Microaggression or racism? Do you want to be right or effective? Why words matter (#13)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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What is a microaggression, and how is it different from racism? This blog will help you understand the implications of these words.

Words matter

How is a microaggression different from racism? Is it helpful to use the word “racist” at all? And is the word “microaggression” overused?

Then there’s “calling out” vs. “calling in.” What do they mean, and does the distinction really matter?

Understanding the implications of these terms is the subject of this blog.

The power of understanding

As a workshop facilitator, I was explaining how I assessed whether or not to address an offensive racial comment. Often I would let it go rather than explain yet again why it was offensive. A participant responded with irritation, “so you just accommodated them?”

I’m still thinking about it three years later. Was I over-accommodating? “Selling out”? Had I let people off the hook too easily? Was I protecting myself rather than being strategic? What were my motives anyway?

black and white photo of a hand catching water droplets

Should we call it the R-word? Racist? Or a microaggression?

In the last two or three years, I have stopped referring to people’s actions as racist unless they were explicitly so. I still refer to systemic effects as racist, then qualify it with the term “systemic racism” so as not to fixate on a single person.  Anything that’s ambiguous, I say it is “racially charged” or has “racial implications.”

Similarly, I’m careful using “microaggression.” The word has become an alternative to the harsher, more in-your-face “racist,” but it is coming to carry a similar heavy load. 

Derald Sue defines microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color.”1  Simply put, microaggressions are milder forms of racially charged behavior that, if they accumulate, can have the same impact as overt racism.

Ibram X. Kendi, whom I greatly respect, takes a full-throated stance against the word “microaggressions.” He writes:

I do not use “microaggression” any more. I detest the post-racial platform that supported its sudden popularity. I detest its component parts “micro” and “aggression.” A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term “abuse” because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.

What other people call racial microaggressions I call racist abuse. And I call the zero-tolerance policies preventing and punishing these abusers what they are: antiracist. Only racists shy away from the R-word–racism is steeped in denial.2

I respect his opinion but see it differently. I’m about change, and people find it easier to change if there are gradations, rather than all or nothing.

Racism is pre-judg-ment – judging before knowing the person. This telling incident was well-publicized: Paul Ryan (then Speaker of the House) was asked about President Trump’s statement that an Indiana-born judge had a conflict of interest. Trump alleged that the judge, of Mexican descent, had an inherent conflict since Trump was building a wall between Mexico and the US.

Asked whether he thought Trump was racist, Speaker Ryan responded, “Claiming a person can't do their job because of their race is sorta the textbook definition of a racist comment. I think that should absolutely be disavowed.”3

The limits of tone policing

Tone policing occurs when ideas are dismissed due to their delivery in an angry, fearful, or emotionally charged tone.  Everyday feminism gives a delightful infographic of how tone policing occurs in gender- or racially-charged situations.4 My blog #12 describes my experience of being tone-policed.

In situations where one person belongs to a dominant group (e.g., White or male) and the other is nondominant (e.g., person of color or female), tone policing can be problematic.  

What’s the harm in a dominant person telling the nondominant to calm down?  Too often, it shifts the focus of concern from the upset nondominant to the sensibilities of the dominant offender. A hypothetical example:

White person: We’re looking for a good school in a good neighborhood.

Black person: You mean a White school in a White neighborhood, right? Say what you mean.

White person: Don’t talk to me like that. You know that’s not what I said.

What’s happening here? This is a classic example of a microaggression because of its ambiguity. The White person said something offensive, the Black person took offense and reacted in no uncertain terms. The White person did not intend a microaggression, became affronted, and shifted the conversation to the Black person’s tone of voice.

This is what tone policing looks like. What both were trying to communicate was completely lost in the round of accusations.   

Here’s the critical difference between the two offenses: The Black person is responding from a legacy of discrimination and blame-the-victim mentality she has lived with most of her life (“it’s their fault they have poor schools”). The White person is responding to the here-and-now offense. In the moment, what was said to her by her Black friend is offensive.

Some may critique the Black person’s response. It’s the response of the White person that is most problematic for me: the imbalance of reacting “You offended me with your tone of voice” vs. hearing “You insulted my family, my community, and me without recognizing the history of why we live in a segregated community in the first place.”

a hammer hitting an egg

Much has been made of the hyper-vitriolic nature of political discourse today in the public sphere and on some college settings. I’m not talking about those settings.

My focus is on the interpersonal arena where we care about one another and seek to influence others and they us. How might we talk with one another about microaggressions, racial disparities, feelings of exclusion, and lost dreams in a society weary of such discussions?

Call out or call in

In workshops, I encourage people to avoid calling out others in public shaming and instead to call them in to community. Calling out excludes; calling in includes. 

