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Discussing Microaggressions through a Trauma-Informed Lens

Understanding the foundational concepts of microaggressions and microresistance helps us promote diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging.

This post was originally published in Chefalo Consulting's August 2022 Trauma-Informed Newsletter.

Microaggressions cause harm

When we talk about racial injustice, gender inequity, ableism, and other forms of oppression, we often think of obvious scenarios such as slurs, harassment, or exclusion. Most people won’t engage in this kind of oppression.

Instead, they turn to microaggressions, which are everyday insults, invalidations, and other offensive behaviors. Often, the aggressor is unaware of their participation in oppression through microaggressions because their privilege blinds them to how something could be demeaning.

Even after someone points out a microaggression, the aggressor may believe that the harm done was insignificant. To make matters worse, many people with privilege become defensive when approached with the idea that they have engaged in racism, sexism, or oppressive behaviors. Their trauma brain engages, and they need to battle the idea that they are racist, sexist, ablest, homophobic, etc.

This puts us in a difficult scenario, where we want to both acknowledge trauma responses and seek to reduce the harm of re-traumatization.

Micro-interventions: Microresistance and Micro-affirmations

To eliminate microaggressions that we may do, we can use self-awareness, trauma-informed practices, and reflection. To combat microaggressions in others, we can use microresistance or micro-intervention. Microresistance is the daily effort to challenge white privilege and other biases.

Often, when someone says something out of turn at work, other people may respond nonverbally but not address what has happened. When we microresist, we interject to say, “That was not okay,” although we may use different words or methods. When we use micro-affirmations, we can say, “I think this is what you meant to say.”

It is important to note that micro-intervention tends to have a more powerful effect when the aggressor sees the resistor (consciously or subconsciously) as someone equal to them, which is why allyship is essential for creating a safe environment for all. We can speak on our own behalf, but it’s also important to speak up for others. In some situations, you may want to get consent before speaking up for someone else.

The goal of microresistance is to point out which behaviors are inappropriate, reduce re-traumatization, and create a safer environment for all. Let’s explore some examples of microresistance.

When someone takes credit for another person’s idea, you can credit the right person by saying, “I love Rose’s idea about changing how we run community meetings. Thank you, Rose, for that idea!”

If someone is misgendered, you can say, “I agree with Claudia that Kai’s point of view was illuminating. They gave us a lot to think about.”

The examples above are instances of micro-affirmations. We affirm what we know as true and, in doing so, affirm others.

When we microresist, we can also shine a spotlight on what we know as untrue, offensive, or inappropriate. These examples have a greater potential of triggering trauma brain in others, but it also gives them an opportunity to self-reflect. These examples are also more appropriate in situations where the micro-aggression is more severe or more likely to re-traumatize others in the group.

Pause, and repeat back the inappropriate phrase to the aggressor. Ask, “Did you mean to say that?”

You can also ask, “What was the purpose of you saying that?” If possible, you can get more specific by saying, “Was your intention to sound disrespectful?” or “Were you trying to come off as condescending when you said that?”

We have the power to resist white supremacy and the various forms of oppression that come with it. Through micro-intervention, we make it clear through our everyday actions that we do not tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and all the rest.


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