Microaggressions: Catch 22

This post is the second in a four-part collaboration between authors Marjie and Bella.

Responding to a microaggression can be difficult, as those making microaggressive statements are likely to make the statement based on a stereotype they believe to be true and typically respond defensively to being called out. Those on the receiving end of microaggressions may question themselves, wondering whether or not it was intended as an insult. The targets of microaggressions may need to process the comment, recognizing that the impact of the comment was harmful, whether or not it was the perpetrator’s intent.

Recipients of microaggressions may also hear them repeatedly and from different coworkers, who may include managers or other senior employees. For these reasons, it can be difficult for those experiencing microaggressions to respond to each microaggression.

In this post, we’re going to discuss ways to respond to microaggressions and why they place an unfair burden on the person being targeted.

“I know that I would feel uncomfortable responding to microaggressions so directly…my silence usually stems from my being too stunned to generate a snappy comeback or not being entirely convinced that I was actually “microaggressed.”…This is apparently common among targets of microaggressions, and this confusion is a significant part of why they are so damaging. ‘The power of racial microaggressions lies in their invisibility to the perpetrator and oftentimes to the recipient,’ Sue, and colleagues, wrote in a 2007 article.” – Ruth Terry

Why responding to microaggressions can be difficult

The Harvard Business Review recently came out with an article on responding to microaggressions. They outline three ways that an employee can respond to a microaggression experienced in the workplace:

  1. Let it go
  2. Respond immediately
  3. Respond later

1. Let it Go

At first glance, letting a microaggression go may seem like the easiest way to resolve the issue. It results in no conflict and doesn’t ruffle any feathers. However, this response doesn’t address the underlying stereotypes that devalue the targeted employee. As we discussed in our previous post, these stereotypes can have a direct impact on employees’ opportunities at work. In addition, avoiding microaggressions can lead to worsened frustration.

“But research indicates that avoidance, when there is no threat of bodily harm, may not be the best course of action and that eschewing resignation brings rewards, including feelings of bravery, dignity, and self-efficacy. There’s also the bonus that I’m less likely to mull over the situation ad infinitum.” – Ruth Terry

2. Respond Immediately

Responding to an issue immediately is a common tactic recommended to managers for correcting bad behavior. However, when it comes to issues of discrimination, people have a tendency to get defensive. The perpetrator’s discomfort around having these difficult conversations may backfire onto the person who is already the target of microaggressions, and lead to them being labeled a “whiner” or “troublemaker” (which is a microinvalidation!).

3. Respond Later

This leaves our final tactic for responding to microaggressions: save the response for later when it can be discussed privately. The recipient of the microaggression may still face defensiveness and discomfort from the perpetrator when responding immediately. However, they may now face additional challenges as they may be labeled as “petty” or someone who “holds grudges”.

This isn’t to say that all people who respond to microaggressions experience this kind of response. However, consider the point of view of someone who is experiencing a microaggression; in resolving the conflict they are subject to additional microaggressions. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how one or two of these snowballing experiences could lead to an employee who doesn’t feel empowered to speak up for themselves.

Another thing to consider is that these responses recommended by the HBR assume an employee is comfortable and experienced enough to have difficult, crucial conversations around high-stakes issues like discrimination. Some employees lack the confidence, trust-based relationships, or experience to have these conversations – especially early in their careers or when new to an office. It’s unfair to assume that an employee is in a place where they are able to have this kind of conversation in the first place.

How have you tried to resolve microaggressions in your workplace? How did it go? Tune in to our next post to learn more about how to identify microaggressions in yourself.