ABOUT ALAN HENRY:
Alan Henry is a journalist and editor who writes and commissions stories that help readers make better use of their technology and embrace a healthier relationship with it in their lives. He is currently senior editor at Wired. He was previously the Smarter Living editor at The New York Times, and before that the editor in chief of the productivity and lifestyle blog Lifehacker.
SEEN, HEARD and PAID: Microaggressions
Microaggressions are subtle, deniable actions that undermine a person or exclude or malign the individual. The actions are easily explained away by forgetfulness, ignorance, or anything but the malice that often inspires them. Perhaps a more blatant and specific example comes from my friend and colleague Hahna Yoon, who wrote a guide on how to deal with microaggressions for the New York Times. Yoon opens the piece by describing the time a friend’s boyfriend went out of his way to explain the concept and history of American Thanksgiving to her, as though she hadn’t been raised in the United States. She shared her experiences with online dating and being regularly approached by men who claim to love Asian women almost as a fetish, as though her entire self-had been reduced to her ethnicity. We could, as she explains, sit and argue over whether those people meant anything harmful by their actions. We could even discuss whether their actions are racist (they are) or whether their actions make those people racist (unclear, but that’s not the point). The point is that the actions are born from racial ignorance and result in behavior that’s actively harmful to the person it’s inflicted on.
MICROAGGRESSIONS ARE SO INSIDIOUS BECAUSE THEY ARE HARD TO PIN DOWN
Their fleeting nature is key to why microaggressions are so difficult to pin down, examine, and respond to. People who face microaggressions struggle to find the right way to respond to them, because—and this is part of the malice—responding directly or overtly can be perceived as flying off the handle or playing into negative stereotypes of “bitchy” women workers or “angry Black” workers or cultural stereotypes where someone may not understand the subtleties of how badly they’ve been treated. Instead of focusing on the action and how the action was hurtful, the focus shifts immediately back to the intention of the perpetrator and whether that person meant to do harm, bypassing the need for apology or self-reflection on their part, entirely. In short, the man who approaches Yoon on a dating site and says “Wow, I love Asian women! Do you want to go out sometime?” may think he’s being flirtatious and approachable, but instead he has reduced Yoon’s entire self to the way he perceives her ethnicity as a tangible thing to be desired and obtained. He may not understand that this behavior is exploitative and racist, but it is. He may not have intended it to be this way, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is. And because he is opening with this microaggression, Yoon then has to either ignore it entirely or confront him on his behavior.
THE POWER OF “WHAT DO YOU MEAN BY THAT?”
One technique that has worked for me in moments of microaggression is to ask someone, completely seriously, “What do you mean by that?” Forcing another person to halt the flow of the conversation and reflect on exactly why you asked them what they meant— and forcing them to examine the meaning behind their words— is often enough to signal that they said something wrong. The question signals that they should probably stop short and think again before making a comment like that around you.
I’ve particularly found this technique helpful when talking with people who will make comments about a group I’m not a member of, or at least not visibly so. If someone makes an anti-Semitic comment, for example, a little stone- faced “What do you mean by that?” or “How did you come to think that?” goes a long way. In most cases, the reaction is embarrassment rather than defensiveness, and that’s enough. It’s not truly corrective, in that I don’t dispel the notions that caused the person to believe what they’re saying. But it’s certainly enough to make them aware that I don’t share their sentiment and I’m not the kind of person they should say such things to.
If you prefer an approach that focuses a bit more on educating the person or trying to correct their behavior for the long term, consider, first, letting them know that you’re sure their intentions weren’t malicious. This approach gives them the benefit of the doubt (although, frankly, some people don’t deserve it) and will help stave off the defensiveness. Then you let them know that what they said is harmful and explain why. Ruchika Tulshyan also has a suggestion. “In terms of making people aware,” she says, “I like to name behaviors and actions rather than label people. So I have found moderate success with saying ‘When you don’t invite me to meetings, I feel excluded. Could it be because I’m the only person of color?’ rather than, ‘You’re a racist for not inviting me to these meetings.’ ” I can vouch for this idea— unfortunately many people, especially privileged ones, perceive the possibility of being labeled racist, sexist, or otherwise discriminatory as somehow worse than the actual harmful treatment they inflict on others. Tulshyan continues, “Some re-search shows people with privilege can be so immunized by it, they may not even know they’re being biased. But if you’re met with anything else than genuine desire to learn and improve from the other person, I wouldn’t push the issue. It’s not the marginalized person’s problem to fix!”
Excerpted from SEEN, HEARD, AND PAID copyright © 2022 by Alan Henry. Used by permission of RodaleBooks, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
From Kirkus Reviews: “For members of minorities who want to navigate the corporate jungle, this book is an essential guide.”