Intervening when witnessing microaggressions (my backup plan in case I don’t have time for this slide in an upcoming seminar)

I am planning a seminar on relationships in the classroom, and I have way too many things to say on that in general, AND want it to be driven by what participants feel is relevant. One topic I have traditionally included, and talked (and written) about, is how to react when being target, witness, or perpetrator of microaggressions. This blog post is a summary of what I would say about my favorite slide on this if I had the time, so that if I don’t, I can send participants here.

In the featured image, I share a very dense slide that I first used as preparation to be able to draw all of it on the whiteboard, but that I now often use as a slide to save time (and there are pros and cons to saving time. Writing by hand and thus slowing down the process is actually really valuable to give participants time to think while I am presenting, too, and makes this a very prominent topic. On the other hand, it means there is less times for other topics. Hence this backup-solution now, with everything that I would theoretically like to say, but might not prioritize over other topics in the upcoming seminar). This slide is compiled from the literature given at the bottom of the slide and of this post, and all sources there are definitely recommended reading!

I start out talking about this slide by pointing out that there are different parts to the word “microaggression”. “Micro”, meaning that we are really talking about seemingly tiny things (first time I used the slide, it build in very small steps, and the first click only brought up the title “microaggressions”. It was in a small font because the slide was so crowded that there wasn’t space for a larger font, which I commented on as “oh, it’s really small”, which provoked amusement and has since become a pun I like to use). And “aggression”, which actually does not necessarily apply intention, but where it is helpful to consider that intention and impact are not necessarily the same, and that actions can have harmful impact without those being intended.

An analogy that I find very helpful when thinking about microaggressions and privilege are “boots and sandals”. In all contexts, we have some people who wear the boots of privilege that both protect their feet, and prevent them from feeling exactly what (or whose feet) they are stepping on. Those I call “perpetrators”. And then there are people who are targets, who might be wearing sandals (or maybe they are even barefoot). Imagine those people being on a bus together that suddenly stops — some people are much more likely to feel someone stepping on their toes while trying to regain balance after the bus suddenly breaks than others. Or even just in normal situations, people might step on other people’s toes unintentionally; life happens. Who is wearing boots or sandals on a given day might change, but some people are more likely to wear one or the other most of the time. If we think about footwear as privilege, there are some people who are very privileged in many different ways, and some who are not, where one or several facets of their overlapping identities might make them more likely to be discriminated against, or to have experienced discrimination because of those facets.

At this point, I like to ask participants to share examples of microaggressions that they have experienced themselves, if they feel comfortable doing so. In the past, I have been lucky that there have always been volunteers to share examples, and surprisingly often white men (who, one would think, should be very high up on the list of cumulative privilege), but who I felt were willing to bring in their examples in order for other people, who might have many more and worse experiences, not having to share theirs. And it is quite impactful to hear examples shared that sound small enough to make you wonder why people even remember them, yet clearly having a big enough impact to be remembered and shared, often with quite some emotion attached to them. Again, it is not about the size of the aggression, or the intention behind it, it is on the impact.

But now that we have examples of what microaggressions are, what can we do?

If you experience being the target of a microaggression, your only responsibility is to make sure that you are ok. You can remove yourself from the situation or confront it, whichever is the best option for you. You do not need to feel like it is your responsibility to do anything beyond looking after yourself.

But often, microaggressions happen in situations where there are witnesses. As a witness, the most important question to ask yourself is “what will I loose by not acting”, and to be aware that by not saying anything, we are accepting that someone is the target of microaggressions. Are we ok with how that makes them feel, and that they might think that we agree with what was said, or at least did not think it was important enough to intervene? Intervening of course comes with risks, especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power relative to the witness, but there are some easy “interrupters” that I think are good to be aware of and to have ready up ones sleeve. At the lowest level, they just “make the invisible visible”, i.e. point out what was said and that it might be problematic. One could do that by simply asking “I’m sorry, what did you just say?” or “please explain what you mean by …”. At the next level, we try to disarm the perpetrator, for example by saying “I don’t think that is funny” or “I did not realize that you think this way”. If we want to escalate further, we could say things like “what you just said is harmful” and maybe even explain why, thus aiming at educating the perpetrator. And lastly, it is of course always an option to seek external validation or support, from friends or colleagues, someone higher up in the line organization, HR, external coaches, …

And even if the witness chooses not to intervene in the situation, it is of course an option to circle back to it later on, by talking to either the target or the perpetrator about what they observed, and possibly offering support. In some cases, that might actually be what the target prefers — not calling attention to a microaggression, and to them, in the moment, but still knowing that someone else saw and thought it wasn’t ok and cared enough to bring it up later. And unfortunately, there is of course no good rule of thumb for which situation we are in…

But what if we are the perpetrator? There are very common responses that we probably have all used in some way or other at some point in our lives (and if you don’t read anything else about microaggression, check out the brilliant Guide to Allyship and especially the section on “how to handle mistakes” by Presley Pizzo, where the boots-and-sandals analogy comes from as well as what I am sharing below on how not to, and how to, respond):

  • Denial of others’ experiences: “But I don’t mind if other people step on my toes, in fact I have never experienced it!”
  • Centering themselves: “Do you really think that someone like me would step on other people’s toes?”
  • Withdrawing: “If you think I am stepping on your toes (even though I don’t), maybe I should move away at a safe distance and stop interacting with you…”
  • Tone policing: “If you asked me nicely, I would move my foot, but screaming at me like this?”
  • Denial that the problem is fixable: “It’s a fact of life that toes will be stepped on, learn to live with it!”
  • Derailing: “But what about people who don’t even have toes? Shouldn’t we be more concerned about them?”
  • Refusal to center the impacted: “All toes matter”
  • Victim blaming: “Why are you wearing sandals when you are standing so close to other people?”

Better responses, also suggested in the brilliant Guide to Allyship, include to acknowledge that the harm was done, even if unintended, apologize, and ask if there are ways in which we can make things better, to make sure that that specific instance of a microaggression is stopped and will not reoccur (at least not by us), and then to reflect more widely on whether there might be other microaggressions we are unknowingly and unintendedly committing, and what we can do to make sure they are not happening again. And this last part probably includes becoming an ally, or at least a witness aware and prepared enough to interrupt instances where we observe microaggressions.

So here we go, this is what I would typically have said on this one slide!

Thurber, A. & DiAngelo, R. (2018). “Microaggressions: Intervening in three acts”, Journal of Ethnic & Cultural Diversity in Social Work, 27:1, 17-27,

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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