You’ve Committed a Microaggression—Now What?
Learning how to respond with skill and grace can repair any rupture.
Posted May 23, 2020
Step-by-Step Guide for Relationship Repair
When someone you know says you’ve committed a microaggression, you may feel shock, hurt, or embarrassment—or all of the above! The charge may come from a friend, colleague, client, or significant other, but in any situation this will feel unpleasant. The other person may not use the term “microaggression” but instead may say that they felt stereotyped, disrespected, or misunderstood because of their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, or other marginalized identity.
The first step is to put the situation in perspective. Keep in mind that although you were called out due to a problematic statement or behavior, that does not mean the other person thinks you are a horrible human being. They are just explaining that you did something hurtful, and that is the right thing for them to do. But do not despair. This is an opportunity to learn something about yourself and even improve your relationship with the other person. Recognize and appreciate that a person with a marginalized identity trusts you enough to share this difficult information with you. Even if they seem angry, aloof, or distant, they are probably also feeling hurt. And yet they are still being vulnerable by letting you know that your actions affected them. You might say, “Thank you for trusting me enough to bring this to my attention.” A gentle initial response can go a long way toward diffusing a delicate situation.
Do not get defensive under any circumstances. Defensiveness is the biggest trap that people fall into when a microaggression is pointed out. Do not make excuses for what you did. Do not say you had good intentions or meant no harm—it’s not about intent but impact. Do not attempt to prove you are not a bad person by providing evidence of your goodness. Mentioning an allyship certificate, a presentation you did on multiculturalism, or your time volunteering with disadvantaged children, is not going help. You can accidentally do prejudiced things even while actively working against oppression most of the time. Talking about your ancestry or other stigmatized identities is not a good idea either; anyone can commit microaggressions. Do not attempt to teach the other person about their own cultural history as if that supposedly justifies your behavior, as that can be seen as patronizing and will definitely not go over very well.
Take it seriously and agree there is a problem to be addressed. Pointing out a microaggression was difficult for the other person and is generally not done lightly. Really listen to their concerns. Let the other person talk first before you respond; do not interrupt. Preemptively apologize, and show that you care about their feelings. The other person may be afraid of what you will say or do, so do your best to put them at ease. Show concern on your face. You could say, “I'm sorry that I said something hurtful and insensitive. I want you to feel safe and relaxed around me, so if I'm making other people feel uncomfortable that is a problem. I want to hear more so I can learn from it.” This shows that you are a caring person who is willing to grow and change.
If it is not completely clear to you why what you did was wrong, ask for more information and pay careful attention to what they have to say. Research shows that people with marginalized identities are generally better at identifying microaggressions than people with all the advantages, so go into the conversation assuming the other person is right, especially if you are White, male, straight, affluent, and/or cis-gender. As you listen to their response, communicate caring and openness with your body language (e.g., make sure your arms are not folded, and you are not grinding your teeth). It is OK to say, “I don't understand why that was wrong. Would you please explain it for me so I can better understand?” Show humility.
Validate the other person’s pain and frustration. Ask if they have experienced behavior like this from you before or from others in the past. Show sympathy for past microaggressions or other acts of prejudice, stereotyping, or intolerance they have faced. Make it clear that you care about their pain. Some of the person’s distress might be connected to these other experiences that were not your fault, but your microaggression is compounding it. Ultimately, you want to relieve the distress you triggered and reestablish trust. For example, you might say, “I am sorry that you have had to deal with that, and now here I am doing the same thing. You deserve better.”
Acknowledge your biases and blind-spots. Many people unthinkingly accept pathological stereotypes and do not realize that these are false beliefs, which can in turn lead to microaggressions. You probably have biases that you have not yet completely identified. Think about our culture’s history with respect to the structural challenges working against true fairness and equality. Remind yourself that in Western culture, where the federal government and municipalities have long been controlled by White men, everyone is influenced by racism, sexism, homophobia, and other biases to some degree or another. Explain that some unconscious and unwanted biases still exist in you (they will not find this admission surprising), and commit that you will do better. You can say, "Is there anything else I can do to make this right?"
The last step is to clarify misinterpreted statements or behaviors. It is critically important that you do not start here or you look defensive and make the other person feel invalidated. Further, you may want to bypass this step altogether if you really did, in that moment, mean what you said or did. Certainly, it may have been that you said something that seemed microaggressive, even if that is not how you meant it. If so, apologize for the misunderstanding and any distress you caused by failing to recognize that your words or actions appeared microaggressive and then clarify what you truly meant. For example, you might say, “I am sorry, Claire, I really did not know you were waiting for me for so long. I hate to keep anyone waiting, and I know that this could look like I don’t value you as a person. It makes sense that you would think that, given how poorly you've been treated by so many others when you didn’t deserve it. I feel horrible for making you feel unwelcome.” In this situation, you can even make your response more personal and impactful by letting the other person know how much you have been looking forward to seeing her and how much you appreciate her as a person.
Do not villainize the other person for pointing out your microaggression. This is unfortunately a very common maneuver people use to deflect attention away from their own error. This is wrong. You probably have some friends or family members who will quickly take your side against the “angry” or “neurotic” so-and-so who dared to criticize or question you. You can easily dismiss the other person as too sensitive, aggressive, or as having their own issues. Any or all of these may be true, and at the same time, you may still have been microaggressive. So don’t go there. This is a situation where you are better off looking for problems in yourself rather than the other person.
Once you have addressed the issue, do not over apologize or keep checking in on how the other person feels about you. This is not about them helping you to feel OK with yourself, it is about what is best for the person you hurt. All they probably need is an acknowledgment and short apology. Too much apologizing and checking in creates a situation where the other person must become your emotional caretaker and now soothe and heal the aggressor. It is not the other person’s job to help repair your wounded identity as a progressive and fair-minded individual. Excessive apologizing is aversive and will make the other person feel they can’t disclose future microaggressions to you because you are too fragile to handle it. Ultimately, you want them to let you know every time you microaggress so that you can initiate a repair and learn from the experience.
Although addressing your own microaggression can feel overwhelming and frightening, the same skills you have developed for navigating other relationship challenges can work with microaggressions as well. Be willing to experience the discomfort of having made a mistake. If addressed properly, it can actually strengthen your relationship with the other person. Since victims rarely experience apologies from those who microaggress, your efforts can be an appreciated and corrective experience.
Nadal, K. L. (2014). A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions. CUNY Forum 2(1), 71-76.
Williams, M. T. (2020). Managing Microaggressions: Addressing Everyday Racism in Therapeutic Spaces. Oxford University Press. ISBN: 9780190875237
Williams, M. T. (2020). Psychology cannot afford to ignore the many harms caused by microaggressions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 15(1), 38-43. doi: 10.1177/1745691619893362