Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions

In Women at Work’s first workshop of the 2016-2017 school year, Recognizing and Responding to Microaggressions, Dr. Meag-gan Walters from Stanford’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) gave examples of what microaggressions can look like in everyday life. She also gave examples of strategies for working through the negative emotional and psychological effects that microaggressions can create.

What is a Microaggression?

Microaggressions can take many forms. Dr. Walter explained that aggressions can be characterized into the following categories depending on their severity:

  • Micro-negations: Communications that subtly exclude or negate the thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of another person. For instance, a colleague asking a person of color “where are you from….no where are you really from?” implying that the person of color is a “foreigner in their own land”.
  • Micro-insults: Verbal, non-verbal, and environmental communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity that demean a person’s identity. For example, a student who asks a fellow student how they got an acceptance into a prestigious university, implying that she/he may have landed it through affirmative action and that she/he is not deserving of an acceptance.
  • Micro-assaults: Conscious and intentional discriminatory actions including using racial epithets, displaying supremacist symbols, or preventing others from interacting from those outside of their race.

No matter the severity, microaggressions can have both short and long term effects. In the moment, the recipient may feel emotionally drained, as responding to an uncomfortable/hurtful situation takes energy, especially when the recipient feels as though they need to defend their identity. Long-term impacts can include lowered self esteem, increased isolation and loneliness, frustration around being perceived as too sensitive, regret for inaction in the moment, and even physical and mental health consequences including heightened cortisol levels, depression, etc.

Knowing this, Dr. Walters reminds us that we’re not alone in experiencing these aggressions and that it is not the recipient’s fault when a microaggression happens. Preparing ourselves to recognize when a microaggression is being committed and to react in our own time are forms of self-care in themselves.

Why we don’t respond?

People who experience microaggressions are put in a difficult position. Frequently, most recipients choose to do nothing out of fear, doubt, frustration, or not knowing what to do, which can further perpetuate the above-mentioned negative emotional and physical effects.

Here are some reasons Dr. Walters mentioned why people may choose not to respond:

  • Doubt as to whether a microaggression has actually occurred.
  • Indecision about how best to respond.
  • The incident may pass before a response can be made.
  • Self-deception or denial keep the recipient from making a response. Often this occurs when the offender and recipient have a close relationship that could be threatened upon responding.
  • Believing that one’s actions will have minimal effect, creating a sense of powerlessness.
  • Fear of the consequences of responding, especially in a situation where the offender is an authority figure. Consequences could include retaliation, social isolation, or affirming the negative stereotype implied in the microaggression.

So, what can we do?

In giving tips for how to respond to microaggressions, Dr. Walters emphasized that the main focus should be self-care. The goal, Dr. Walters says, is to shift the target of your response from teaching someone else the impacts of their actions to taking care of your own well-being.

Upon experiencing a microaggression, one may feel the need to:

    1. Discern the truth. Dr. Walters explained that “If you’re asking yourself whether it happened: It happened.”
    2. Protect oneself from further insults or invalidations.
    3. Consider what action to take.


To figure out how to respond, first focus on having a voice. Responding is for YOUR benefit, so it’s best to figure out what end goal you have in mind. Would approaching the aggressor be for mutual benefit, just to school somebody, to stand up for yourself? Know yourself first: are you a slow simmer or a quick fire? Then determine what is appropriate.

Understandably, opening up a dialogue with the aggressor won’t always come out the way you want. Nevertheless, Dr. Walters says; “I encourage you to keep trying.” And in situations where it’s hard to be “that” person who stands up for themselves, one student in the workshop audience reminded us, “Don’t feel guilty about it. It is okay to call out racism blatantly.”

Other take-away points from the workshop:

  • The intent behind a microaggression isn’t always malicious, but the impact is.
  • In a power differential situation, responding later is often better. Naturally, we might respond differently to a microaggression committed by a professor than by a peer. Dr. Walters recommends that in situations where the aggressor is a power figure (boss, professor, etc.), it’s best to hold your ground and stay true to what will be best for your wellbeing. This could mean talking it out with friends or people you trust and potentially reaching out to the aggressor after the fact, explaining your experience, and asking for an apology. Waiting until after the heat of the moment has passed can help in devising a profession, but firm way to address the situation with the aggressor or someone else in a position of power who may be able to help. Of course, not everyone’s situation may afford them the luxury of demanding an apology or understanding from a power figure. Take your time in figuring out what will best help you work through the experience.
  • There is no wrong way to respond. Take as much time as needed in order to figure out how to address the situation.

We hope that this post can be a resource to feel more equipped to recognize and respond to microaggressions, should they happen around or to you or your communities at school, work, or in your life. Thanks again to Dr. Walters for this solid advice!

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