Unraveling Microaggressions

Microaggression may not be a term that most are familiar with.

Without knowing it, you may have been the recipient of a microaggression, or may have committed a microaggression.

That’s precisely why it’s important to understand what microaggressions are, so we can address and challenge our own biases, be aware that disparities exist, and assess the significant impact it has on our society.

On the Pulse sat down for a Q&A with Dr. Roberto Montenegro, a psychiatrist from Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine clinic, who studies microaggressions.

Q: What is a microaggression?

A: A microaggression is a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a biased attitude toward a member of a marginalized group, such as a racial minority.

Microaggressions are very complex and often a challenge to identify, examine, and even confront.

Understanding microaggressions begins with understanding how power, access to resources and to decision makers, as well as the ability to influence others and to define reality for yourself and potentially for others, impacts an individual’s daily life.

Microaggressions is not about having your feelings hurt; it’s about the negative impact that being repeatedly insulted, invalidated, alienated, and dismissed has on reinforcing disparities in power, privilege, racism and hierarchy within institutions and societies.

As an example, a common form of a microaggression would be making assumptions based on someone’s appearance. For example, a microaggressor may ask someone with an accent or an uncommon last name “where are you really from,” assuming they are not from the United States.

Q: How should you respond to a microaggression?

Dr. Roberto Montenegro is a psychiatrist from Seattle Children’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine clinic who studies microaggressions.

A: One thing to emphasize is that one shouldn’t feel obligated to respond. It can be taxing to educate someone on their microaggression, and often, a person may be dismissed or feel invalidated.

However, there are several things you can do to address a microaggression, if you choose to do so. You may want to start by assessing the situation. Ask yourself, if it’s worth it? Is it the right time? Will this person be receptive or open to feedback? Or should I just simply walk away?

The ‘DEAR’ method is a way of evaluating and taking action against a microaggression with someone. This should be a short and succinct statement. At first, this may feel robotic or odd, but with practice, it’s a great way to stay organized, especially during potentially sensitive conversations where people can be defensive.

D stands for ‘describe the situation,’ meaning sticking to the facts and events that occurred.

E stands for ‘expressing the feeling of the experience of the event.’

A stands for ‘asking or asserting,’ specific to addressing the microaggression.

R stands for ‘reinforcement,’ to make sure the listener is open to feedback.

If we apply the ‘DEAR’ method to the previous example, imagining the microaggression occurred in a situation where teamwork is involved, whether that be in the workplace or at school, the person who may have been microaggressed would first need to describe the situation to the microaggressor. They would state the facts, such as, “If I heard you correctly, you are asking me where I’m really from.” Second, to express the feeling of the experience, the person might say, “That question makes me feel uncomfortable as if you don’t see me as part of the team.” Third, to ask or assert, a person might say, “I would like you to be a bit more mindful about the impact that your words can have on someone.” Lastly, to reinforce, a person might say, “I know you care about our working relationship and I appreciate you being open to this feedback.”

Q: How can parents/caregivers talk to their kids about microaggressions?

A: To discuss microaggressions effectively with your children, I encourage families to have an open and honest discussion about U.S. history and its background on race and racism. You should model these discussions using an open mind, without defensiveness and with intention to educate.

It’s important to understand how race has been perpetuated throughout history, and how privilege within certain groups inadvertently and unintentionally perpetuates this privilege at the expense of oppressing other groups.

With this perspective, being racist doesn’t equate to being a “bad” person; it equates to having power and privilege that needs to be redistributed.

If you are talking to children about this, help them understand the concepts of whiteness and white fragility, which in summary means the racial stress and defensiveness that can occur when a white person is confronted with race-based conversations. Breaking down the barriers of white fragility can be a critical way of opening up a conversation about the effects of microaggressions.

If your child commits a microaggression, teach them to accept it and own it. Help them to identify that what they did is based on bias, and without excuses or focusing on intent, let them reflect on the impact it had on that person. This will get easier the more they see their parents practice this as well.

On the flip side, if your child experiences a microaggression, let them know they don’t have to respond, and that it’s important to keep in mind that although it’s hurtful and most likely unintentionally, it is not a reflection of the child, but of a bigger problem in our society.

Children of color or part of the LGBTQ+ community often encounter microaggressions. For these children, it’s important to encourage resilience, perspective taking, self-care, and to have exposure to positive role models with experiences they can identify with.

It’s crucial to keep in mind that we all alternate between committing and experiencing microaggressions. What’s most important is educating ourselves and others how to treat each other equitably and with respect and dignity, which everyone in our society deserves.