What Is A Microaggression? And What To Do If You Experience One. : Life Kit Microaggressions are the everyday, thinly veiled instances of racism, homophobia, sexism and other biases that come across in gestures, comments or insults. But the "micro" doesn't mean that the acts don't have a big impact. While there's no one right way to address a microaggression, we have some pointers for ways you can begin to respond.

Microaggressions are a big deal: How to talk them out and when to walk away

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This is NPR's LIFE KIT.

A lot of people are talking about the big topics of race and racism, police and power after the police killing of George Floyd and the protests that have come after. You might be having conversations right now with your family or workplace or friend group, asking variations of what can I do, or even, how am I complicit? Which is a conversation worth having - but it's also one that, if you do it right, will include either calling out how someone may have said or done something kind of messed up or being called out on having done or said something messed up, unintentionally even. You've probably heard the term for these types of transgressions. They're called microaggressions.

KEVIN NADAL: Because they can occur at any given time. They can occur in workplace settings. They can occur in conversations within families. They can occur just walking down the street. And so we have these huge systemic issues that are happening, and then we also have these everyday sorts of interactions that are a result of those systemic issues.

LIMBONG: Kevin Nadal is a professor of psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. He's done research and written books on the effects of microaggressions and how people can cope with them. Everything going on right now with these protests and police violence - on top of the pandemic - might seem big. But I ask Nadal why it might be important to think small.

NADAL: We navigate all of these things in our lives, for many of us, on a daily, hourly basis - and for some of us, where we might not even recognize that we are navigating them or even perpetrating them. And that's why it's important for us to have these conversations.

LIMBONG: I'm Andrew Limbong, and this episode of LIFE KIT is all about identifying microaggressions and how or when to confront them - helpful even if you don't face them yourself because, well, if you are actually trying to learn something from this moment, these small daily interactions are as good a place as any to start.


LIMBONG: When the term microaggressions first came, like, en vogue, you know, a handful of years ago, I think people sort of like misunderstand what it is. So what's a microaggressions versus, say, like a macroaggression?

NADAL: Sure. So a microaggression is defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional - and oftentimes unintentional - interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and, let's say, overt discrimination, or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microaggressions might not even be aware of them. When we think about overt discrimination - hostile discrimination, violence, things like that - these are people that are intentionally trying to hurt or harm people of various groups because of their identity groups. When people commit microaggressions, it's sometimes that they didn't even realize that they did anything at all.

So you know, some examples of microaggressions include what we would label as microinsults. Somebody who presumes that an Asian American wouldn't speak English - that would be considered an insult. And so somebody who says to a person, wow, you speak really good English. And the Asian American person says, thanks, I was born and raised here. I wouldn't know what else I would be speaking. That would be an insult that conveys that they presume the Asian American would have been a perpetual foreigner or they wouldn't have been American enough or born and raised in this country.

Another example of a microinsult might be something like presuming that a black person or a person of color would be dangerous or violent in some way. So a very common experience that people of color and black people - black men, particularly - talk about is being followed around in stores or getting on an elevator and people moving to the right or left and grabbing their purses or their wallet.

LIMBONG: To be clear, the micro in microaggression doesn't mean that the acts can't have big, life-altering impacts - far from it, actually. There's a mental health toll to these constant, repetitive stressors. And on the more extreme side of it, the presumption of violence can lead to the cops being called, which often doesn't end well.

NADAL: Oftentimes people don't even realize that they're doing those sorts of things. And in fact, if you were to stop that and say, why did you just move? - they would deny it because they don't recognize that their behaviors communicate their racial biases.


LIMBONG: What is the value in the bi (ph) - in the like, putting them in two different camps? You know what I mean? Like, if someone says something racist to me - right? - what does their intent - like, what can I do with knowing about whether or not they intended it?

NADAL: You know, at the end of the day, if somebody says something racist to you, it's racist.

