10 Accidental Microaggressions You Might Be Making Everyday
So here’s the thing. As a general rule, we all like to think of ourselves as decent people. Dare I say, even good people. And nobody is perfect and we all make mistakes. But despite our best intentions, the things we may be saying might be leaving a negative mark on those around us. Called microaggressions, these loaded “mosquito bite-type’ remarks or behaviours may not be debilitating in scope outright. But that’s also what makes them so problematic because it’s what makes them easy to ignore or overlook — but for the person on the receiving end. Over time, these microaggressions add up, and they can have a real negative impact (like holding someone back in their career with a bamboo ceiling). This is why at the University of Toronto OISE teacher education programme, we were taught not to perpetuate this negative cycle, and to be more mindful of our actions and words.
So what accidental microaggressions might you be making at home, school, work or elsewhere without even realizing? And how many of these have you yourself heard?
Microaggression: ‘Must be that time of the month’
The problem:Ouf. Nothing more dismissive and undermining than explaining away concerns as simply hormonal reactions exclusive to the female sex.
Try this instead:Listening. Try listening to the concern.
RELATED: 12 things often said to women in the workplace (but are never OK).
Microaggression: ‘You’re so well-spoken / your English is so good!’
The problem:The shadow side of this seeming-compliment is that we are surprised this person is this articulate. We were expecting less. Why is this? Often, it comes as a result of our own innate biases and preconceptions about entire groups of people. Ouch.
Try this instead:It’s not necessary to note someone’s effective communication style. It’s patronizing. Compliment ideas or the particular things they said instead if something specific stood out.
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Microaggression: ‘Where are you really from?’
The problem:While we may be trying to get to know somebody a bit better with this one, the issue here is that we are a) undermining the information this person is choosing to share with us and b) making the individual feel like an outsider even as they may legitimately feel this is their home. It is often said to people of colour, whose foreignness is also frequently wrongly assumed. For those who do come by way of other regions, the question may also get tiresome. If they want to make this the focus of your conversation, they will.
Try this instead:We can look for another way to engage this person without dragging them through this tired trope. Surely, there are other points of connection. (Music? Food? Read? Latest binge-worthy show?)
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Microaggression: ‘My boss / landlord / friend is crazy!’
The problem:Even as we may sincerely be responding to something that’s shocking or unbelievable, and we aren’t maliciously using this term, we are trivializing mental health. Remember: 1 in 5 Canadians personally experience a mental health problem or illness in any given year, according to CAMH.
Try this instead:‘That’s unbelievable!’ Or ‘My boss / landlord / friend is inflexible / unwilling to negotiate / something specific to this situation.’
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Microaggression: ‘When are you going to settle down / get married / have a baby?’
The problem:First of all, this is a sensitive topic for many people because they may either not wish to discuss such personal matters, or may not wish for any of these things and don’t feel like justifying their wishes, or may very well be trying to achieve these things and don’t need the added pressure. Oh, and if somebody tells you they don’t plan on having any kids, take their word for it, and don’t tell them they’ll change their mind eventually.
Try this instead:You can ask an open-ended question such as ‘What’s happened since we’ve last seen each other / spoken to each other?’ This way, the person will share as much as they wish without feeling intruded upon.
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Microaggression: ‘Everything happens for a reason’
The problem:Often, we may say this with the best of intentions to make someone feel better and like there is a greater purpose to their misfortune (because wrapping easily-digestible narratives around incomprehensible or random events can make us feel better). But to the individual who has experienced the trauma or tragedy, this feels like a flippant remark of someone who may not truly care or understand the situation they may be going through.
Try this instead:If you wish to be supportive, acknowledge the person’s feelings, recognize the complexity of the situation even as you may not understand it fully and if the person wishes for it, offer support in the way they need it.
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Microaggression: ‘But you don’t even look gay / Indigenous / fill in the blank’ or ‘You look X, but in a GOOD way.’
The problem:The former says more about our ignorance and lack of awareness of the diversity that comes when we try to group people by certain characteristics. What were we expecting the person look like? Like the caricature representation of that group? The latter phrase is just plain insulting, and shows we don’t think very highly of that group of people. No need to explain why this is problematic.
Try this instead:Nothing. Try nothing instead. It can be a good thing.
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Microaggression: ‘Is that your real hair / Can I touch your hair?’
The problem:Receiving unsolicited comments about hair is a frequent struggle for women of colour and black women in particular. The topic is imbued with historic significance and often the target’s hair is approached with a sense of fascination. But at its most basic level, if you haven't experienced this personally, imagine someone you’re not close to coming to you and asking to touch your hair or other body parts? A bit weird and off-putting, no?
Try this instead:If you admire the hairstyle / hair colour, share that.
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Microaggression: ‘You look so exotic.’
The problem:While this is often said as a compliment, it’s ‘othering’ and sometimes sexualizing undertones touch a sensitive nerve. What does exotic actually look like in today’s multicultural context? See Slide 3.
Try this instead:Focus on something other than looks. The tendency to summarize someone’s looks is pretty dated. We can do better.
SEE ALSO: Signs you have selfie dysmorphia.
Microaggression: ‘Your name is too hard. I’ll just call you Sam instead’
The problem:Well, it’s the individual’s actual name. No quicker way to negate someone’s identity than to choose to ignore what they tell you is their preferred form of address (same goes with using a gender pronoun other than the individual identifies with).
Try this instead:Learn the proper way to say the person’s name and ask for clarification, if needed (we are trying and mistakes are ok). And let the person tell you their preferred gender pronoun and then stick to their preference.
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Why it’s not about ‘getting thicker skin’Naysayers may argue that this makes for an oversensitized society, or that it perpetuates a victim mentality. But microaggressions are ultimately about recognizing that our individual privilege can inadvertently blind each of us in distinct ways. Being aware of microaggressions merely raises a mirror to these blindspots and allows us to navigate our social circles more mindfully and in a way that doesn’t do it at the expense of those around us. And as decent people, isn’t that ultimately what we want?
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