- Microaggressions are subtle or unintended remarks that are racist or otherwise offensive.
- Researchers are examining the health impacts of microaggressions, as well as coping strategies.
- But it’s equally as important for allies to speak up and stop microaggressions, experts said.
Microaggressions are indirect or unintentional acts or remarks that are racist, sexist, ageist, ableist, or otherwise offensive. While they are often subtle in nature, they are a widespread problem with significant consequences on a person’s mental and physical health.
Experiencing repeated discrimination, including microaggressions, increases rates of anxiety, depression, and heart disease, per a meta-analysis of multiple studies.
Researchers are currently exploring how people of color deal with microaggressions. A study by Michigan State University and Mills College published in the scientific journal Wiley earlier this month examined mental strategies Latin students use to deal with microaggressions. The researchers offered some advice and called for more research to help people of color better cope with racism. But while researchers develop coping strategies, it’s important for allies to stop microaggressions while they’re happening, diversity consultants told Insider.
In the aftermath of 2020’s racial reckoning, allies need to step up and support their Black colleagues and colleagues of color, Beverly Tatum, a nationally recognized scholar and author of multiple books on race in America, previously told Insider.
“A white person should think to themselves, ‘What can I do to make a difference?'” Tatum said.
Business Insider asked experts what to do if you’re an ally, white or otherwise, and witness a microaggression against one of your colleagues. Here’s a few ways to respond, including sample scripts of what to say.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2020.
Speak up and address it in a calm, direct manner.
It’s important for allies to stand up for their Black and brown colleagues at work, said Sheena Howard, associate professor of communication for the online Masters of Business Communication program at Rider University.
If, for example, a white colleague asks to touch a Black colleague’s hair, or worse, does so without their consent, an ally should speak up and call it out.
“A white colleague in this situation, let’s call her Jane, can explicitly stand up against this form of racism. Jane can approach it face-to-face in public, face-to-face in private, or via email with the person that is acting inappropriately,” Howard told Business Insider.
Howard said you could say: “It’s really not appropriate to ask to touch anyone’s hair – that’s a microaggression and we don’t do that here.”
“Make them aware of how inappropriate touching someone else’s hair is without their consent. You can also add, ‘I realize it probably wasn’t your intention, but put yourself in their shoes,'” Harts said.
Or perhaps a colleague accidentally uses a word with racist origins such as the word “uppity,” which some use today to me “arrogant,” but historically was used to describe Black people that “didn’t know their socioeconomic place.”
Bradley Brummel, associate professor of psychology at the University of Tulsa who specializes in harassment, said you could say something along the lines of: “I just read an article that the term you used has a problematic origin. I think we should use other terms or language for that idea.”
“If done kindly and without direct confrontation, the point can be made without escalating the situation or assuming aggressive intent,” he said.
Ask a pointed question that draws attention to the problematic behavior.
Putting the onus on a person to explain their racist remark or action is another way to draw attention to the problematic behavior.
For example, say you and a group of colleagues are in a meeting reviewing résumés of people you just interviewed and someone makes fun of not being able to pronounce a Black candidate’s name.
An ally should intervene, and could do so by posing a question, Harts said.
Here’s what she suggests saying: “What did you mean by that comment? What’s wrong with their name?”
Speaking up in these situations matters, because it shows your Black colleagues you are an ally, and teaches everyone else what is and what isn’t allowed.
“The more someone realizes their biases or racism will no longer be tolerated, the more we are actively reinforcing a no-tolerance zone for racism,” Harts said.