LIMBONG: (Laughter) Yeah.

NADAL: And if it hurts your feelings, it hurts your feelings. And if it makes you feel like crap, it makes you feel like crap. So it doesn't really matter, you know, what we would define it as. But it is important to understand because a lot of times people who engage in microaggressions will not believe that what they said was racist or sexist or homophobic. And so calling them racist or sexist or homophobic would be something that would make them very defensive and make them unable to even recognize what their impact was.

Not that microaggressions is too much better, in terms of their defensiveness. But in my experience, what I found is by people who are aware that microaggressions exist are able to have this sort of language, we recognize that we all are human beings who are prone to mistakes. And we're all human beings who might commit microaggressions. And it's not necessarily that you're a bad person if you commit a microaggression but rather that you're a human who needs to be more aware of their biases and their impact on people and that we all need to be committed to, you know, working on these things in order to be a more harmonious society.


LIMBONG: But that does get into weird territory, right? Like, now we're having a discussion about black people and police brutality. And neither of us are black.

NADAL: It is weird, but it's also like, you know, you don't have to be of a certain group to understand that something is unjust. You know, you don't have to be a woman to understand that sexism is real. You don't have to be, you know, a queer person to understand that homophobia is still real. It's really just learning how to be empathetic to people and also just to be really aware and knowledgeable of history.

This country is founded on racism towards indigenous people and racism towards black people, and that's not new. And so even if we might not necessarily understand exactly what it means to be the member of the targeted group at that moment, we certainly can relate to some of those experiences and can certainly rely on our knowledge and our awareness of history and of the lived experiences of people of those groups.

LIMBONG: OK. So let's say you get into a conversation about current events, right? And the conversation turns towards, like, police and, you know, racism and, you know, police brutality and all that. And, like, maybe a microaggression hasn't come up yet, but you can, like, smell it in the air...


LIMBONG: ...Like spring, right? You're like, OK. You know, I can see that we're treading into some certain dangerous territory here. Like, what are your options there?

NADAL: I think there are a lot of things that people need to consider when having what we would call difficult dialogues with people. And it could be either - whether or not the person is worth talking to? Is this somebody that you care about? Is this somebody who you think would actually have the capacity to hear what you have to say?

Is this somebody who you're even close to, who you would even care would have some personal growth or not? A lot of times people get into a lot of arguments with people that maybe they don't need to necessarily be emotionally invested in because they don't have that sort of relationship. And so these are the types of decisions that people need to make.

And if you are close and if you do have a relationship that you might be worried about in terms of having these difficult dialogues, maybe say something like, you know, maybe we need to take a break. And I'm going to give you something that I hope you could read. And maybe that would be something that could be helpful or effective, even more than a conversation that might just turn into yelling and hostility and inability to actually communicate with each other.

LIMBONG: Is there a risk of that looking like homework?

NADAL: Yes. So with all of these conversations comes the risk of homework - comes the risk of people having to do extra work. Oftentimes, people of color are asked to speak about issues related to racism and to then educate white people on issues that the person of color has lived with and thought about for their entire lives.


NADAL: As a result of that, that can be very psychologically and emotionally exhausting for a person to then have to care about the white person's feelings and to take those extra efforts so that they can learn something that, you know, they should have and could have learned throughout the duration of their life. And it's not just about race. It's oftentimes something that happens with women and LGBTQ folks and people with disabilities and immigrants and people of size and people of various marginalized identities - having to educate the person with power and privilege.


NADAL: And so with that, I say that, you know, you don't have to do that if you don't want to. At the same time, if you're a person with those privileged identities and you want to be a true ally, maybe you do have to do that homework. Maybe you do have to engage in those uncomfortable emotions because you know that it's your job, your responsibility to have those conversations so that other people of color or women or LGBTQ folks won't have to have that conversation for you.