Let’s take the “good school” example again. 

This is a classic calling out situation. Observers are likely to take sides, and what had been a friendly gathering could morph into long-lasting animosities. 

So why might the Black woman have called out her White friend? Decades of putting up with such comments; listening to parents and grandparents talk about what they had to endure; remembering friends who didn’t get that job or that promotion when they were clearly better qualified  –  all this history got piled into that one comment in that one time when she snapped and said what she thought.

In the Black woman’s eyes, it wasn’t a one-off incident. In the White woman’s eyes, it probably was. One is offended for what is happening in the moment, the other for deep divides across generations.

Instead of calling her out, the Black woman could’ve asked what she meant and used it as a teaching moment instead of a blaming moment. In so doing, she might have prevented a fracture within the group.

Do you want to be right…?

In a recent workshop, when I was explaining this, several people vehemently objected.

"I don’t think that calling in works!”

“If she was wrong she was wrong, and she deserves to be told that.”

They were equating calling in with letting people off the hook. In the blame and shame culture many of us live in, pointing out the offense without shaming is equated with excusing behavior.

The question I asked them and that I’m asking you now is, “do you want to be right or effective?”

Many targets of microaggressions and their allies insist that right is right, and a person making an offensive statement deserves to be called out.  If you hold that point of view and you want to be right, call a person whatever name you feel is justified. Call them out whenever you think they have violated your standards for nonracist behavior. Sit with that and live with the results.

a lot of incense being burnt

What I’ve seen is that groups in which calling out is accepted devolve into factions. People who are publicly humiliated dig in their heels and insist that you are the one being unreasonable. And the one who repeatedly calls people out eventually develops a reputation for being difficult to work with. 

A bookshelf full of social science says that that if your intention is to influence someone, you will not be effective by shaming them. Shaming may lead to short-term change in behavior, but it will not promote long-term attitudinal change. In fact, it will do the opposite – it causes people to dig in and declare they have the right to think what they want to think.

This is called psychological reactance: people defend their freedom to do and say what they want, even when it’s illogical. 5 Want to know why people vote against their interests? Look to psychological reactance for the answer. 

In the short run it feels good to lay people out and to tell them how wrong they are. I know the feeling well. I had a boss who simply would not pay attention to what I was saying because I was working with Black and poor families and he was an oblivious White middle-class male. I needed him to understand and help me overcome some bureaucratic obstacles. At the time, I was the youngest member of the leadership team, one of two females and one of two Blacks.

Finally I said to him, “YOU ARE SEXIST AND YOU’RE RACIST AND I’M TIRED OF IT.”  The irony was I knew my words were inflammatory and I didn’t care. I was ready to walk out if I couldn’t do my job properly. He said nothing. The next day he went with me to see what I was talking about. After that, I got the help I needed.

Would I do it again? I have better skills now and know how to get someone’s attention. I did what I did because I didn’t know another way.

…Or do you want to be effective?

So if he was being sexist and racist, why not call him out for it? It’s only telling the truth.

There are four problems with what I did and why I would not repeat it. The first is the effect on him. It takes an extraordinary amount of self-awareness and self-reflection to be labeled sexist and racist without a counter-reaction. Accusations beget accusations and possibly retaliation.

The second is the effect on me. I could’ve asked myself what kind of person I want to be. Do I want to be the kind who flies off the handle and resorts to name-calling when I can’t get my way? Or do I want to be the one who knows how to influence and persuade so I don’t have to resort to name-calling?

I prefer the latter.

The third is the effect on the work climate. Do I want a work climate in which people regularly lay each other out in the name of truth? Or do I want one where people have conflict resolution and negotiation skills to work through differences of opinions and values?  

The last concern is the effect on the macro climate, the world in which we live. In this post-civil rights era, the battle is for social and economic equality. For this to happen, hearts have to be won over and minds changed. If we want people to support our cause when they vote, when they mentor us, when they view our applications for jobs or promotions, we must consider their feelings just as we want them to consider ours. 

It’s true that in the public sphere, calling out has been shown to get meaningful results.6 As one author points out, Twitter users who call out their companies in a public sphere have seen organizational policies change. This is not my point here. I’m not talking about meaningful protests in the public sphere. I’m talking about how we act with people with whom we want to have a long-term relationship. In those instances, public protest behavior may not only backfire, it may end up being counter-productive to our relationship goals.

What’s the advantage to calling in? 

