A Caring Response to Being Called Out on Your Microaggressions

It is not surprising to many BIPOC when a well-meaning white person inevitably commits a microaggression during everyday interactions. While this is not surprising given that as white people raised in a systemically racist society we all hold internal biases drilled into our psyche by our societal upbringing, all microaggressions that a BIPOC receives are hurtful and contribute to upholding the racist idea that BIPOC are of less value than white people. When faced with a microaggression, a BIPOC has a choice as to whether to ignore it, bury the hurt, and move on in order to maintain some level of social harmony or to address the issue at the moment and risk a wide range of undesirable responses. In considering which course of action to take, often within the span of a few seconds, a BIPOC considers their current level of psychological safety- or the degree to which they perceive that they are free to take interpersonal risks and to express their thoughts and feelings without fear of consequences in the current interaction. Given the overwhelming history of white people becoming defensive and oftentimes volatile when confronted with the fact that they unintentionally committed a microaggression, it is understandable that many BIPOC chose to bury the hurt in order to avoid more hurt. However, given the tensions that continue to rise around racial equity in our society and the ever-mounting need for individuals to lift the veil hiding our racist microaggressions, more and more BIPOC are finding that they can no longer bury the hurt and need to address microaggressions when they occur.

As tolerance for microaggressions decreases, white people are finding themselves not knowing how to respond when confronted with the hurt they have unintentionally caused. It is not acceptable for us to make excuses, we must find ways to acknowledge the hurt we have caused and constantly re-commit ourselves to the continuing exercise of rooting out the implicit biases that have been taught to us by centuries of white-supremacy in order to truly have an equitable society that treats all people with respect and values each person for their individual experiences and backgrounds. When someone has the courage to call you out on microaggressions, how can you respond in a caring way that prioritizes active listening?

First, remember that your intention doesn’t matter when the impact is hurtful. As Jamie Utt writes in a 2013 article discussing intent versus impact, “what does the intent of our action really matter if our actions have the impact of furthering the marginalization or oppression of those around us?” Simply saying “Oh, I didn’t mean it that way!” erases the hurt and focuses on your intent and your white guilt. The point of calling out microaggressions is to provide an opportunity for the transgressor to realize the impact of their actions, to reflect on their behavior, and find ways to do better in the future. Please remember that you are not being attacked, you are being presented with an opportunity to grow. 

Second, take a moment to listen and process what the other person has said to you, and thank them for taking the time and emotional risk in bringing the impact of your actions to your attention. We must realize that being called out is an act of trust and social commitment. We are being entrusted with the feelings of this person we have hurt, and they are trusting us to listen and reflect with the goal of not hurting them or others in this manner in the future.

Third, reflect what you hear their feelings to be and how your actions caused those feelings. This step is important to close the communication feedback loop and ensure that your understanding of the impact is true to how the other person has experienced it. A simple phrase to try is “I hear you are feeling…which was caused by my…” 

Fourth, authentically apologize for your actions and express your desire to learn from your mistakes and to be better in the future. This is not a time to offer excuses or to defend your actions, this is a time to put yourself in the shoes of the other person and to see that this situation is bigger than this one instance. A simple phrase to try is “ I’m sorry that I acted thoughtlessly and hurt you with my implicit biases. I am reflecting on why I thought it was okay to say/do that, and realizing that I was wrong. I will work on identifying how I can be a better ally and not make someone feel this way again.”
EDIT: A less winded phrase to try is “I’m sorry, I was wrong. I’ll work to not make this mistake again.”

Finally, acknowledge and accept that your apology does not erase the hurt that you have caused. The other person is under no obligation to accept your apology on your timeline, and it is not your responsibility to take their hurt away. The only thing you can do is work to be a better ally and examine how you can root out any triggers of implicit biases that push you to act/speak thoughtlessly. Your responsibility is to grow and be better. Let’s all commit to growing and being better, and appreciate those who take the time and risk to help us on this journey.