LIMBONG: Yeah. You're in a difficult dialogue with somebody that you like and have invested in - right? - or have made the decision that, like, this person is worth talking to. And then they say something messed up that would fall - you know, maybe even toes the line between the microaggression-macroaggression line, right? How do you call them out without them getting defensive?

NADAL: Sure. I think one of the things that's important with difficult dialogues is to - one, to go into all difficult dialogues having a strong sense of who you are, what's important to you, what your values are, what is worth it, what's not worth it. And so it's sort of like this, you know, promotion and prevention and this understanding that, like, with anyone that I'm going to be in a relationship with, what is going to be where I draw the line in terms of how I stand up for myself and how I respond to certain things?

And so I think going into those sorts of relationships is something that, actually, a lot of people of color and people of other historically marginalized groups actually grapple with all the time. Like, when - I can speak for myself as a queer person of color. I know that when I meet white people or when I meet straight people, I'm not naive to think that, at any given moment, that something racist or homophobic, either overtly or subtly, might occur. And so, you know, we're prepared for that to some degree.

But there is also this sense of, like, how will you react if that happens? And I think for many people, especially during, you know, this time, people have to be really intentional on how they want to react to certain things. I know lots of people who are in my circles are immediate like, no, you're - if you oppress me in any way, like, I will not build with you, and I don't want to continue my friendship or relationship with you. And then I have other people who might be very willing to have conversations with people.

And I think all of those reactions are very valid because no one owes anyone anything. So a person of color, a person of a historically marginalized group, doesn't have to educate someone if they don't want to because they've had a lot of trauma, and there is a lot of psychological distress that comes from these sorts of conversations.

So going back to your original question, just this - how do you navigate these sorts of things? I think it's important to even just identify how you're feeling in that moment. I think, a lot of times, people like to argue with facts or what they perceive as facts and what they perceive as logic, but when you bring in your own experience and say, like, look - you know, what you're saying is really hurtful to me as a person of color, what you're saying is really hurtful to me as a queer person of color, and for the benefit of our relationship, I want to take a step back from you right now, or I need you to take a step back right now because you're hurting my feelings.

And, again, this is something that you might say to somebody you're close to. If your - some stranger on the street starts saying something like that to you, you might not have any time for that, and you shouldn't have any time for that.


LIMBONG: Let's assume that we're, like, close friends.


LIMBONG: And talking about, you know, just, like, being brown in New York - right? - as I have experience being, right? And then I say something, like, low-key homophobic.

NADAL: Right.

LIMBONG: But we're friends, and you know that I could be better. Like, where do you go - I guess, yeah, where do you go from there?

NADAL: Sure. I mean, you know, that's not just a role play; that's something that happens quite often.


NADAL: So what I might say immediately is say, what do you mean by that? So, like, somebody says, oh, that's so gay, or somebody says no homo.

LIMBONG: Right. Right.

NADAL: And then I say, what do you mean by that?

LIMBONG: Or if I say, like, pause, or do one of those things. Right. Yeah.

NADAL: Right. And then when I say, what do you mean by that, that's my - that's in my toolbox. That's something that I go to. And if we're friends - and if we're friends, that means that I trust that you do care about social justice issues, that maybe this is just a slip in that moment, that that person will say, oh, sh**, I'm sorry; I didn't mean that.

LIMBONG: Yeah. I didn't mean to do it.

NADAL: Because asking someone what they mean by that is giving them that opportunity to explain themselves. And for some people, they say things just because they've been so socialized to say certain things. But when they're really asked to explain what they're trying to say, that's where, you know, they have to think about it and sometimes even retract what they originally say because they don't want to perpetuate something that isn't actually who they are.

LIMBONG: What do you mean by - I'm going to keep that one in my pocket. Yeah.


LIMBONG: What are some signs that it might be time to bail on a conversation? You've committed, and you think that this person has, you know, an opportunity to grow, but, like, maybe it's just, like, Wednesday and you're both hungry and tired, right?

NADAL: (Laughter).

