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A Tool for Repairing Microaggressions from Active Minds, CLASP, and The Trevor Project

Content Advisory: this page contains examples of racist, sexist, ableist, and other harmful or oppressive language.

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what are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are statements or actions that create intentional or unintentional harm against stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups, such as people living with mental illness or other disabilities, people of color, women and femmes, and/or LGBTQ+ people. Microaggressions of all kinds negatively impact people’s mental and emotional wellbeing.

Microaggressions are person-to-person expressions that convey larger systems of power, such as racism, sexism, ableism, and homophobia. Embedded in our culture, institutions, and interactions, these systems can become part of our thinking without us even realizing. Despite best intentions, anyone – even those with a marginalized identity – can commit a microaggression. There’s always more for each of us to learn.

Explore our C.A.L.M. Toolkit

Mental Health

Mental health microaggressions can take the form of harmful language, stereotypes, assumptions, and doubt. See examples of phrases and actions

Racial

Racial microaggressions show up in pervasive, everyday words and actions that reveal racism and biases that have gone unchecked. examples

Sexuality

Sexuality-based microaggressions can be a part of daily life for an LGB (lesbian, gay, bisexual) person living in a world in which heterosexual relationships are treated as the defaul “normal” way to be in a relationship. examples

Gender

Gender-based microaggressions include comments or actions that imply a person’s gender identity or expression is “wrong,” or that lean into stereotypes based on traditional gender roles. examples

Disability

Disability microaggressions are a subtle form of discrimination or prejudice against people with disabilities – also known as ableism. examples

stay C.A.L.M.

you’ve committed a microaggression. what do you do?

A young man in a wheelchair faces a woman holding a cup of coffee. The letter C appears in the background behind them.

C: center the other person

  • Put the situation in perspective – don’t make excuses or say that you had good intentions or focus on “you” at all. Appreciate the person for trusting you enough to be honest with you. See this as an opportunity to improve your relationship with the other person. Centering the other person sounds like….
    •  “Please share what’s on your mind. I’m listening.”
    • “I’m open to your feedback.”
    • “If there’s anything you would like to share about your experience, I’d appreciate hearing that whenever you are ready.”
An older woman with short hair and a green shirt faces a younger woman wearing a purple hijab and dark orange and blue shirt and slacks. The letter A appears in the background behind them.

A: acknowledge impact over intent

 

  • Look within and take responsibility for your actions. Acknowledge that you have biases and blind spots. Don’t villainize the other person. Acknowledging sounds like….
    • “I can see your point.”
    • “That makes sense.”
    • “I want to acknowledge that my words or actions may have had a negative impact on you.”
A young nonbinary person with a blue and purple long-sleeved shirt faces a young man with short hair and a yellow t-shirt. The letter L appears in the background behind them.

L: listen

  • Let the other person talk first, and validate their feelings. Listening sounds like…
    • “I hear you.”
    • “What I’m hearing from you is… (then, restate what you heard to confirm)”
    • “It helps to hear this feedback. Thank you for sharing.”
A young blind woman with long hair and a green body suit sits holding a smartphone in front of a large letter M in the background.

M: make it right

 

  • Offer a meaningful apology and ask what might help to make it right. Accept that repairing the relationship might take time or not happen at all. You are just starting the process now, and you can’t demand repair, you can only open a conversation. Remember that this is not about them helping you to feel OK with yourself, it is about what is best for the person you hurt. All they may need is an acknowledgment and a short apology. Make an effort to continually examine other biases related to that identity that may contribute to other microaggressions. Hold yourself accountable to doing the research and working on your own change. Making it right sounds like…
    • “I’m sorry that what I said and did was offensive.”
    • “Thank you for trusting me with that feedback. I am not going to use that word in the future.”
    • “I care a lot about creating an inclusive environment here, and I’m committed to improving.”

