Responding to Microaggressions: Safety First
What should people of color do when others seem afraid?
Posted September 1, 2019
In the 1960s, Black psychiatrist Dr. Chester Pierce first coined the term “micro-aggression” as a way to describe “the small, continuous bombardments” of automatic offenses levied by White people upon Black people in America. He called it “the essential ingredient in race relations and race interactions,” although in the intervening decades, additional types of microaggressions have been described, such as LGBTQ, gender, religious microaggressions, and others.
The hallmark features of microaggressions are that they reinforce pathological stereotypes or promote exclusion, and they are frustratingly easy to explain away as accidental, well-intentioned, and ostensibly not due to race (Williams, 2019). When microaggressions occur, victims, observers, and allies alike are often unsure how to respond, as denial and hostility are common reactions to being called out.
A Black man steps onto an elevator, and a White woman clutches her purse in fear.
Dr. Derald Wing Sue and colleagues (2019) recently published an article on “micro-interventions” as a tool to combat microaggressions. The key to an effective response is undermining the hidden racist message or openly challenging a stereotype to address microaggressions occurring in the moment. Many of us who do microaggressions research were excited to receive some "official" guidance on how to navigate this treacherous terrain, but I felt a chill as I read one example that greatly tempered my enthusiasm. A Black man steps onto an elevator, then a White woman who is already inside clutches her purse in fear. This was a scenario that is all too common an experience for African American men (although, of course, this can happen to other people as well, though perhaps not as frequently). To make the implicit racism visible, the authors suggest that the Black man respond by saying, “Relax, I’m not dangerous” or “Do you realize what you just did when I walked in?” (Sue et al., 2019, p. 136)
While I agree that this is an excellent way to shed light on the racial stereotypes underneath this microaggression, I wondered if this was a safe approach. Consider that this woman is already fearful about being in a tight space with someone she perceives to be dangerous. For the Black man to confront her in this manner may escalate her fear to the point that she ends up calling for help, which could ultimately place the Black man in physical danger from law enforcement or others.
Few people today recall the largest act of domestic terrorism that occurred in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, when the entire Black community of Greenwood was burned to the ground because a White woman became fearful in an elevator that she shared with a Black man (Oklahoma Commission, 2001). When she told other White people about her anxieties all of Greenwood suffered. Black people were lynched by a frenzied mob of White men and the community was firebombed by a fleet of planes operated by the US National Guard. Because historically White men did not want to compete with Black men for "their women," law enforcement was part of the system designed to enforce these divisions. Forerunners of American police departments were groups of slave catchers or night watchmen hired by wealthy landowners to protect their property, recover runaway slaves, and punish those who disobeyed the rules (Turner, Giacopassi, & Vandiver, 2006). Even after emancipation, any inference that a Black man had a romantic interest in a White woman could result in a legal response or even mob violence and lynching of the suspected offender. I am reminded of Emmett Till, a Black teen violently killed by White men for allegedly whistling at a White woman, and whose memorial continues to be desecrated to this day.
Even today, White women yield an astonishing amount of power when it comes to controlling and punishing Black people. Watching the news, one finds multiple instances where police were called by White women in response to Black people who were doing nothing dangerous or illegal at all. Examples include playing ball in a parking lot, gardening, babysitting, standing under a sidewalk awning in the rain waiting for an Uber, or sitting at a Starbucks.
I polled a few professional Black men.
In considering the suggestions offered by Sue and colleagues, I decided to conduct a short informal poll of a few professional Black men I know to ask them if they thought the suggestions posed for disarming the purse clutching microaggression was a good idea. I described the situation and intervention to seven African American men, then asked, “Good idea: Yes or No?” Six of the seven gave a resounding “No,” and the seventh was equivocal. While admittedly this is not a rigorous scientific investigation, I find their responses informative enough to give us pause. One of the respondents, a psychologist, noted that although the intention is to provide a “corrective experience” in the moment, it could have a paradoxical effect, reinforcing preconceived racist attitudes about Black people being hostile and aggressive (Madon et al., 2001). Another said, “That would place me in a more uncomfortable position when, really, I just want to get out of the elevator ASAP!” Another was upset altogether by the very suggestion, “No. It’s not going to put her at ease, and it’s confrontational which will lead me to jail or put me in danger.” The final respondent, who did not give a definitive answer, offered that the intervention “puts the targeted individual at risk, if the one microaggressing against them is in a position to considerably gaslight or otherwise do harm to them.” The theme of risk and danger is evident in these responses. In fact, this fear was highlighted in a humorous manner in the ABC sitcom Blackish, when one-by-one Black male characters on the show repeatedly avoided entering an elevator that, upon opening, revealed a lone 4-year old White girl.
The dialogue from the episode, called “Who’s Afraid of the Big Black Man,” is the following:
Charlie (Black man): Sorry I'm late. There was a little snowflake on the elevator, so I had to take the stairs.
Dre (Black man): Me too.
Charlie (Black man): Careful, Dre. Someone's out there setting traps.
Stevens (White man): I don't understand. Why are you two so afraid of a baby?
Dre (Black man): We don't have the luxury of being helpful because we're instantly seen as threats.
Although Sue and colleagues advise us to consider the consequences of microaggression interventions, they may underestimate the extent of the harm that can come to people with highly stigmatized identities when trying to push back against unspoken social rules. The purse clutching scenario is further complicated if one considers the male significant other also in the elevator, who may be motivated to violence if he misperceives that his partner is being threatened. So, although microaggressions should be challenged when possible, I advise safety first.
Sometimes it is dangerous for people of color to respond to a microaggression.
There may be a role for a White ally in this scenario, who could more safely say things that would be too dangerous for a Black man to proffer. For example, Sue et al. (2019) suggest an ally might say something like, “He might be Black, but that does not make him dangerous,” or “You’re clutching your purse. Are you afraid of him?” However, it remains to be seen if this intervention would be helpful or still result in a distressing conflictual situation. One suggestion that seemed worthy of consideration is for the Black man to mirror the frightened expression of the White woman, and anxiously look around the elevator for signs of danger, as a way to cue her regarding her visible biases.
Although there may be many ideas about how to respond to microaggressions, one is reminded that there is not yet any research to guide us on how to best respond in the moment. More importantly, we do not have data on if such interventions result in better or worse outcomes for people subjected to microaggressions – either may be true. Clearly, this is an area much in need of care, consideration, and careful study.
Madon, S., Guyll, M., Aboufadel, K., Montiel, E., Smith, A., Palumbo, P., & Jussim, L. (2001). Ethnic and national stereotypes: The Princeton trilogy revisited and revised. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27(8), 996–1010.
Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. (2001). Tulsa Race Riot. Retrieved from http://www.okhistory.org/research/forms/freport.pdf
Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128–142. doi: 10.1037/amp0000296
Turner, K. B., Giacopassi, D. & Vandiver, M. (2006). Ignoring the past: Coverage of slavery and slave patrols in criminal justice texts. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 17(1), 181-195. doi: 10.1080/10511250500335627
Williams, M. T. (2019). Microaggressions: Clarification, evidence, and impact. Perspectives on Psychological Science. Advance online. doi: 10.1177/1745691619827499