Verbal Jiujitsu, Disarming and Other Tips for Dealing With Microaggressions
Psychologist Derald Wing Sue calls microaggressions the “everyday slights, indignities, insults, putdowns and invalidations” that people from marginalized communities experience on a regular basis.
Whether and how we respond to a microaggression is situational, but we don’t have to passively let them happen to us or in front of us. There are ways, large and small, to push back and “signal to both the perpetrator and onlookers that this is unacceptable behavior,” Sue said.
Although these affronts often come from well-intentioned people, they are draining and have a “macro impact” on our health and well-being, said Sue, a professor at Columbia University who researches microintervention strategies.
He has four tactics for disarming and dismantling microaggressions:
1. Make the invisible visible.
Because microaggressions are easier to trivialize and brush off than explicit racism, it’s important to acknowledge that it happened. “Making the invisible visible” means pointing out the underlying message within the microaggression.
When people compliment Sue’s English, they are assuming that he did not grow up in the U.S., which reinforces the stereotype that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners.
Sue responds, “I hope so. I was born here” or “Thank you. You do too.”
His comeback — “a form of verbal jiujitsu” — undermines the implicit subtext and indicates they said something wrong, without creating a huge amount of defensiveness, Sue said.
2. Disarm and dismantle the microaggression.
Some microaggressions are too harmful to go unchecked, Sue said.
In these cases, Sue recommends tactics that range from deflections that express disapproval to challenging what was said or done.
When someone starts to tell a racist joke, you can cut them off before they can reach the punchline, Sue said. “I know you meant that to be a joke, but that’s not funny.”
Or, say you don’t want to hear it and walk away, Sue said.
By stopping the microaggression in its tracks, you indicate that what they’re saying is offensive and unacceptable, Sue said.
3. Educate the perpetrator.
Depending on your relationship with the microaggressor, you may want to explain why their behavior was harmful, Sue said.
For those conversations, Sue recommends separating the microaggressor’s intent from the impact.
“If you try to argue over intent, it’s a waste of time and energy,” Sue said. “But if you get them to think about impact and the harm, you force the dialogue into your territory.”
4. Seek external reinforcement and support
Given the constant and cumulative nature of microaggressions, it’s important to find outside help, especially if there’s a power imbalance or if pushing back puts you at risk or in danger.
External support, whether in the moment or afterward, is also important.
When Sue’s research team studied racial microaggressions within classroom dynamics, they noticed that after a teacher said or did something inappropriate, the students of color would make eye contact with each other.
“That’s nonverbal microintervention support,” he said. “What they are saying is, ‘We’re with you. That really happened. Don’t buy into that stereotype they have of you.'”
Excerpted from “Verbal Jiujitsu, Disarming and Other Tips for Dealing With Microaggressions” in the Los Angeles Times. Read the full story online.