Inspired by the CPR model developed by Kira Manser, Jaymie Campbell, and Shannon Criniti.

examples

A man with short hair and teal shirt stands in front of abstract blue shapes. There are a shining sun, clouds, and speech bubbles above his head with the words

Mental Health Microaggressions

Phrases such as:

The word “crazy” has a history of being derogatory to people dealing with mental health issues. It’s best to avoid using “crazy,” and to say what you really mean instead, such as “I can’t believe they are acting that way!” or “That’s wild!”

Mental health issues look differently on everyone. It’s not possible to accurately judge how someone is doing emotionally simply by looking at them. Instead, when someone lets you know they are struggling, let them know that you believe them and seek to validate them even as you are still trying to understand.

The word “bipolar” is often used flippantly to describe unpredictability. This use of “bipolar” is offensive and further stigmatizing towards someone who lives with bipolar disorder. Instead, say what you really mean, such as “The weather has been so unpredictable lately.” Check out our resources on bipolar disorder to learn more.

Actions such as:

People who are struggling with their mental health need to know that what they are feeling is OK and that you believe them. Validation sounds like: “That makes sense” and “That sounds difficult.” For more tips on validating a person’s experience, check out Active Minds’ V-A-R resources.

Most of us would not think of someone with a broken leg as incompetent or lazy. Nor should we about someone living with a mental illness. Mental health is health.

Additionally, it is often assumed that someone living with a mental illness might be dangerous or unpredictable. This is despite the fact that people with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of violence rather than the perpetrators.

We can help destigmatize mental illness by educating ourselves and challenging our conscious and unconscious biases.

Examples of responses that could deter someone from seeking help are: “Are you sure that’s a good idea?,” “What would XX think about that?,” or “That seems like an overreaction.” If what someone is experiencing feels like more than a bad day, it’s best that they err on the side of seeking help. We can encourage them by responding with something like “I’m so glad you are going to seek help” and by researching options for them or accompanying them as they take next steps.

Sharing your own experience with mental health challenges can help normalize the conversation and encourage someone else to get support. Additionally, if someone has shared with you they have been struggling, be sure to check-in occasionally and ask how they are feeling. By doing so, you can let them know that you’re open to talking about it.

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A woman with long purple hair and green body suit sits on a yellow beanbag. There are speech bubbles above her head with the words

Racial Microaggressions

Phrases such as:

Asking someone where they are from can seem like a very innocuous question but can quickly turn into a microaggression. It reduces someone’s identity to a social group, city, or culture and can trigger feelings of alienation. It can also reinforce differences and magnify unequal power structures. Instead, rethink your own unconscious bias and listen deeply to what people are willing to share.

Statements like these seem like compliments but they are often loaded with assumptions about a person based on their race or ethnicity such as their intelligence, whether or not English is their first language, or what their speech should sound like. In these examples, the person on the receiving end of the statement likely didn’t fit the other individual’s stereotype. It’s better to make a compliment about the content of what someone is saying vs the ways in which they are saying it.

Statements like this one indicate that a White person does not want to or need to acknowledge race. Rather than being inclusive, the statement denies the significance of a person’s racial/ethnic experience and history. It assumes that everyone should assimilate to the dominant culture and it denies the individual as a racial/cultural being. Instead of working to look past race/ethnicity, see and value a person’s race/ethnicity and question your own racially-based assumptions.

Actions such as:

Actions like these assume criminality among people, particularly black men, due to their race or ethnicity. The assumption is that a person is going to commit a crime and/or that they are dangerous — characteristics that are not possible to judge based on someone’s appearance.

Microaggressions can be at the intersection of different identities — in this case, race/ethnicity and gender. Attributing characteristics to an entire population’s race/ethnicity and gender is a form of gendered racism.

Referred to as the “model minority myth,” Asian American people are often stereotyped as whiz kids, musical geniuses, or experts in STEM classes or industries. These stereotypes erase the differences among individuals and ignores the diversity of Asian American cultures. Buried under the stereotypes, the message is that Asian Americans are all the same — and all different from other Americans. The model minority myth also erases racism and systematic discrimination experienced by Asian Americans.

