How Do You Repair Harm from Microaggressions?

If you’ve ever said or heard something offensive and didn’t know what to do, you are not alone. It’s one thing to recognize insults. It’s another to respond in ways that repair the harm. People may mean well when they say, “I don’t see color.” Or  “He’s not a typical gay guy.” Or “What she is trying to say is…”  Many times, they aren’t even aware of how much pain these messages can stimulate. 

As comrades and allies, it can be shocking to learn that our positive intentions are experienced as painfully racist, homophobic or sexist. Below are a few examples of microaggressions, the positive intention of the speaker and the painful impact on the receiver.

MicroaggressionSpeaker’s Positive Intention Painful Impact on the Receiver 
“I don’t see color.” I want to be seen as a good person. I am not racist.So you don’t see me? I am invisible? I don’t exist? You are trying to erase me? I’m scared because you probably don’t see racism either. 
“He’s not a typical gay guy.” I hope to create inclusion by implying that he’s just like us.So you hold stereotypes of gay men, implying we are abnormal and he’s an exception? Ouch!
“What she is trying to say is…” I want to support her in being heard. You think I can’t speak for myself? Now you’re my editor? 
“I don’t know how you Muslims don’t drink during Ramadan. I could never go all day without water.”I have compassion for you not being able to drink all day.So you believe my religion is cruel and forces me to do unhealthy things?
“Anyone can succeed when they try hard enough here.” I want to encourage you to keep trying. You think it is a level playing field? Are you implying that it takes an equal amount of effort to obtain results and I’m a failure if I can’t get the same result?
“Inviting people to share their pronouns could push some people away.”I want to make this space inclusive for more people, such as older people and those who identify as conservative.So my reality and my preferred pronouns don’t matter to you? Others are more important than I am?

Responses to microaggressions vary widely. By far, the most common response to microaggressions is silence, which may be interpreted as approval. In that way, our silence amplifies the harm. Accusing people of microaggressions is rarely productive because if we imply wrongdoing they tend to get defensive since they meant well. However, we can learn to find our voice, extend compassion, repair the damage, and prevent further harm.  

Whenever we interact with people who experience a long history of oppression based on race, gender, sexual orientation, religion or physical ability, it is inevitable that our intentions are sometimes very different from our impact. We try to help, but we fumble and people get hurt. All over the world people are part of oppressive systems that do harm. So how do we repair the damage and support healing?

With a lot of humility we can explore ways to respond when repair is needed. When pain surfaces or trauma is re-stimulated in a group, we can let our heart strings go out to everyone involved. We can ensure that each person experiences care, starting with the people who have a long history of being crushed by oppression. 

Whether you are a witness or the one who said the harmful words, you can help repair the damage when you:

1. Take time for self connection and internal reflection

2. Understand the impact on the person who experienced harm

3. Intervene to stop further damage 

4. Express regret

5. Rebuild trust

  1. TAKE TIME FOR SELF CONNECTION AND INTERNAL REFLECTION

“If we give our children sound self-love, they will be able to deal with whatever life puts before them.” bell hooks

Whether you’ve done harm or stood by when someone else did harm, you can self- connect and hold yourself gently in spite of your shortcomings. As soon as possible you can turn your attention to the person impacted by the hurtful behavior. You can always come back later to do your inner work to change your behavior, including:

  • Look inside and self-empathize with the pain and shame that arises when you do harm.
  • When you have done something that is interpreted as sexist, racist, xenophobic, etc., take responsibility for your impact.
  • Do your own work. Identify how you reinforce oppression and perpetuate the loss of dignity and respect of people from marginalized groups.
  • Stop trying to be seen as a “good person” or a “savior” and mourn the harm done by you, others, and systems of oppression.
  • Lean into your discomfort and recognize the moment as an opportunity for growth and reflection.
  • Whether you are called out, or called in, welcome the exploration and do the important work of interrupting your harmful beliefs and biases.

