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Unpacking microaggression: combatting anti-Black biases

Experts provide tips on responding to unconscious bias and racial prejudice
By: Surbhi Bir
July 13, 2021
Face of a Black man with closed eyes on a yellow road sign.

Helpful tips to confront microaggression include overcoming the bystander effect and implementing the five Ds. Illustrated by Chelsea Charles.

“I don’t see colour, I treat everybody the same.”

“I’m not racist, I have several Black friends.”

“Why do you have to be so loud? Calm down.”

Black people experience the harmful impacts of verbal or nonverbal microaggression almost daily. Ryerson experts describe such instances of racism as slights, comments or actions stemming from power dynamics in play during daily interactions that can make a person feel inferior in some way. 

“It happens pretty much anywhere there are people who belong to a dominant culture, a dominant gender or sexual identity, who then wield that power consciously or unconsciously over others,” said Cheryl Thompson, professor at Ryerson’s School of Creative Industries. 

“People don't want to talk about power, it's often the elephant in the room. But what I mean by power is not your title – power is your sense of belonging to the place where you are. So if you are white and male, your sense of belonging is just different than if you are, for example, Black and female,” Thompson said. 

In part three of our series on unpacking microaggression, Ryerson experts help explain how implicit biases reveal themselves and provide concrete tips on responding to microaggression in the classroom or the workplace. 

Verbal and nonverbal microaggression

Microaggressions are similar to other forms of racism in that they often take the shape of backhanded compliments resulting from grouping together of a community or universalizing experiences. But they can be unique in the sense that they involve one-on-one interactions, often with people we know. 

“If somebody takes a little bit longer to serve you while you’re waiting in line and it makes you wonder if you’re just imagining this, that is microaggression that shows how it has become a normalized part of everyday interactions,” said Cheryl Teelucksingh, professor at Ryerson’s department of sociology. 

Experts point out other nonverbal microaggressions such as a white person hesitating to enter an elevator if a Black male is already in it and a woman clutching her purse tighter when a Black male passes by.

“I remember when I was 12 and on vacation, I was a guest at a hotel where my family was staying. I was approached by another guest who thought I was housekeeping staff and asked me to get towels, and I didn’t know what to say. These incidents are so pervasive and normative, and lead to sentiments of not belonging and being a second-class citizen,” said Marcia Glasgow, anti-Black racism facilitator at the office of the vice-president, equity and community inclusion. 

Within higher education, microaggressions often occur even in conversations about improving representation in programs. 

“There’s a lot of narrative around diverse student bodies and getting more Black students in certain programs. And in order to do that, you might hear rhetoric of lowering the grade point average for admittance, which reveals an implicit bias that Black students don’t have the grades needed to get into universities and you need to lower the standards to attract them,” said Thompson. 

Another microaggression Thompson noted is the difficulty white people sometimes have in simply saying the word Black, which makes it hard to have necessary conversations. 

“If you start a conversation specifically about the challenges faced by Black people and anti-Black racism, they respond using phrases like ‘diverse communities’ and ‘equity-seeking groups’ which are structural terms related to policy, not actual people or communities. That to me is a form of gaslighting and microaggression because you’re making invisible something that I’m trying to make visible,” Thompson said.

The bystander effect

Interestingly, experts noted that instances of microaggression can be more likely to occur in societies where people think racism is less problematic, because they consider the presence of multiculturalism and colour blindness to solve some of the issues around race.  

“As soon as someone says ‘we don’t really see people’s colour, we treat everybody the same,’ they allow microaggression to come into place. From the perspective of the person doing the microaggression, they get defensive if called out and think ‘I’m not a racist person, I couldn’t possibly be saying something offensive, this person is being too sensitive,’” Teelucksingh said. 

Instead, experts suggest being open to feedback and rectifying honest mistakes when someone points out a microaggression. Allies should also say something when they see something, and stand up when they see microaggression or racism taking place. 

In her recent webinar on confronting unconscious bias and microaggressions in the workplace, Glasgow identified three psychological explanations for why people don’t intervene in such situations.

“People usually don’t want to speak up or get involved because of evaluation apprehension where there’s fear of unfavourable public judgement when you help someone, pluralistic ignorance or the belief that because nobody is helping, the situation is not actually an emergency, and diffusion of responsibility which means having less responsibility when more people are present,” Glasgow said. 

She pointed out that bystander effect or bystander apathy describes the effect when people witness discrimination and choose not to intervene. 

“A bystander is considered an observer. On the other hand, an upstander is a doer, a person who recognizes injustice, speaks or acts in support of an individual or cause and intervenes on behalf of a person being attacked or bullied,” Glasgow explained at the webinar.

The five Ds 

A non-confrontational method to respond to microaggression, Glasgow suggests, is implementing the ‘ouch technique’ – saying something like ‘Ouch! That is difficult to hear.’ This evokes empathy, diffuses the situation and stops the perpetrator from causing further harm. 

Additionally, Glasgow suggests employing the ‘five Ds’ to respond to microaggression: discern, disarm, defy, decide and document. 

“You first acknowledge the importance of the issue, validate your feelings and actions, and express upset feelings. If you’re an observer, try to discern how the targeted person is feeling if you’re comfortable talking to them about it,” Glasgow said.

The next step would be to disarm, which includes using conflict dialogue to interrupt and dishonour that behaviour, using a form of distraction to shift the focus of the discussion, or interjecting to escalate the seriousness of it. 

“When you notice microaggression taking place, saying ‘let’s take a ten minute break’ or being very deliberate in saying ‘wait a second, we’re not going any further with this discussion’ can help interrupt that person’s behaviour,” Glasgow advised. 

Further, to defy means questioning the validity of a statement. Inquiring what a person intended by asking them ‘what do you mean by that?’ or interjecting by asking ‘could you repeat that?’ and ‘can you speak a little louder?’ can put the person on the spot.  

“The decision step can mean three different things – to let it go, to delay the discussion and circle back at a more appropriate time, or to respond immediately. Lastly, write down and document the incident as much as possible,” Glasgow said.

Another helpful tactic in addition to the five Ds is to delegate responsibility. 

“When a person doesn’t have the capacity or agency to verbalize or stop the behaviour, they should seek support from an ally or accomplice to intervene on their behalf. The delegated person should be granted permission and act within their role, ensuring not to overtake the situation which may cause further harm,” Glasgow added.

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