Dear Kerry Ann,
I’ve only recently learned what microaggressions are and the impact they have. Now that I know, I can see them happening frequently to my junior colleagues who are minorities and women, particularly in faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings.
My problem is that I see what’s happening and understand the impact on my junior colleagues, but I don’t know what to say or do in the moment. I know what’s happening is a problem, and I want to do something, but I freeze. The best I can do is to go see the targeted person afterward to say, “I’m sorry that happened.”
I feel terrible that these kinds of things happen at all, but I feel worse that I don’t know what to do in the moment. I want to be a better ally for my colleagues, but I’m not sure how to do so or whom to ask for help. Any advice is greatly appreciated.
I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your question and your desire to be a better ally. While there are lots of ways to be an ally (e.g., mentoring, being a sponsor, shaping policy), the one that is often unexpectedly challenging is how to respond to microaggressions in the moment. The sad truth is not only are microaggressions a regular occurrence, but they’re also painful to receive and observe, and they have a lasting impact.
I experience microaggressions regularly. For example, a few days ago, I attended a local executive club meeting where I was the only female CEO present. In a discussion about expanding the group, I observed that the time of meeting (4 p.m. to 6 p.m.) and the activity (we toured a model of a hockey stadium that is being built) might be contributing to the lack of gender diversity in the group. One of the members responded by suggesting, “Maybe we should we meet at the mall next time and focus on shopping.”
This comment was met with silence. I waited for an ally to emerge and say something, but nobody did. So I smiled and said, “Actually that’s a really bad stereotype.” People laughed, the awkward silence was broken and we moved on. Afterward, several men in the room came up to me individually to comment that they “couldn’t believe” what was said, apologized that such an inappropriate comment was made and requested that I plan the next event.
This incident impacted me significantly due to the cumulative total of microaggressions I had already experienced that week (it was the last straw). I went home upset and spent an hour processing it with my husband. I woke up in the middle of the night angry about it. And even though I pushed back in the moment, I had to punch some pillows to get out the residual rage that occurs when -- despite the fact that I run the second-fastest-growing company in Detroit -- somebody reveals that they see me as a girl who just wants to go shopping.
I’m sharing this story with you for two important reasons. The first is to get concrete about the reality of silent allies. I think you know this already, but I’ll say it anyway:
- Silence communicates tacit approval.
- Apologizing to the target afterwards adds insult to injury.
- The worst ex post facto response of all is asking the target of a microaggression to fix the problem. (For example, “You plan the next event if you think we need more women.”)
The second reason I’m sharing this story with you is because I want you to know that even though I experience microaggressions (as a woman of color), I also observe other types of microaggressions where I am in a position to be an ally for others (i.e., around homophobia, religious intolerance and disability issues). Even though I know the pain of being the target, the truth is that I still occasionally freeze when it’s my turn to act as an ally.
I want you to know that freezing is a common response. It happens a lot more than most allies want to acknowledge, and few people are willing to recognize it, much less work toward learning how to be more active. When I made a conscious choice to improve my own effectiveness as an ally, I attended a workshop with Cynthia Ganote (associate professor, St. Mary’s College of California), Floyd Cheung (associate professor, Smith College) and Tasha Souza (professor, Boise State University). Let me share with you what I learned and what I’ve practiced since then.
Try Moving From Reacting to Resistance
Learning about microaggressions has allowed you to see previously unrecognized hostility in your department’s environment. Right now, the way you understand your role in these interactions is “reacting to microaggressions.”
What would happen if you reframed your role? Instead of defensively reacting, what if you saw yourself as engaging in “microresistance”? In other words, instead of reacting to an individual’s bad behavior, what if you proactively worked toward an equitable environment for everyone in your department?
I don’t know how this sits with you, but I love this reframing of my own behavior. When I understand myself as actively engaging in microresistance, it has a different energy than reacting to microaggressions. It keeps me focused on the structural nature of the problem.
In other words, it’s not just one person acting like an asshole; what’s occurring in everyday interactions is a continual manifestation of privilege. As such, my words and actions matter to the higher-level goals of equity and inclusion. Microresistance empowers me and makes me feel that my daily choices contribute to the overall climate in which I’m embedded.
Practice “Opening the Front Door”
Ganote, Cheung and Souza taught us a technique called “opening the front door” (OTFD) as a first step to engage in microresistance in the kinds of contexts you’ve described (such as faculty meetings, hallway conversations and informal gatherings). It’s quite simple:
- Observe: Describe clearly and succinctly what you see happening.
- Think: State what you think about it.
- Feel: Express your feelings about the situation.
- Desire: Assert what you would like to happen.
For example, an ally at the event I attended could have said something like, “When your response to the fact that this group is almost entirely male is to suggest we ‘meet at the mall’ (observation), it sounds like you think female leaders are primarily concerned with shopping, and that’s insulting to them and their accomplishments (think). I feel embarrassed and uncomfortable feel), and I would like us to take the concern seriously and discuss why women have stopped attending our events (desire).”
It doesn’t have to be perfect, it just has to be authentic -- in your own words and expressing your own thoughts, feelings and desires. I bet you can imagine how different the conversation would have been if an ally had intervened. And whenever you’re acting, just keep in mind that the goal of microresistance is to relieve the person (or group) who is the target of having to fix the problem. That means that even a suboptimal effort is still a step forward.
Be Committed and Gentle With Your Progress
While you are learning how to engage in microresistance, allow yourself to set the bar low for success. What I mean is that when you are first learning and practicing new skills, success is when you experiment with new behavior. In other words, for a few weeks you can consider yourself successful if you notice when you start to freeze and do something (anything!). Just breaking through the frozen sensation is a victory.
Once you get comfortable engaging in microresistance, you can raise the bar so that you act in ways that are increasingly sophisticated, effective and a fit with your personality. It will take practice for that to happen, but trust me, since I adopted this approach I’ve gotten better over time. And once you get comfortable with microresistance in daily interactions, you can move on to other ways that you can act as an ally: mentoring, being a sponsor and shaping policy on your campus.
I hope these clear practices will help you to shift your approach to being an ally when microaggressions occur, give you a quick and direct way to respond, and provide encouragement that you will get increasingly effective with practice. If you want to learn more about being an effective ally, you can download an abbreviated version of the workshop I attended. I’m sharing it because I think the more allies who can break through that freezing sensation and communicate directly, the more likely we are to create truly inclusive department environments.
Peace and productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore, Ph.D.
P.S. Keep your questions coming! I joyfully receive them at DearKerryAnn@FacultyDiversity.org.