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Appropriately Handle Being Called Out For A Microagreession

Step 1 - Don't make it about you.

Microaggressions are the everyday indignities and insults that members of marginalized groups endure in their routine interactions with people in all walks of life.

If you’ve been called out for committing a microaggression you need to respond with compassion, concern, and humility. “You want people to feel respected, so you need to walk the talk,” Zheng says. “It’s important to get this right.

Here are some tips.

Take a breath.

Being called out for a microaggression does not feel good. You may experience a range of emotions — “stress, embarrassment, defensiveness, and your heart rate may even go up,” says Zheng. This is normal. But do not let these sensations rule how you react. Instead, “take a breath.” Calm yourself. Understand that while you may have made a mistake, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. In these circumstances, people often fall prey to the fundamental attribution error — a “tendency to believe that things happen because of who we are as people rather than the situation,” says Zheng. In other words, you can still be “a good person with positive intentions, who slipped up.”

And there’s an upside to being called out for a microaggression: It’s an indication of trust. The person who labeled your comment believes that you can be better, says Jana. “If they don’t think you’re capable of, or interested in, evolving they would not have wasted their breath.”

Don’t make it about you.

While being called out for a microaggression may be awkward and uncomfortable, you don’t want to get defensive. “You must not make it about you,” says Jana. “When a human being tells you that they have been harmed by your words or actions, you need to focus on the injured party.” It can be helpful to remember that “every callout has an entire history’s worth of unsaid context behind it,” says Zheng. “When someone says, ‘What you said hurt me,’ they’re saying, ‘You have hurt me in the way that people have hurt me, and people like me, in the past.’” In other words, your remark was not “just one interpersonal interaction.” Rather it carried centuries’ worth of discrimination, cruelty, and oppression. “And the weight of historical oppression is very heavy,” says Zheng.


Your first priority is to make sure the other person feels heard, says Jana. As difficult as it may be to receive the criticism, “they are taking a risk by putting themselves on the line.” Listen to what they say with an open heart and an open mind. Be grateful. “It is a deeply sacred gift for someone to reflect back to you how you’re showing up in the world and to help you become more evolved,” explains Jana. Express appreciation, and then “follow the other person’s lead,” says Zheng. Sometimes the individual calling you out may “want to explain to you all the ways that what you said was harmful and give you a history lesson to go along with it,” she says. Other times, all they may reveal is, “‘Don’t say that word.’”

Sincerely apologize.

Next, says Jana, you need to “replace your instinctive defensiveness with curiosity and empathy” and offer a genuine apology. According to Zheng, your apology must include three elements: “You must address the harmful comment, acknowledge the impact it had, and commit to doing better.”

Start by saying something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s hard to hear. And I appreciate you trust me enough to share this feedback.” Then say, “I am sorry that what I said and did was offensive.”

Your apology must be sincere. “Don’t say, ‘I am sorry if you felt offended.’ The insertion of the ‘if’ makes it seem like you’re humoring them,” says Zheng. Finally, say, “I care a lot about creating an inclusive workplace, and I want to improve.” Depending on your relationship with this colleague, you might also ask for a suggestion on how to be better in future situations. Zheng suggests saying something like, “If you can, and if you’re willing, can you share a recommendation for how I could have said it differently?”

And don’t overdo it.

Upon being called out for an offensive remark, some people have a tendency to over-apologize, says Zheng. “They go on and on, saying things like: ‘I am so sorry. I feel so terrible. I am not a racist. What must you think of me?’” But these histrionics do not help, and in fact, they contribute to the insult. “You are flexing your power by [asking] this employee to take care of you,” she says. It’s not your colleague’s job to assuage your guilt, and make you feel better about the situation. This shouldn’t become “a pity party,” adds Jana.

Read the full article by Rebecca Knight on responding to microagressions in the workplace at: You’ve Been Called Out for a Microaggression. What Do You Do? [Harvard Business review]


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