My outward appearance is like a Rorschach test. I’m often informed about someone’s perception of where I come from before I’ve had the chance to decide if I want to offer that information up myself. As a member of the mixed-race community – a simultaneously ignored and falsely-glamorized group of people – I have experienced prejudice from multiple racial and ethnic communities, while also holding undeniable privilege. My ability to “blend in” with the dominant culture means I have a responsibility to address inequalities where I can, but admittedly, there are days where I’ve struggled to grapple with microaggressions and biased behaviour from others.
But what do recipients of microaggressions experience, exactly?
My first reaction when experiencing a microaggression is almost always to question my own experience. Did that really happen? Sometimes, I doubt my ability to hear when someone makes an anti-Chinese “joke” in my presence or calls me “halfie.”
But the question I should be asking myself is this: is it worth it to respond? In other words, if I respond, how might it affect my relationship with this person or group of people? Will my experiences be minimized, will my career be at risk, or will my life be in danger? Each situation requires its own thorough examination, and it is hard enough to be in the minority without being labeled “the troublemaker.”
Yet at the same time, as someone often perceived as white, I feel a responsibility speak out against microaggressions when I can. I also often find myself asking: if I don’t respond, will I regret not saying something? Will my lack of response convey that I accept this behavior and therefore perpetuate inequalities for others?
Assuming I muster the courage to respond, I try to follow these guidelines for the conversation:
I mentally prepare myself for the fragility of the human ego. Everyone thinks they have good taste, a sense of humor, and the best of intentions. A lot of marginalized people recognize the emotional burden of facing the onslaught of reactions we are likely to receive upon calling out an inequality: anger, denial, reassurance of good intentions, or overtures of guilt. These are all natural defense mechanisms, but it can be exhausting to be on the receiving end of these emotions. It is important to brace for the inevitable impact.
I try to interrupt the conversation by clarifying what is happening. For instance, use “I” statements like, “I noticed that” or “I am interpreting your comment as…” This can allow room for curiosity conversations with a bit of empathy rather than allowing an offense to fester.
I identify specific, appropriate actions to take such as, “Next time, I’d appreciate if you would not....” or, “Not sure if you were aware that the term you used could be interpreted this way, but…”
Lastly, I try to recognize when the conversation needs to end. It can be difficult to stay focused on remaining calm and rational, especially if you have noticed a long-standing pattern of abuse of power. You can always pick up the conversation at a later date. If it becomes clear that the conversation will not be constructive, I’ve been known to say, “we are done talking about that right now.” This phrase allows me to lay the discussion to rest until I either have a person who can corroborate my experiences, or when I have the energy to persevere.
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