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What to say if you're the target of a microaggression

Comments like these can be damaging over time, creating a culture of subtle racism that can affect the mental health and experience of the recipient.

In conversations at work and with friends or family, many people are tackling tough conversations about justice, race and diversity. In those conversations, you may have heard the term "microaggression," but what does it mean?  

A microaggression is a subtle interaction, whether intentional or not, that creates negative attitudes toward marginalized groups. 

For example, someone may tell an Asian American coworker that their English is perfect, but it’s the coworker's first language. Someone else may ask a person of color, “Where are you from?” and when the answer is one of the 50 states, they’ll continue with, “Where are you really from?”

Statements like those imply that people of color can’t be American, that they will always be outsiders. 

RELATED: Asian and American: The long, ugly history of racism against AAPI community

Someone else may say to a Black coworker, “Wow, your hair is wild today! Are you going to wear it like that?” implying that natural Black hair is unprofessional or unruly. 

Comments like these can be damaging over time, creating a culture of subtle racism that can affect the mental health and experience of the recipient. 

One of the ways we can see microaggressions clearly is through the lens of food. Many Asian Americans have been told their traditional dishes look or smell weird. 

You may have heard some people claim they get headaches after eating Chinese food because of MSG, when in reality it’s naturally occurring in foods like parmesan cheese or tomatoes, which are consumed without complaint. 

 

Microaggressions propel systemic racism and diminish efforts of inclusion. So, what are you supposed to do when you are faced with microaggressions in your daily life? 

Dr. Ella Washington, an organizational psychologist and professor at Georgetown University suggests checking in with yourself first.

“Is this something you want to take on? It’s often an uncomfortable conversation so you have to decide if it’s worth it for you to take on,” she said.  

If you do decide to address the microaggressions you’re faced with, she says you need to approach the conversation tactfully.

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“We should be empathetic and give grace when possible if they’ve committed microaggressions. Invite them into discourse. Call it out by saying, ‘Hey, that wasn’t cool’ and then offering the opportunity to educate and discuss.” 

Many people may feel defensive, so be prepared to explain your feelings and why what they’ve said or done makes you feel uncomfortable.  

Dr. Washington says the most important step to overcome microaggressions is to recognize them and address them if you’re comfortable to create a more inclusive, aware community.