Currently reading: “Disarming Racial Microaggressions: Microintervention Strategies for Targets, White Allies, and Bystanders” (Sue et al., 2019)

I have another recommended reading for you! I found this really nice framework for disarming microaggressions, both targeted directly towards the perpetrator, but also institutional and societal macroaggressions, in Sue et al. (2019). The article includes a lot of really helpful examples of what this might look like in practice. Below is a summary of the aspects that I want to take from the article to bring into a workshop I’m teaching next month (so I am reading this through a very specific lens for my own context). I definitely recommend to check out the original article to look at great examples of strategies to intervene depending on the objective (if nothing else, browse table 1)!

First, even though I will apply the framework to my workshop in a Swedish context, I want to acknowledge that it was written on disarming racial microaggressions in a US context. The authors report on a study in which over 75% of African Americans report daily discrimination. Discrimination meaning here e.g. unjustified questioning by law enforcement, being fired for no reason other than racism, and other events on this level. This goes of course way beyond someone being rude and unfriendly, which is how microaggressions are commonly misunderstood, and microaggressions come on top of that. Microaggressions are different from non-race based offenses for several reasons: They are happening constantly, their impact accumulates within each individual over their whole life time, they show every day that the targets are treated as second-class citizens in society, and they perpetuate systemic injustices of the past. Even though I have, and will be, talking about microaggressions that I have been on the receiving end of here in Sweden and that I have observed here against women in academia, I want to acknowledge my super privileged position and my commitment to using it to educate myself and become a better ally.

Allyship is very nicely explained in the article, especially in contrast to bystanders. Bystanders, people who observe or become aware of microaggressions, often don’t become active. This might be due to many reasons, like fear of getting involved in conflicts, making enemies, alienating friends and family, or even just not realizing that this is a situation where they should intervene. For bystanders to take action, they need to recognize unacceptable behavior and the benefits that would arise from intervention, but they also need to know how to intervene (which I will focus on further down). Allies, on the other hand, are not just bystanders that happen to intervene in a specific situation, or people that don’t commit microaggressions themselves. Allies “actively work toward the eradication of prejudicial practices they witness in both their personal and professional lives”. Allies also “do not view their work as a means to a measurable end but a constant dismantlement of the individual and institutional beliefs, practices, and policies that have impeded the social growth and wellbeing of persons of color”.

So how can we respond to microaggressions? A concept presented in the article are “microinterventions”: “everyday words or deeds, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate to targets of microaggressions (a) validation of their experienced reality, (b) value as a person, (c) affirmation of their racial group identity, (d) support and encouragement, and (e) reassurance that they are not alone.”

Microinterventions can (and should!) be targeted towards the perpetrator themselves, but also towards the institutional and societal macroaggressions. There are four strategic goals suggested in the article (and I am focussing my summary on the “entry level” actions that I want to suggest to “bystander” PhD students in my context to implement right away, so I am omitting things that the institution should do, like monitoring trends in their recruitment, promotions, … as well as what needs to happen on a societal level):

Make the “invisible” visible

A tricky thing about microaggressions is that they are sometimes hidden in plain sight, in the sense that it is not necessarily obvious that the perpetrator had bad intentions (which they might not even have, they might not be aware of what they are doing) and/or causes harm. Sometimes the harmful part is hidden in what is not being said explicitly, and raising awareness of that part of the message is an important first point. This could happen by for example asking the perpetrator to clarify what they mean (an example from my context might be “do we need to elect a chair*man* or can we have a chair*person*?)

To work for change on larger scales, it is then also important to keep a log of such situations, talk about it to both corroborate the observation and raise awareness of the “hidden” meaning of what was said, and that it was actually not ok and, in fact, harmful.

Disarm the Microaggression/Macroaggression

Here, we become more explicit. A technique mentioned in the article is to “state loud and emphatically, “Ouch!””. I love this, because it signals that something painful has happened, which will hopefully make the perpetrator think about what they said, and might enable further conversation about what was said, meant, and (not) intended. Reactions could also be even more explicit, calling out the problematic thing that was said, or non-verbal (shaking of heads, rolling of eyes, leaving the situation).

Educate the Offender

Of course the goal should be to help the perpetrator to not re-offend, so helping them understand the difference between intent and impact, and that even though they mean well, what they said was harmful, i.e. “I know you meant it to be funny, but that stereotype is no joke”.

Seek External Reinforcement or Support

Targets already carry the burden of being targets of microaggressions, but even allies might experience the backlash of being seen as “troublemakers”, so a good strategy is to not try to do everything on your own, especially when it comes with risks to your own wellbeing etc, but to involve a higher authority, and to definitely find community of like-minded people to vent in safe ways, and share tips and tricks. One example of a microintervention given in the article is to report racist graffiti to authorities — which would probably not even have occurred to me, because I would think that someone taking care of the campus will notice and deal with the graffiti the way they would deal with any other destruction of university property. Interesting how I did not see the microaggression in the (imaginary) graffiti, just the destruction of property!

The article ends with a section on context, and how of course context always needs to be considered, for example the safety of anyone who intervenes, and whether a particular situation is the best one to call someone out (or better, in) vs talking with them in a different setting later on, and also how depending on the relationship with a perpetrator, different approaches and varying degrees of investment into educating them might be appropriate. In my context, I am working with (future) teachers on how to make students feel like that matter and belong, so it is mostly about raising awareness in order to not become a perpetrator, and providing ideas for how to intervene if microaggressions happens in their classes. I think it is super important to think about this — how do I want to react if I am teaching a class and a microaggression happens? How much room do I want to give the microintervention in the situation (and I really like Thurber & DiAngelo (2018)’s advice “rather than ask what will be gained by intervening, ask what will I lose by not acting“) and how do I want to use my relative position of power for good, and what does that mean for how I want to (re)act?

I found this article super interesting to read, and I recommend that you go and check it out, too!

Sue, D. W., Alsaidi, S., Awad, M. N., Glaeser, E., Calle, C. Z., & Mendez, N. (2019). Disarming racial microaggressions: Microintervention strategies for targets, White allies, and bystanders. American Psychologist, 74(1), 128.

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