Jesse Annette Koehn
They/Them
Project Manager
M.S. Nonprofit Management, Northeastern University

A Caring Response to Being Called Out on Your Microaggressions

Story Time

I’m sitting on the 9R bus in SF after getting on at 6th/Market. This older Asian woman (who I’m assuming is a cis woman) gets on the bus, sits within my direct line of vision, and pulls out what looks to be a half eaten homemade pork bun. She’s speaking a language I don’t know to a woman (again, assuming cis woman) sitting across the aisle from her. She proceeds to just nom on this pork bun and talk to her friend with reckless abandon. A stop or two goes by and I can smell the delicious pork bun and am suddenly jealous of her experience. I too would not be able to wait to devour that mouth watering pork bun. Another assumed cis woman gets on the bus with a baby in a stroller and sits near the pork bun woman, with the baby facing in her direction. This kid locks eyes with the woman, and stares enraptured as she stares directly back while eating the last bits of her pork bun. This baby and I are both in awe of her as she licks her lips and eats the last crumbs from the paper that was on the bottom of the bun, the paper which she has been holding crumpled in her palm for this very purpose. No longer captivated by salivating pork buns, the baby falls asleep while clutching their moms hand. The pork bun lady continues to chat with her friend, and they gesture towards the sleeping baby with half smiles. The pork bun lady grabs the attention of the mom, and points at the sleeping child. Pork bun lady doesn’t seem to speak the same language as the mom, and at first the mom simply smiles to accept what seems to be a compliment about her sleeping angel. Then the pork bun lady points excitedly at the blanket draping the stroller handle bar, then gestures to the sleeping babe as if to say “mommy you should wrap the blanket around them so they can sleep more peacefully on this hectic bus.” The mom looked at the blanket and realized what the pork bun lady was trying to say, nodded her head and smiled in appreciation as she draped the blanket over her kid. The pork bunt lady nodded approvingly as she tugged the blanket to cover the kids bare socked feet. The little kid continued sleeping peacefully under their soft fuzzy blue blanket while the three women smiled and nodded at each other. We approached my stop and I could hear pleasant chatters of a language unknown to me by these two good friends as I stepped off the bus onto a sidewalk in the Mission.

Story Time

K

A flower in the midst of blossoming, he flourishes for the first time. Breaking through rubble cast upon him by thoughtless passerbyers, he is finding his colors. He reaches for the sun, embracing it’s warmth and nourishment. He grows now of his own accord, his petals unfurling to share his brightness with the world. Befriending the bees and smiling at the hummingbirds, his enthusiasm spreads far beyond him. In a past life he was a rainbow, bringing avidity to all who beheld his ethereal reflection. His passion fuels his pigmentation. With each incarnation he becomes more chromatic and illuminate, fervor imprinting his physique. A shadow, a breath, a rainbow, now a flower. One day he will make himself into a work of art. A stain glass window. 

K

Underground

The people stood in the cold underground waiting for the late night subway that only comes every half hour. They are all strangers. He warms them with the sound waves he produces with his guitar. One by one they begin to turn around as the waves wash over and the tide slowly caresses them in. The people gather in a semi circle around him, inching closer to really feel the waves, each now a part of the collective moment. They started out all in their own mental worlds, now they have expanded and turned in and they are all sharing the same world. Some sing the words to the song on the guitar. Others bob their heads, or bounce along with the beat. Everyone claps earnestly when the song ends, and happily show their appreciation by filling his guitar case with love. He did this. He brought people together in a city that idealizes lone wolves. He created this world of shared collective joy.

Underground

The Wrong Choice

She knew it was the wrong decision. Before she even made the decision she knew it was the wrong choice. But she couldn’t help herself. If she didn’t go she would be haunted by what ifs. She knew exactly what would happen if she stayed. She would get a day job, work her evenings at the theatre, become even closer with her newfound group of friends. But this was a new opportunity. Move to New York City, a place she longed to be for most of her life, work on this show, which she was dying to be a part of. How could she turn it down? How could she say no? She knew if offered the job she would take it. She had to. She also knew this was the wrong decision.
Here, she know no one. She’s never been good at making friends. It’s a miracle she found two really good ones just before she left. But now they are half a country away. She is alone. She has always been alone, her whole life, but she is even more alone now that she had spent the past six months not alone. The absence of people that understand her is striking. The city is cold. The city is dirty. The city is full of people, but she is all alone. She knew this was the wrong decision. But how could she say no.

