How to Address Microaggressions If You’re the Offender — Plus, Tips for Becoming an Ally & Advocate

Contributed by Charlene Sarmiento, Communications Manager, and Angela Lee, Manager of Advocacy Outreach and Engagement, Goodwill Industries International

Note: This is the third blog post in a series on microaggressions. In the first blog post, where we discussed what microaggressions are — thinly veiled, everyday instances of discrimination. They can range from insults to comments or gestures. In the second blog post, we discussed how to address microaggressions if they are committed against you, and we provided suggested language for those tough conversations.

What to Do if You Commit a Microaggression

Recognizing microaggression behavior and committing to not do it again is the first step to being more respectful to your colleagues and fostering a more productive working environment. Conversations about microaggressions, discrimination, bias, diversity, equity and inclusion can be inherently uncomfortable and potentially difficult. From these conversations come growth and a more just and respectful world and workplace with each other.

First, recognize that you said something that could have negatively impacted a marginalized group. Take responsibility and sincerely apologize to the individual(s) impacted, commit to educate yourself, and do better in the future.

Use the situation as a teachable moment for yourself and recognize that explaining the microaggression is emotionally exhausting for the person who experienced it. Be compassionate and listen to the person’s experience and why they thought your behavior was harmful. Do not minimize their experience; be open to feedback without getting defensive. Thank them for bringing it to your attention.

Addressing Microaggressions as an Ally and Advocate

While it might be easy to overlook a microaggression that is not directed at you, it is important that you do not ignore it. Instead, recognize and respond to microaggressions when they are committed in front of you.

If you think you witnessed a microaggression but are not sure, ask a trusted colleague, especially if they were present when it happened. The two of you can discuss the best course of action.

Everyone needs allies and advocates. It is emotionally exhausting for people on the receiving end of microaggressions to educate others about them and how they are harmful. It is not their job to do so. As an ally and advocate, you can and should constructively educate others on how their comments or actions are harmful and help them be a more respectful person.

“When speaking with X (colleague), I heard you compliment them on ‘being so well spoken.’ The phrase you used is a microaggression, as sometimes people say that to people of color, implying they are less educated. While you may have meant to compliment to X, I think you should be aware that what you said can be interpreted as harmful and discriminatory. I value my working relationship with both of you, and I want to be an ally and advocate for our colleagues. I believe you care, which is why I am bringing it up with you. Perhaps a better way to compliment X would have been to thank them for their insights and great ideas during our meeting. I’m happy to discuss further.”

Being an advocate and ally can be uncomfortable. Difficult conversations run the risk of being interpreted in ways you do not intend. However, the discomfort is not nearly as bad as the countless number of microaggressions that other people experience.

As our communities work together to be better advocates and allies, we must engage in those conversations, especially when they are uncomfortable, to show our support for our colleagues and people in our communities. It is the only way to help move our communities toward a place of increased inclusivity, equity and representation.

We owe it to others to call out microagressions and discriminatory behavior when we witness it and more importantly, to recognize and change our own behaviors when if we unknowingly commit them.