This microaggressions toolkit is designed to provide a user-friendly, digestible summary of what microaggressions are and provide some guidance on how to deal with them. The toolkit focuses on microaggressions pertaining to race, but it should be noted that microaggressions can apply in relation to other protected characteristics.
What is a microaggression?
Microaggressions are slights, comments (that sometimes appear innocuous) and indignities that people from marginalised groups can face on a day-to-day basis. They are sometimes described as “subtle acts of exclusion”. They do not have to be negative on their face, but they indicate an implicit bias. They do not need to be intentional but they are based on harmful attitudes and prejudices that perpetuate stereotypes. The word “microaggression” should not mean that the impact of such language or behaviour should be underestimated, as the impact can be deeply harmful. Microaggressions are tied to social power dynamics between different groups. They can arise without any harm intended but can still amount to discrimination. Today, people are increasingly being held accountable for microaggressions, amidst a growing conversation around equality and race.
Examples of racial microaggressions
Examples of racial microaggressions in the school’s context include:
- Asking someone “where are you really from”,
- Assuming that an Asian person is good at certain subjects,
- Mistaking a minoritised ethnic person for another, just because they look like they are from the same ethnic group,
- Continued mispronunciation of someone’s name,
- Setting low expectations for students from particular minoritised ethnic groups,
- Using inappropriate humour that degrades pupils from different minoritised ethnic groups,
- Denying the experiences of minoritised ethnic pupils by questioning the credibility and validity of their stories,
- Telling someone that they speak English well,
- Asking to touch someone’s hair.
Impact of microaggressions
Compounded over time, microaggressions can have a profound and damaging impact on a child’s experience of the world, their physical and mental health, and their psychological wellbeing. It can lead to a sense of being “othered”, devalued and isolated. Microaggressions, while “subtle”, can be as harmful as explicit or overt forms of discrimination. They often demonstrate bias which is hidden behind coded language, that creates a “safe” way to discriminate. Microaggressions reinforce the idea of privilege and undermine a culture of inclusivity.
Steps you can take when dealing with microaggressions / adopting a growth mindset
Ask for clarification or more information
Ask to explain what was meant by a comment, or why that thought or stereotype was expressed. Don’t be afraid to challenge the comment.
Separate intent from impact
It is important to look at the impact of the microaggressive behaviour, as opposed to the intent. Where you carry out or observe microaggressive behaviour, you should seek to understand the impact, however unintentional, and try not to make the same mistake again. The concept of “intent” does not absolve responsibility and the impact can be significant.
Share your process
When you observe a microaggression that you perhaps used to make, share your own process in addressing it. Talk about learning about the impact it had, or the other person’s perspective, and how you changed your behaviour.
Challenge the stereotype
Where a stereotypical view is shared, challenge it. Share your own experience and offer alternative perspectives. Asking what someone means when making a particular comment will help to minimise misunderstandings by given the other person a change to explain themselves. Avoid taking a passive approach, and instead take the lead in calling out a microaggression when it is seen.
Appeal to values and principles
Highlight how the microaggressive behaviour or language undermines the person’s core values and principles.
Show empathy to the person who has received a microaggression and recognise how they are impacted
Provide support and actively listen to the person on the receiving end of microaggressive language or behaviour. Validate their experience by giving time to listen, and show that they are valued as an individual and not defined by their race and / or background. Providing encouragement and reassurance to people who experience microaggressive behaviour will create an inclusive environment and help them to feel less isolated.
Make a conscious effort to not be defensive or dismissive of the person’s feelings.
Actively listen and commit to learning from an experience, as opposed to defending your behaviour or your intention. Try and listen to what the other person is saying with the understanding that you may have offended them.
Take steps to be more educated and take steps to educate others. There is a wealth of resources available.
Educating yourself and others about microaggressive behaviour is essential and demonstrates your role as an ally.
Remain calm and consistent with your approach when dealing with microaggressions
It can be challenging to deal with microaggressive behaviour, but remaining calm when disarming the microaggression will lead to a more positive outcome.
Don’t be afraid of getting things wrong
We are all learning, and it is essential to adopt a growth mindset. Being afraid of getting things wrong, and therefore not engaging when you ought to, can be just as harmful. If you are struggling to pronounce someone’s name, do not shorten it or given them a nickname. Instead, ask politely how they pronounce and spell their name. Make a conscious effort to listen and say it correctly.
Avoid putting the burden on minoritised ethnic staff or students
Avoid looking to minoritised ethnic students or staff to provide a solution or explanation, or even to be experts on issues relating to race or to their ethnic group. This is an additional layer of burden that should not be unfairly placed on minoritised ethnic groups.
This publication is a general summary of the law. It should not replace legal advice tailored to your specific circumstances.
© Farrer & Co LLP, March 2023