The Wrong Choice

Price of Being

She shrinks herself in order to fit in between the two men sitting on each end of the subway bench. She folds herself expertly. You could almost fit two of her in the one space while each man is obliviously spreading themselves out. They don’t ever have to think about the space that they occupy, while for this woman, she is always making herself smaller in order to accommodate everyone else. She is versatile; she knows when to puff herself up and when to shrink. The two men on either side of her, with their legs spread wide and their elbows pointed out, only know how to be the size that they are. They haven’t had to learn how to morph themselves to fit into a space. They have been told to make the space fit around them. They haven’t been told to sit like a “lady” or had to constantly be aware of every male presence and how to escape a space should one of those males become a threat. The woman sits in this space constantly alert while the two men blissfully and naively can afford to tune out the world.

Price of Being

Conversation

I hate when you go to England.
It takes so long for you to come back to me.
BEAT
Your mum and dad must be excited though.

Yeah, they are.
It will be nice to see them.
BEAT
I’m sorry, I know what my being gone does to you. Let’s go out tomorrow night before I leave.

I can’t, I have a deadline on Tuesday and I  need to be there most of Monday to get it done.
PAUSE
Another night though.

Okay love.

Thank you.
BEAT
(please hurry back to me)

Conversation

More Than You Can Know

She stands in front of you, just to your right, after sticking her arm in the closing subway doors and jumping into the train exclaiming “I really have to get to work.” You noticed her when she first came on. She is dressed in all black, taking off her sunglasses and pushing them onto the top of her head. She pulls her long auburn hair to one side  as she starts to take off her coat. As other people get on and off at passing stops, she slowly is jostled to standing in front of you, just to your right. She shifts her weight into her left hip, bending her left knee in as she reaches up to hold the above head bar with her right hand. She is fully elongated in skin tight black cotton. She is beautiful. You look down at her shoes, black sneakered platform shoes. Your eyes trail up her legs, caught by her ass for a brief moment, then fix on the bobby pin clipped to the outside of her jeans pocket. You see the hem of a tank top under her sweater. You notice smudges on her sweater just above its hem. You see the tiny hole at the end of her sleeve. Your eyes continue up and notice the pucker of of a necklace just between her breasts. You see how the golden ends of her hair fade and morph into a light brown. You see the shimmer of lip gloss on her lips. You look up even more and she meets your eyes, and you hold contact for a blistering second. She is a real person, not a perfect image you could never hope to reach out to. She has flaws, she is reachable. Don’t elevate her on a pedestal and worship her meaninglessly, she is worth so much more than that. She is a collection of memories and experiences, all making her so much more than you could ever know.

More Than You Can Know

Soup

The soup leapt out of his hands, spilling all down the end of the table and splashing onto the little woman who had only sat down moments before. She just stares at the offending mess that had encroached on her space and splattered on her coat. She huffs. She gruffs and frowns and makes short jabbed motions of disdain while the owner of the soup apologizes profusely and runs to get napkins. The friend of the soup owner sits, shifting his eyes from the woman visibly and audibly angry to the crowd his friend submerged into. He didn’t cause this, or is really a part in either of the two’s predicament, but he can’t escape. He knows the soup owner, so he can’t just leave. Yet he knows his words won’t make the woman feel better, and there are no useful actions he can take. So he sits one seat away from the muttering cursing woman, wishing he were almost anywhere but here. He is stuck, watching the aftermath of a train wreck and knowing he had nothing to do with it, that there is nothing he can do to help, and that he is still somehow accountable.

Soup

Jam on Toast

The girl sits at the counter, lightly chatting with the girl next to her who is spreading jam on her toast. They are from two different countries, two different backgrounds, yet somehow their life decisions have led them here to this moment.
Connecting.
They talk about light things, such as tea preferences, as well as slightly more in depth topics, such as why the first is vegetarian and an in a nutshell run down of her basic philosophy. Ultimately it doesn’t matter specifically what was discussed, but the feelings that they expressed and experienced.
Connecting.
That feeling that is at the core of all language and communication., the desire to be understood and to understand other people. No matter how it begins, all anyone wants is for their voice to be heard, for what they are saying to matter, to not just be hurtling through space alone yelling into a deaf void. We want to connect and be understood. Everything the girl does is an effort to find a kindred spirit.
Connecting.

Jam on Toast