Simply put, research shows that people are more motivated to change when they feel accepted for who they are. When people’s self-esteem is threatened, they are likely to blame you, their accuser, and to think you intended them harm.7 Afterwards, they are likely to lose trust in you.8

To offset these negative effects, the standard advice is to separate the person from the behavior, and to say something positive. Research studies show that criticism in which something positive is said, as trite as it sounds, actually improves people’s work outcomes.9

In my own situation, I could have tempered what I said by telling my boss frankly that I was beginning to think there were some negative impressions he had about me. That would have been sufficient – and possibly less costly. Later I could have told him I wanted to have a positive relationship with him and was dismayed it wasn’t happening. I could have called him in.

A word here to my exhausted sisters and brothers. We have been calling in for a long time. We have all experienced White people who were not interested or weren’t listening. Why do we have to keep going through this?

Because attitudes are – we hope – changing. White people are hearing us and asking what to do. In many cases this is their first time listening. We’ll waste the moment if all we can say is “where have you been for 400 years?”

MLK jr statue

What if you are the one being called out?

Now let’s look at the other point of view – the dominant group member who has been accused of being discriminatory, racist or sexist, or having committed a microaggression. 

My four concerns also apply to you. How do you want the other person to regard you? What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of workplace do you want to have? What kind of society do you want to live in?

If you can, find the fortitude to not respond to tone of voice. That’s dismissive; the message is more important. The hurt being expressed goes well beyond the incident.

Instead, apologize sincerely. Speak with them later about how you hope to communicate in such situations. Let the offended person know that you value them for who they are, and that you hope you both will eventually have a better way of making things work.

Shameless plug: Our Pathfinders: Leadership for Racial and Social Justice membership group addresses how to handle these situations – from either perspective.

Questions to ask yourself

  1. How do you define racism? Microaggressions? Do you call them out?
  2. Think about the last time you were talking with someone who didn’t seem to get it. How did you handle the conversation? How do you wish you had handled it?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this blog post:

  • Learn to recognize dominant/nondominant dynamics
  • Address underlying systemic biases
  • Recognize that you may have blind spots toward your own behavior and systemic biases
  • Get your emotional attachments out of the way
  • Accept responsibility for your contributions
  • Seek to understand the other person’s perspectives
  • Commit to personal change

#calloutculture    #racism    #R-word     #bridgingdifferences      #microaggression

Leading Consciously

We are a leadership development firm that helps people and organizations create resilient, sustainable, multicultural, and inclusive settings. The ability to lead consciously can help you gain true awareness and earn the respect and trust of others.    

It’s the assumptions we have about people’s lives that are the biggest obstacles to growth, awareness, and success. We help you understand how those assumptions are preventing you from becoming the best you can be as an organization, an inclusive leader, and a person.

  • See our website and join our mailing list
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  • Pathfinders: Leadership for Inclusion and Equity is our online membership program designed to develop leadership and change-making principles and skills in multicultural organizations. You'll discover how to recognize racism, promote inclusion, and join in insightful, respectful exchanges of views and opinions tackling a variety of concepts.
  • ChangeMakers Online is our intensive, skill-based program. You will learn how to respond more flexibly to rapid change (leadership agility) and different others (cultural agility), recoup after challenges (resilience), and form strong and collaborative relationships (connection). With these advanced skills, you are better able to lead yourself and others toward higher levels of success.
Let’s start a conversation. Email us at jeanLC@leadingconsciously.com

[1]    Sue, D. W., Capodilupo, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J., Holder, A. M., Nadal, K. L., et al. (2007). Racial microaggressions in everyday life: Implications for clinical practice. American Psychologist, 62(4), 271-286.

[2]   Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an antiracist. First Edition. New York: One World, p 47.

[3]   PBS. Paul Ryan: Trump made "textbook definition of a racist comment."  

[4]   Tone policing and privilege

[5]   Miron, A. M. and J. W. Brehm (2006). "Reactance theory - 40 years later." Zeitschrift fur Sozialpsychologie 37(1): 9-18.

[6]   It’s Not Callout Culture.  It’s Accountability

[7]   Raver, J. L., Jensen, J. M., Lee, J., & O'Reilly, J. (2012). Destructive Criticism Revisited: Appraisals, Task Outcomes, and the Moderating Role of Competitiveness. Applied Psychology-an International Review-Psychologie Appliquee-Revue Internationale, 61(2), 177-203.

[8]   Zingoni, M., & Byron, K. (2017). How beliefs about the self influence perceptions of negative feedback and subsequent effort and learning. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 139, 50-62.

[9]   Nguyen, D. T., Gancarz, T., Ng, F., Dabbish, L. A., & Dow, S. P. (2017). Fruitful Feedback: Positive Affective Language and Source Anonymity Improve Critique Reception and Work Outcomes. In Cscw'17: Proceedings of the 2017 Acm Conference on Computer Supported Cooperative Work and Social Computing (pp. 1024-1034).