2.   UNDERSTAND THE IMPACT ON THE PERSON WHO EXPERIENCED HARM

“What I want in my life is compassion, a flow between myself and others based on a mutual giving from the heart.” ― Marshall B. Rosenberg

When hurt arises or trauma is re-stimulated, you can…

  • Set the intention to connect, even if you don’t agree, or you experience the situation very differently,
  • Witness the harm done. Be present and listen deeply.
  • Focus on the impact of the harm, not the positive intentions of the person doing the harm.
  • Take in the pain and any feedback. Really take it in at the soul level.
  • Believe their experience. Do not debate or require proof of injury. Do not ask folks to share their observations or interpret their experience differently.
  • De-center your own feelings and instead center the folks who experience historic oppression.
  • Listen deeply. Rather than suppress emotions, create brave space for pain to be expressed.
  • Encourage full expression and amplification of the hurt, grief, despair, and rage connected to oppression. 
  • Thank the people who do the heavy lifting of sharing their emotional pain, because it can take a lot of courage to speak up about microaggressions.
  • Empathize with the receiver of the harm, rather than defend, explain, dismiss, discount or divert.
  • Accept feedback with grace, curiosity and real gratitude. 
  • Ask if there is more… And keep asking until the person feels completely heard.

3. INTERVENE TO PREVENT FURTHER DAMAGE

“Liberation means you don’t have to be silenced.” Toni Morrison

Silence and inaction can suggest approval, so you can…

  • Stop holding back when you feel the sting of oppression. 
  • Intervene early and often.
  • Don’t wait until you know exactly what to say.
  • Center people who are “othered”.
  • Simultaneously hold those who did the harm with care, without shame or blame.
  • Speak for yourself; not on behalf of others.
  • Recognize that interventions can be challenging, and it’s so important and so fulfilling to be part of re-creating the narrative.
  • If you are a member of the dominant group don’t walk away from your discomfort. Stop. Listen. Stay in the conversation.

4. EXPRESS REGRET

“I’m sorry that you were offended,” is the worst apology ever.  “I’m sorry if you were offended” doesn’t cut it either. Franchesca Ramsey

When someone experiences harm, you can slow down, reflect deeply, take responsibility, and apologize authentically. 

  • Focus on your impact. Avoid defending or explaining your positive intention.
  • Take responsibility for the harm you have done and make a commitment to change your behavior.
  • Express regret from the heart, without trying to be the fixer.
  • Don’t expect the receiver of the harm to shift, become your friend, teach you, or take care of your feelings.  
  • Make amends by sharing what you plan to do differently. 
  • Create accountability structures to repair harm from the past and reduce harm in the future.
  • Don’t expect forgiveness, empathy, or understanding from the person harmed.
  • Move on. 

5. REBUILD TRUST

“Liberated relationships are one of the ways we actually create abundant justice, the understanding that there is enough attention, care, resource, and connection for all of us to access belonging, to be in our dignity, and to be safe in community.” ― Adrienne Maree Brown

An apology doesn’t always make the relationship better right away. The person you’ve harmed may or may not want to be in relationship with you, now or ever. Respect their choices. If they express an interest in rebuilding trust, you can honor the cycle of relationship which can include harmony, conflict, tension, pain, and healing. To increase resilience, you can:

  • Be wary of your desire to be understood by those harmed by your microaggressions.
  • Avoid asking if they want to hear your experience, which can unravel the repair work already done.
  • Only share your experience if the wounded person has received plenty of empathy and asks about you.
  • If you sense any reluctance to hear your experience, offer deeper empathy instead.
  • Respect their direct or subtle “no” and get empathy for yourself somewhere else.
  • Instead of forcing reconnection, create spaciousness for delayed gratification.
  • Don’t expect trust to be rebuilt immediately or ever; instead rely on many small acts of respect to support healing over time.

When you are the receiver of microaggressions, notice if you have a tendency to gaslight yourself, which can include blaming yourself, doubting your experience, questioning if you heard that right, or silencing yourself. When you notice these behaviors, you can then seek out internal and external resources: connect with your wounded parts, seek support, speak from the heart and connect with people who can help you heal.

When you’ve noticed a need for repair, what has worked or not worked for you?

Written by Martha Lasley, with a lot of gratitude to all the people who have contributed to this piece: Kawtar El Aloui, Roxy Manning, James-Olivia Hillman, Anita Pottekkatt, and Kanya Likanasudh.