumanize people, we’d empathize with them more fully, and then we’d have to really care about the system that is crushing them.
HEN SOMEBODY HAS PERPETRATED A MICROAGGRESSION
against you, it can be hard to address. There is no
guaranteed method for success that will make somebody realize what they are doing and stop, but here are a few strategies that work at least part of the time.
State what actually happened.
Some things just need to be called what they are, and microaggressions are definitely among those things. “You just assumed that I don’t speak English.” Say it directly. What is happening to
you is real and you have every right to name it.
Ask some uncomfortable questions.
Because a lot of microaggressions are perpetrated with subconscious motivation, questioning the action can force someone to really examine their motives. Two of my favorites are “Why did you say that?” and “I don’t get it. Please clarify.”
Ask some more uncomfortable questions.
the person you are talking to becomes flustered or insists they meant nothing by it, ask, “Is this something you would have said to a white person?” or “How exactly was I supposed to take what you just said?”
Reinforce that good intentions are not the point.
“You may not have meant to offend me, but you did. And this happens to people of color all the time. If you do not mean to
offend, you will stop doing this.”
Remember, you are not crazy and you have every right to bring this up.
“I can see this is making you uncomfortable, but this is a real problem that needs to be addressed.”
If you witness racial microaggressions against someone else, you should strongly consider speaking out as well—especially if you are a white person. The strategies above will
also work when confronting microaggressions against other people, with a few minor tweaks to ensure that you aren’t making this about—well, you. Also, please take the lead of the person of color who is being directly harmed by the microaggression. If it seems like they do not want the issue addressed, do not decide to come to their rescue anyway—people of color have very good reasons for why they
choose to speak out and why they choose not to, and you don’t want to remove that agency from them. It is also important to make sure that when confronting microaggressions against others, you are not doing so in a way that will place the person of color you are defending at greater risk or will increase the burden on them. Don’t make enemies for them—help when you are reasonably confident that
you can do some good. And if that person of color is already speaking out and looks like they could use some support, offer it! It’s a horrible feeling to speak out against microaggressions in a room full of white people and be met with nothing but hostility or silence.
As a person of color, you don’t have to call out every microaggression against you, but you have the right to call out each
and every one that you choose to. Do not let people convince you that you are being oversensitive, that you are being disruptive or divisive. What is harmful and divisive are these acts of aggression against people of color that are allowed to happen constantly, without consequence. What is harmful and divisive is the expectation that people of color would just accept abuse. While sometimes these
conversations about microaggressions can be very healthy and lead to a pleasant resolution, where a well-meaning person genuinely listens and acknowledges the pain they’ve caused, often, the person you are talking with will refuse to see what you are saying and will become defensive. And that’s okay. Even that is progress.
Because these harmful actions should not be comfortable. And if you get
called out enough times, you’ll stop, if only to be able to go about your day without argument. And eventually, for many people, it does sink in—maybe not the first time, or the fifth time, but eventually. It is not your job as a person of color to educate people on their racist actions, please remember that, but it is always your right to stand up for yourself when you choose to.
If you have
been called out for a racist microaggression, and you want to understand and you do not want to hurt people of color, here are some tips:
It is very easy to be overwhelmed with emotions when you are called out. Before you respond at all, pause and catch your breath and remember that your goal is to understand and to have a better relationship with the person you are talking
Ask yourself: “Do I really know why I said/did that?”
Think for a moment—why did you choose to make that comment? Why did you clutch at your purse? If you can’t think of a good reason, this is a good sign that you should examine this more in yourself.
Ask yourself: “Would I have said this to somebody of my race? Is it something I say to people of my race?”
it’s a comment that is specific to that race (say, assuming
that a Chinese American doesn’t like “American” food), ask yourself if you think of and voice similar stereotypes in your everyday interactions with other white people. When a white person orders Chinese, do you say, “But I thought you only ate hot dogs!”?
Ask yourself if you were feeling threatened or uncomfortable in
the situation, and then ask yourself why.
Often, microaggressions are a defense mechanism when people are feeling racial tension. You’re hanging out with your buddies and then a black friend comes and joins a previously all-white table. That discomfort might cause you to act inappropriately, acknowledging that the mood has been changed because someone “different” who doesn’t quite belong has joined.
But instead of investigating your own biases and prejudice that make you uncomfortable, you take it out on the person who joined by making the difference their problem with a racially insensitive joke or reference. Sometimes, you feel challenged by a person of color and your defense is to “knock them down a peg or two” and you do that by referencing their race in a negative or isolating manner—you
don’t know that’s why when you do it, but if you look back at your emotions and see that feeling of threat, you will see that you made a choice to respond in a racially oppressive way and you need to examine why.
Don’t force people to acknowledge your good intentions.
What matters is that somebody was hurt. That should be the primary focus. The fact that you hurt someone doesn’t
mean that you are a horrible person, but the fact that you meant well doesn’t absolve you of guilt. Do
not make this about your ego. If you truly meant well, then you will continue to mean well and make understanding what just happened your priority.
Remember: it’s not just this one incident.
This incident is the continuation of a long history of microaggressions for people of
color. Racial trauma is cumulative, and you cannot expect a person of color to react to each situation the way that you would having encountered it for the first time. It may not seem fair that you would take some of the blame for what has happened in the past, but what is truly unfair is the fact that people of color have to endure this every day. The privilege you enjoy in not having to constantly
suffer these indignities requires that you at least take responsibility for how your actions may be adding to them and the pain that causes.
Research further on your own time.
Take whatever knowledge the person confronting you is willing to give gratefully, but do not then demand that they give you a free 101 session on microaggressions. Trust me, whatever it is you’ve done, it’s
been done before, and a quick Google search will help you understand further.
You’ve done something that hurt another human being. Even if you don’t fully understand why or how, you should apologize. It is the decent thing to do when you respect people. You don’t have to totally “get it” to know that you don’t want to continue doing something that hurts people.