This is ašli from ƛoʔos Nation. This week, I wanted to talk about “microaggressions” – what they are, why they occur, and how to respond to them. Microaggressions refer to the small, subtle, and often unconscious remarks or actions that communicate prejudice, negativity, or insensitivity towards members of a marginalized group.
To understand why microaggressions occur, it is important to consider our lenses. Everyone in this world has different “lenses” or “filters” through which we see the world; our identities, history, and unique aspects of intersecting privilege and oppression are constantly impacting the way we exist – our attitudes, behaviours, and use of language. This is important to be aware of because our filters contribute to biases, assumptions, and stereotypes; which, if left unchecked, can lead to harms (intentional, or often, unintentional). These harms can manifest in the form of microaggressions.
Some examples microaggressions include:
1. [To a person of colour]: “Wow, you speak English so well!”
a. Message: Assumes someone is not “from here”. Can make someone feel like an outsider in their own country.
2. [To an Indigenous person]: “You don’t look Indigenous.”
a. Message: Assumes all Indigenous people are to look and be a certain way; contributes to the myth of blood-quantum. Denies a person’s identity and can suggest a person’s Indigenous identity is not authentic or legitimate based on their appearance.
3. [To someone who is LGBTQ2IA+]: “What’s your [boy/girl]friend’s name?” “What is your husband/wife’s name?”
a. Message: Assumes and perpetuates heteronormativity.
4. Assuming that a female doctor is a nurse.
a. Message: Assumes doctors are typically male. Suggests women are not expected to be successful in certain fields or professions.
As is evident above, sometimes microaggressions can be hard to catch and interpret – they’re also easy to commit if we’re not conscious of our lenses. What’s important to note is that although microaggressions might seem harmless, they can be very harmful, impacting a person’s mental and emotional well-being, especially if the messages are persistent over time. And on a larger scale, microaggressions can contribute to systemic inequality and oppression by reinforcing and perpetuating systems of power and oppression.
So, when and how do we respond to microaggressions? When responding to microaggressions we have to determine 1) whether to respond immediately, or respond later, and 2) whether we want to “call out” or “call in” a person.
Calling a person out involves addressing a microaggression as it occurs. It can involve confronting the person who made the microaggression in the moment. The goal of calling out is to challenge the microaggression and hold the person accountable for their actions/words.
Calling a person in, on the other hand, refers to inviting the person who made the microaggression into a conversation around the topic at hand. The goal of calling in is to educate the person who made the microaggression and to provide an opportunity for them to learn and grow, reducing the risk of defensiveness. Accept the person’s intentions as they meant to be, but reframe the conversation around impact.
Some Quick Tips:
- Ask clarifying questions - Ask what is meant by the comment
o “That was an interesting comment. What do you mean by that?”
- Use “I” statements – Speak from your position and what you noticed
o “I am uncomfortable with you using those terms.”
- Focus on impact – Focus on the impact of the comment by explaining how you initially interpreted the comment and why.
o “When you say ___, I hear ___.”
- Provide own thoughts/feelings
If you find yourself being called out or in, it is important to first listen empathetically to what the person is trying to communicate to you (avoid getting defensive or playing devil’s advocate) and accept the feedback, ask more questions (if you’re unclear about what you did wrong), recognize the impact of your statement, apologize, and change behavior moving forward. Self-reflection and humility will go a long way.
Indigenous-specific microaggressions can be subtle, hard to identify, and may not be intentional. However, by becoming more aware of our lenses, what microaggressions look and sound like, and taking steps to address them, we can dismantle the systems of oppression and create spaces that are more inclusive and respectful for all Indigenous peoples.
1. Indigenous Experiences with Racism and its impacts: https://www.nccih.ca/docs/determinants/FS-Racism2-Racism-Impacts-EN.pdf
2. BCIT’s RDI Booklet (Specifically pages 11 and 12 for examples of microaggressions): http://gsi.berkeley.edu/media/tool-recognizing-microaggressions.pdf
3. The Micropedia Vol 7 (Examples of Indigenous-Specific Microaggressions): https://www.themicropedia.org/
4. Microaggressions: More than Just Race: https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/microaggressions-in-everyday-life/201011/microaggressions-more-just-race
5. When and How to Respond to Microaggressions: https://hbr.org/2020/07/when-and-how-to-respond-to-microaggressions
6. Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions at Work: https://hbr.org/2022/05/recognizing-and-responding-to-microaggressions-at-work