Navigating Microaggressions

Now an annual autumn event, the School’s Community Life Symposium is an early opportunity for students and faculty to consider, discuss, and address different ways in which Middlesex can be a more welcoming, inclusive place for all its members. This year, on September 23, veteran educator and consultant Rosetta Eun Ryong Lee talked about microaggressions, giving many examples of these everyday slights, insults, and offensive behaviors that people experience in daily interactions – generally with well-intentioned people – while also providing practical, diplomatic ways to deal with them when they occur.

Although microaggressions may be unintended, Ms. Lee noted, they still have a cumulative, psychological effect on people because of the frequency and pervasiveness of certain comments or questions. “Intellectually, I may know it’s not a big deal,” she said, at the same time realizing, “but I have these same conversations often.” If an Asian American, for example, finds that they are repeatedly asked, “Where are you from originally?” they may come to understand this as a different message: People who look like you don’t belong here. “None of it may be what was intended, but this is what is heard.” Ms. Lee emphasized.

Because microaggressions will happen in a diverse community, she continued, learning how to  respond to them in a way that will change behavior is important. The approach of telling people to “stop being so sensitive” – or sharply calling someone out on their mistake – is “not helpful in a learning community,” she reflected. “Mistakes are part of the learning process, so that’s OK as long as we are willing to learn and get better.”

While Ms. Lee said there is no single right way to navigate microaggressions when they occur, she suggested a method for intervening in the moment. Advising students to “speak from the heart,” she recommended that they have a “DEAR” conversation: Describe the behavior; Explain the impact; Assume positive intention; and Request different behavior.

Acknowledging that it may be difficult to do this when you are the person impacted by microaggressions, she encouraged students to speak up for someone rather than remain a bystander. No matter why someone might be remaining quiet, she said, “The silence of people all looks the same. Say something in the moment, even if you are not sure it’s exactly right.”

Ms. Lee also offered advice on how to receive an intervention gracefully, starting with listening instead of responding right away, and then prioritizing the impact that resulted over your intention by making an apology.

“Ultimately, this is about authentic relationships,” Ms. Lee said. “I hope we’ll forgive each other’s mistakes and learn to be better – that’s the nature of inclusivity. Microaggressions are inevitable, but I hope we’ll practice these skills to become truly inclusive.”