LIMBONG: Like, what are some signs that it's like, OK, let's put a pin in this?

NADAL: I think, for me, it goes back to that original question of being prepared for what you're going to get yourself into. And so if you know that you don't have the time to do something because you're in a rush to go to a meeting or you need to eat something or you have to pick up your kids from school, then maybe you know that this isn't exactly where you need to be right now - so setting your priorities and expectations in having any of these conversations.

Sometimes it might even be helpful to put time limits on certain situations, to say to somebody, like, look - I only have 10 minutes, but I do want to talk to you a little bit about what this is and to use those 10 minutes as wisely as possible so that people know they can't just, you know, go off onto tangents and, you know, steer clear of whatever the original issue was.

But when you do have the time and you're in it, one of the things for you or for anyone to think about is, is this actually helping? Is this a conversation that I view as being helpful in any way, shape or form. It's important to acknowledge that no one is going to learn everything in one conversation overnight. But, realistically, you might be able to see that this is a conversation in which a person is able to be reflective, to receive and acknowledge anything that you're trying to say to them, that they are open to thinking about something, as opposed to them just waiting for you to stop talking so they can continue talking.

And one of the things that I think about in these conversations is the word toxicity. Is this a toxic conversation? If the conversation is toxic, it might be best to step away as soon as possible. And I think that's totally valid and necessary and, as a psychologist, I will say, is probably very good boundaries. There is no reason to keep on going back to people that are going to hurt you.


LIMBONG: So to recap, if you're about to have a hard conversation with someone that will hit on microaggressions...

NADAL: I think one of the most important things of - in dealing with microaggressions and difficult dialogues is to do your own work, to do your work before you even get there, to read, to understand the lived experiences of people of historically marginalized groups because that's one way that we can understand each other, is to try to think outside of our own perspectives.

I think the second thing that's important is to set realistic expectations of what you want from these conversations. Setting these goals are important because, oftentimes, people want there to be immediate change, and that just isn't going to happen. Hardly ever will you have a conversation where someone will say, oh, I 100% agree with you. You're right. Let me change my ways. But you might be able to offer them some insight.

And I guess the last piece, you know, that I'm thinking about is just to always be aware of yourself and your mental health when having these conversations. If we are fighting all the time - which, you know, in our hearts, we want to do - but we're unable to rest, then we're not going to last very long in this world. And so this is why it's important for us to work together, collectively, so that some people are fighting while some people are resting, and other people are - will pick it up when those people who are fighting need to rest themselves.

And so always think about, you know, what's best for you. If a conversation is going bad, it might be OK just to step away from that. But, again, think about your role and your positionality because, if you're a person with privilege and you could fight a little bit longer, then do it. But if you're a person of a historically marginalized group, you know, we want you to be alive, and we want you to be healthy in order to continue this fight towards justice.


LIMBONG: For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our other episodes. We have an episode about how to talk about race with young kids, another on how to spot misinformation in the news and a lot more. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And if you love LIFE KIT and want more, subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/lifekitnewsletter.

RACHEL: Hi. My name is Rachel (ph) from Pennsylvania. And I am a preschool teacher who's currently home with her preschoolers during quarantine. My tip for parents is to try and keep a routine. Don't stress out if the routine's not the same one that you did the day before. Sometimes your kids need something different from one day to the next. The important thing is just to try and keep things regular for them. If you went on a walk outside on Monday but on Tuesday it's raining, do a walk inside. Try anything you can to try and keep them as routined but as comfortable as possible. And it's OK to make mistakes.

LIMBONG: We also want to hear from you. What are you doing to cope right now? If you've got a good tip, leave us a voicemail with your name, number and a greeting at 202-216-9823, or email us at lifekit@npr.org.

This episode was produced by Andee Tagle. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. Our digital editor is Beck Harlan, and our editorial assistant is Clare Schneider. I'm Andrew Limbong. Thanks for listening.


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