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

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

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

Time Square Pride

A woman, with only a thong, platform shoes with knee high socks, and a red white and blue feathers in her hair. She has the letters NY painted on her ass and a field of blue painted in the shape of a heart around her breasts and stomach. She revels in her body. She is proud of her body. She has no shame. Men pay her cash just to take their picture with her. It is chilly outside, she must be cold. But she came here to make money. If men want to objectify her body, she might as well profit from it. Many women wished they looked like she does. Even her friend, who is dressed similarly, doesn’t have the the confidence she has. The friend wears booty shorts and a bra instead of just paint. This woman, who bears her body, is strong. She is clever. She is exploiting the system men created to keep her down. She uses their lusts and their shames to build her empire. She doesn’t care what you think. You are below her. You are ruled by fear and shame and desire. She is free.

Time Square Pride