The legacy of historic and intergenerational trauma experienced by Indigenous people as a result of the targeting of their land and people and marginalization and silencing of their communities still wreaks havoc on the mental health and economic wellbeing of many Indigenous communities. Acknowledging history while also celebrating the presence of Indigenous people here today signals that Indigenous communities are still here, and their voices deserve elevation in culture, education, and the media.

Tokenism occurs when someone is viewed by the dominant majority group as a member of a minority group. Examples include when the sole Black person in a group is asked to speak on behalf of all Black people or when someone is referred to by their identities when others are not (such as “our South Asian female board member, Ms. Khan…”). Tokenism is lonely and makes the tokenized extremely visible. With visibility, comes pressure and scrutiny. Instead of erasing the the full complexity of identities, work to be truly inclusive, recognizing and respecting people’s backgrounds, experiences, and identities.

Embedded in these types of critiques is often an assumption that everyone should assimilate to the dominant culture. It can make people feel that they have to leave their culture at the door and that there is no room for difference.

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A man person with medium-length hair wears a dark blue and purple long-sleeved shirt in front of abstract yellow shapes. There are speech bubbles above his head with the words

Sexuality-Based Microaggressions

Phrases such as:

Someone who says this may be thrown off when they encounter a person who does not fit the stereotypes of people who are gay. It may seem like a compliment but it’s actually homophobic and an insult to both the person it’s said to (i.e. “Well done, you aren’t what I think gay people are like.”) and to other gay people who may appear to more closely align with the stereotypes. The LGBTQ+ community is incredibly diverse. Simplifying the gay experience to an archetype is an erasure of LGBTQ+ individuals as human beings with all the complexity and nuance of other people.

Statements like these are often derogatory, used to indicate that an idea or person is bad. It is hurtful to use “gay” or “homo” as a putdown or insult and can have the potential to create unsafe environments.

For LGB people, words like “choice” and “lifestyle” have been weaponized throughout a painful history of criminalization, abuse, and harm inflicted on them. One cannot choose their sexual orientation and it is also not able to be changed. Phrases like these tell LGB people that their authentic selves are bad or wrong.

Actions such as:

Assuming that someone you’ve just met is in a heterosexual relationship does not leave any room for the individual to be open about their relationship. It also communicates that they should assimilate to the dominant culture and/or leave their relationship at the door.

Assuming that someone you’ve just met is in a heterosexual relationship does not leave any room for the individual to be open about their relationship. It also communicates that they should assimilate to the dominant culture and/or leave their relationship at the door.

LGB families are no less legitimate than other families and deserve the same consideration and respect as other families do.

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A young woman with short hair and an orange long-sleeved shirt speaks to a man with short hair and a yellow shirt. There are speech bubbles above their heads with the words

Gender-Based Microaggressions

Phrases such as:

There is no one way to look trans. Further, for some trans people, namely, those who want to pass as cisgender, that is the whole point of transitioning. There’s no need to say it.

Using gendered language, particularly phrases that include binary categories (i.e. “ladies and gentlemen’), often make unnecessary and harmful assumptions about who is in the room and how they identify.

Phrases like “boys will be boys” are often used to excuse bad behavior among men and masculine people. “Man up” is often used to discourage men from crying or being emotional rather than expressing themselves in the way that feels most natural. Both phrases communicate a specific idea of what it means to be a man or masculine, which doesn’t leave room for nuance or complexity.

Women and femmes are often treated as if they exist for the enjoyment or pleasure of others. Catcalling or telling women to smile is a way to dehumanize or infantilize that person for one’s own benefit or pleasure.

Mansplaining occurs when a man provides an explanation, typically to a woman, in a condescending or patronizing manner, to exert dominance in a conversation or imply inferiority

Actions such as:

Gender identity isn’t an easy topic to understand, and sometimes we need to unlearn some of our old ideas about what it is so that we can really get what gender is all about. Most of us were taught that there are only two genders (man/masculine and woman/feminine) and two sexes (male and female). However, there is a lot more to it than that. To learn more, check out The Trevor Project’s resources on gender identity.

