How Microaggressions Keep Hurting—and How to Interrupt

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At the end of September, colleagues and I attended the YWCA Madison Racial Justice Summit—an annual event designed to provide expertise and facilitate discussions about racial justice and equity. As staff members of the Trust, we hoped to gain insight and participate in these important conversations.

Keynote speakers included Rinku Sen of Race Forward and Verna Myers, the best-selling author known for her inspiring TED Talk, “How to overcome our biases? Walk boldly toward them.”

The summit presentations and activities were informational, educational and inspiring. One breakout session was especially insightful and compelling—an exploration of microaggressions.


Separating Impact from Intent

Naomi Takahashi from the YWCA led the session about microaggressions: commonplace, regular slights and indignities that communicate stereotypical insults against people of color and other marginalized communities. The workshop talked about the lasting impact on people and structures from comments like:

  • Deciding for others how “bad” their disability is, or telling them “But you look so normal.”
  • Using phrases such as “I’m really OCD about my desk” that minimize disabilities people struggle with every day.
  • Telling a black person that they “talk white” or that they are “very articulate.”
  • “You don’t speak Spanish?”
  • “What kind of Asian are you?”
  • “I don’t really see you as a black girl. You’re not like most black people.”

Microaggressions like these can slowly and relentlessly chip away at an individual’s feeling of efficacy and inclusion.

Because the slight or stereotyped comment is not necessarily intended to harm, the offending speaker might even intend the comment to be a compliment. People are quick to say “I didn’t mean it that way,” or “I know she would never say something like that to hurt you.”

Unfortunately, impact is much more important than intent, and that impact can have a lasting effect on an individual who regularly experiences these painful interactions.


Casual Comments, Lasting Effects

As a black woman who grew up in Madison, a city that is not racially diverse, and who attended a majority white school, microaggressions were, and are still, a daily occurrence for me. I grew up with classmates casually voicing their assumptions that it would be easy for me to get into college because of my racial identity, or that I received awards because I’m black. The list goes on.

The impact on me has been powerful. To this day, despite my hard work in school and as a professional, I still have a difficulty believing that my accomplishments are completely by my own merit, or that I am capable of achieving my goals.

I grew up with classmates casually voicing their assumptions that it would be easy for me to get into college because of my racial identity, or that I received awards because I’m black. The list goes on.

The impact on children, and on others who have had fewer resources and options in their lives than I have, is incalculable.

I realized during the breakout session that I too have made remarks that I was not aware may be deeply offensive. I will take this insight forward with me in my life and in my work here at the Trust.


Causes and Symptoms

To some microaggressions might appear to be much ado about nothing, because these types of comments can come from genuinely well-meaning, good-hearted people. In fact, it seems that microaggressions may unveil implicit biases in people, and can be both symptoms and causes of larger structural problems.

Systems, institutions and individuals must check internal and implicit biases and stand up to microaggressions, not just for the long-term emotional impact they can have on people, but also because of the effect they have on structures ranging from health care to hiring.


How Can I Respond?

Here are some tips Naomi Takahashi gave for how you can respond to, and help disrupt, the microaggressions you hear:

  • Repeat back what was said.
  • Ask for more information.
  • Play dumb: say “I don’t get what you mean?”
  • Separate intent from impact.
  • Promote empathy.

I would also recommend this very accessible video you can share with family and friends who might be learning about microaggressions for the first time:

Through steps like these, you can begin a conversation that defines and shares your experience.