American culture is infused with subtle messages about what’s normal or not normal, and what is good or bad. These messages are reinforced through daily interactions that, for those whose race, nationality, sexual orientation, faith, disability or other attributes differ from cultural norms, can often cause exclusion or alienation. Even though they might be unintentional, microagressions — also called subtle acts of exclusion (SAE) — inflict harm. SAE insidiously reinforce bias.
Statements such as, “I didn’t expect you to be so eloquent,” or “I can’t pronounce your name, so I’ll just call you ‘Taj,’” are pervasive, and go mostly unchecked. Yet they wear on victims’ physical and emotional well-being by making them feel different or less than. Still, pointing out the offense to a coworker, an acquaintance or a stranger can be awkward, or even perilous.
But for a witness or bystander, ignoring an SAE or pretending it didn’t happen leaves the subject feeling invisible and silently condones the act. Because of this, the need for allies who are willing to stand up to SAE is extremely important. While it’s likely that the initiator will focus on the intent behind the remark, what in fact matters is the impact the remark had on the other person.
One of the most critical aspects of inclusion is that it must happen actively. It’s not enough to say you’re an ally and then not speak up in the face of adversity. When you witness an SAE, you have choices. You can sit by and let it happen, you can speak up to the initiator or you can speak to the subject.
Let’s focus on how to speak up to the initiator.
If there’s a possibility of a productive conversation without negative repercussions, the best course of action is to say something. Use these guidelines for how to safely interrupt and address an SAE.
- Pause the action. This first step, pause the action, does not need to be hostile or abrupt. A simple “Wait, what did you just say?” or “Excuse me, but I don’t think you meant to say that” work very well at stopping the action without making the person speaking feel upset or thrown off.
- Assume good intent. We have been socialized to commit SAE. They’re part of many people’s beliefs and vernacular. So, assume the person didn’t mean to commit an exclusionary act.
- Explain why the action was paused. This, again, should not be a hostile interaction. Simply state that what was just done or said was an act of exclusion, and that people say or do these things all the time, but they’re actually super harmful. There’s no need to lecture the person on what they did. Simply plant the seed.
- Have patience but expect progress. Systemic change is never instantaneous. Expect progress over time. Hold people accountable but don’t get frustrated if it takes a few more reminders and “pause the actions” to really start to see change.
The importance of allyship can’t be overstated. If each of us spoke up every time we saw or heard an SAE taking place, we’d become better at these types of conversations. Greater social accountability would result and change would be affected more rapidly.
Just as in every civil rights movement throughout history, change occurred because of allies and accountability. When more people spoke up, it created power in numbers and increased awareness.
It’s time to shift the conversation around microaggressions from a shame filled association to the truly unconscious and socialized nature of these SAE. We want to manage the guilt that comes with committing an SAE in an attempt to humanize these experiences and create room for conversation and growth. By lessening the shame and educating others on the macro, not micro, impact of these acts, we instill a call to action: If you see something, say something. Don’t call out, call in.