It’s best practice to ask a person about their pronouns before assuming what they are based on a person’s appearance. Especially when in a group, ask everyone to share (not just those who appear to diverge from typical gender norms). Pronouns, at least for many people, are not a matter of preference but a statement of fact, so ask for “pronouns” rather than “preferred pronouns” to be inclusive. Once someone shares their pronouns, use them correctly and apologize if you make a mistake.

Unfortunately, it is not safe for LGBTQ+ people to be out everywhere. Well-intentioned actions like correcting someone when they use the wrong pronouns for someone or assuming that someone is in a cis/het relationship isn’t always the safest course of action for the LGBTQ+ person involved.

Embedded in these types of actions is often an assumption that everyone should assimilate to the dominant culture. It can make people feel that they have to leave their identity at the door and that there is no room for difference.

This  form of gender bias tries to limit or exclude women and femmes from work, sports, or other types of physical labor, which can be a barrier to employment in specific fields.

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A woman with long hair wears a green shirt and blue skirt in front of abstract yellow shapes. There are speech bubbles above her head with the words

Disability Microaggressions

Phrases such as:

Over time, these words have become synonyms for other derogatory words like “stupid.” Labeling people with words like these is an attempt to box people into a category or to over-simplify who they are as people. Words like these can lead to discrimination and unsafe environments.

Disability language is constantly evolving, and hearing offensive or outdated language hurts. At the moment, culture is moving away from euphemisms once considered correct towards simpler and more broadly-defined words like “disability” and “disabled.”

Wheelchair humor is usually intended to be good-natured. That said, the impact is not always small. They can ruin a person’s day and add up over time to disappointment, self-doubt, and grinding weariness.

Actions such as:

Condescension looks like assuming that disabled people are less self-aware, less able to know and manage their needs, and/or less able to understand things. It’s also thinking of disabled people as people who carry a moral goodness somehow connected to their disability. These types of actions make it harder for the disabled to gauge how they are being truly perceived and makes them doubt their true value and worth in society.

Excluding someone from a job or other opportunity based on their abilities can prevent their upward mobility, economic advancement, and/or professional development. This includes events that are inaccessible to people with disabilities or denying accommodations for people with disabilities.

For many, though not all, disability is a big part of their identity even though it’s not the only thing that defines them. Not everyone resents their disability or feels embarrassed by it. There’s no need to sugarcoat it or avoid using the specific word for whatever disability a person has (i.e. “She has a trach tube”).

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microaggressions impact our mental health

Microaggressions of all kinds can negatively impact mental and emotional wellbeing, including by specifically targeting marginalized identities in intersectional ways. One example is the angry Black woman trope, which is rooted in both sexism and racism. The effects of microaggressions accumulate over time, leading to a strain in mental health and harm to one’s identity.

You’ve committed a microaggression. What do you do?

A young man in a wheelchair speaks to a young woman holding coffee next to a woman holding a book and wearing heels, a woman in a hijab, and a man in a t-shirt in front of abstract green shapes.

 

becoming stronger advocates in the face of microaggressions

Environmental microaggressions – microaggressions that are more structural or systemic in nature – also exist and can inflict harm. Examples include being told you’re not allowed or don’t belong (in certain bathrooms, for example), being prevented from participating in an activity because it isn’t accessible, completing forms that require a male/female or husband/wife response, and a lack of representation in the media, in your environment, or in ads and stories.

Additionally, person-to-person microaggressions can have broader systemic implications. For example, a doctor’s assumptions about people of color and/or people in the disability community can shape how likely they are to explain medical procedure options often seen as complex or expensive.

As advocates, we can help advocate in our communities, schools, and workplaces for more inclusive education and policies.

Check out Active Minds’ Transform Your Campus and Your Voice is Your Power campaigns and resources to get involved.

get help

Have you experienced a microaggression? Use these helplines as soon as you feel you or a friend are in crisis.