I’m currently thinking so much about how to make academia a more welcoming and accessible environment, and just read the article “Microaggressions: Intervening in three acts” by Thurber & DiAngelo, which I think everybody should read.
It describes three situations in which microaggressions occurred, one from the perspective of perpetrator, witness and target* each, and how the authors reacted in each of these situations. But it is not a preachy “of course this is what you do!” type of article, but nuanced (this somehow sounds so condescending, but I can’t find a better term) reflections on the reactions are shared.
The vignettes of the three situations are well worth a read (but I feel like they are not my stories to share, so go to the original article), as are the more general prompts of what to consider in the different roles, which I do share below along with my thoughts on them.
When you are a witness of a microaggression:
- “Rather than ask what will be gained by intervening, ask what will I lose by not acting“. While we cannot know what the effects of a reaction will be, not acting definitely comes with the cost that the target of the microaggression will notice that nobody is standing up for them, and that the inactive witness will have to deal with the memory and the implications on their and others perception of themselves of not having acted. Focussing on the costs to the victim (especially if the target is from a marginalized group and is likely to be the target of many microaggressions which might accumulate to a death of a thousand paper cuts) rather than to myself is definitely helpful advise here.
- “Clarify your goals”. Immediate intervention might not be as well thought-through as revisiting the situation later, possibly seeking out only the perpetrator to address their comment. But letting targets know that you are noticing — and objecting — to them being targeted, that you are an ally, adverting harm from targets, or showing other witnesses one way of intervening in the situation, might be more important than reacting perfectly.
- “Ground your actions in care”. The most thought-provoking point for me was the framing of “calling someone in” rather than “calling someone out” on their actions, meaning inviting them into conversations about why something they said and did was harmful to someone else so that the perpetrator is not just shut up, but might actually be open to reflecting on what happened, hopefully learning from the situation.
When you are the perpetrator of a microaggression:
- “Look into rather than away from our oppressive patterns”. Since many microaggressions are both unintentional and we are unaware of them as perpetrators, we need to use being called out (or in!) in our own as a learning opportunity about oppressive patterns that we are not aware of. Becoming aware of having been the perpetrator is obviously a painful process, but the only way to make sure we don’t make the same mistake again is to understand what the mistake actually was and where it came from.
- “Accountability is a process, not a procedure”. This is such an important point! There is really no easy way to just apologise and move on; we need to commit to continuously reflecting and seeking awareness of oppressive patterns.
- “Seek restorative action”. We can’t undo the harm we did, but maybe we can lessen its impact a little. This includes acknowledging that we caused harm, inviting accounts of and listening to the impact it had on others, and sharing our commitment to, and plans for, ensuring that we don’t repeat the same mistake.
When you are the target of a microaggression:
- “Your first responsibility is to yourself“. Being the target does something to us, and it is not only ok, but important, to put the proverbial oxygen mask on ourselves first. So often we (are made to) feel guilty for not speaking up in situations where we are the target, where we might have stood up for ourselves and others. But this is where we need to have compassion with ourselves. Sometimes getting through the situation is hard enough and we have enough to deal with by just dealing with ourselves, without taking on other people, too.
- “Consider possibilities for action”. The helpful advice in this is that even we might not have reacted in the situation, or not in a way we are happy with afterwards, this was not a “speak now or forever hold your peace” moment. We can always revisit the situation with a new strategy for what we want to achieve, whether on the personal relationship level or on a wider systemic level.
- “Reclaim your voice”. The most interesting thought for me here was that as a victim of microaggressions, we do not owe it to anyone to speak up about it. The victim is in a disadvantaged position and protecting their mental health and/or keeping a low profile might be a perfectly valid choice. And as above: not speaking up in the situation does not mean that we cannot speak up at any later stage if we wish to do so, thus reclaiming our voice. On our own terms.
*When writing this blog post, I noticed that I wrote “victim” instead of target, and went back and changed it. The label “victim” implies that someone is powerless and helpless. And while they might in fact be, or feel that way, the label “target” includes the option of them changing the situation, and makes it more obvious that injustice or harm is done to them by others, rather than implying that they being the receiver says anything about them.
Amie Thurber & Robin DiAngelo (2018). “Microaggressions: Intervening in three acts”, Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 27:1, 17-27, DOI: 10.1080/15313204.2017.1417941