These days, when we see so many painful, deadly examples of overt racism and discrimination, we can sometimes forget the huge impact microaggressions can have on people, too. Not only do these subtler racist, sexist, homophobic comments hurt in the moment, but researchers have shown that the long-term effect of being on the receiving end of them wears down a person’s physical health and wellbeing. Knowing that makes it all the more painful to watch a group of teens see that five years ago, they were saying the same thing about microaggressions that they feel today.
If the arc of the moral universe “bends towards justice,” as MLK put it, it’s not bending very quickly. Particularly not from the perspective of the SheKnows Hatch teens.
“Watching that video made me feel upset,” 15-year-old Gabrielle said of watching the video SheKnows made in 2015 about microaggressions. “It made me feel angry because microaggressions are still happening. I’m saying the exact same stuff as they were saying in 2015.”
As parents, we would really like to shield our children from ever having to hear someone saying something like, “Oh, you’re so pretty for a Black girl,” or “You’re just being an overly emotional girl,” or mentioning a stereotype, even in a joking manner. But even as society becomes more overtly “woke,” microaggressions are still happening. So our next best option is to teach kids how to respond to racist comments, whether they’re on the receiving end or a bystander.
Make sure they know what microaggressions are
Microaggressions can come in different forms: verbal (comments or questions that are hurtful), behavior (shown through discriminatory actions), and environmental (subtle discrimination in society), Reena B. Patel a psychologist, author, and guidance counselor, tells SheKnows.
“We start to see these behaviors can start as early as 10 years of age,” Patel says. “Children have a more developed inferencing ability and high cognitive language development. They can make analysis based on their observations and voice them through words and/or actions. They also understand the subtle cues that keep them under the radar when making such comments. They state a fact then add ‘for a,’ as an example.”
Your kids may react like Julia, who told us she used to think it was a compliment when others told her that people with mixed Asian and white heritage are so beautiful. Then she thought about it a little more.
“It’s like, I’m beautiful because I’m mixed with white,” she said. “If I were full Asian, they wouldn’t be saying that to me.”
Broach the subject by listening
Just because your child hasn’t talked to you yet about witnessing or receiving microaggressions, doesn’t mean they haven’t. They may even have said something they didn’t realize was hurtful or racist to another. In any of these cases, you have to approach this subject carefully to get them to share more.
“Allow for open space when speaking to your child,” Patel says. “Judgment-free zones and check-ins are important for your teens.”
If they begin to share, don’t jump in right away with advice or correction. First, you need to validate and empathize with your child’s experience.
“Let them know that, unfortunately, many people do not understand how harmful their words and actions might be,” Patel said.
Talk about how to respond
“In no way do I think it’s the responsibility of any person of color to be the ones to check and hold the other party accountable,” says Jordan, 21, who was in our original microaggressions video.
“That’s not my life mission, nor is it my desire to be the poster child for callout culture,” 17-year-old Lexi Underwood, the star of Little Fires Everywhere, told us.
We absolutely agree that it is not the recipients’ responsibility, but some others said that ignoring comments made them feel bad too.
“It is OK to ignore the comments, but the likelihood that these behaviors will happen again is high,” Patel says.
Patel couldn’t give us a blanket response, of course, but she provided some questions children, teens, and adults can ask themselves to decide whether to walk away, or remain and educate:
Is there a risk of danger to physical safety for me?
Will the person become defensive and argue ultimately not changing their behaviors?
How will the confrontation affect their relationship with this person in the future?
How will I feel if my friend doesn’t respond to me?
How much do I value this relationship?
If they feel that the person hurling those comments may be receptive, your child can try to educate them. It’s also OK if they do this after the fact.
“Sometimes, we don’t realize what just occurred until a few minutes after we process it,” Patel said. “In this case encourage your child to find a good time to approach that peer and use phrases such as, ‘Remember when you asked me, or commented about…?’ Let them know that although they might not realize what they said is hurtful or discriminatory, the words are. Share what they could have asked instead. Focus on their words, versus labeling them as a person.”
Gabrielle seems to have practiced this kind of response.
“I find it now easiest to respond to microaggressions and racism by educating the person, telling them why what they did was wrong, especially if you are calm and you don’t feed into the angry Black woman stereotype,” she said. Again, she is 15 and we really wish she didn’t have to do this ever.
Just as often, however, the perpetrator may respond by saying that they weren’t being offensive and that the recipient is being “crazy” for seeing it that way.
Jordan has decided that it’s not worth it to waste her anger on those people. “Who is that anger serving?” she asked.
Sticking up for others
“I don’t think people have been speaking up more, but I hope that changes,” 15-year-old Juno told us.
Patel said that kids who are witnessing microaggressions to others have to use their best judgment about whether it’s safe to speak up in the moment. But it is important to speak up in some way.
“Just like with bullying, if you see something, say something,” she says. “You don’t have to intervene right when it is happening if you do not feel comfortable doing so, but find another time to approach your classmate or peer and share your observations.”
Or they could instead tell an adult about what happened. Then it’s up to those adults, even you, to speak up and not accept the status quo.
“We’re now faced with this question of: Are we going to continue to accept the racism that has plagued our culture for centuries?” Underwood told us. “Or are we going to meet this moment with courage and do the hard work and challenge each other to do better.”
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