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
M.S. Nonprofit Management, Northeastern University