The Claim Your Space Series: Eliminate Unsafe Spaces
In the final part of the Claim Your Space Series, and the show’s thirteenth episode, Sofie explains how to eliminate unsafe spaces by identifying and combatting microaggressions. She defines microaggressions, the seven forms they appear in, and the actionable steps to take to combat them so that you can be bold, brave, and unwavering in your efforts to eliminate unsafe spaces.
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Hello everyone and welcome back to Claim Your Potential, the empowerment podcast. I’m your host Sofie and this is the final part of the Claim Your Space Series. This episode is all about how to eliminate unsafe spaces.
When I think of unsafe spaces my mind immediately goes to microaggressions. I hear this word tossed around a lot. Usually, I hear it in the context of talking about marginalized groups and derogatory stereotypes that are imposed on those groups as a way to diminish their existence.
However, I want to expand on the definition of microaggressions. Microaggressions are the psychological tactics, verbal and environmental snubs or insults, whether they are intentional or unintentional, they communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages in an effort to diminish another person’s sense of reality, dignity, or self-worth.
In order to call these actions out. We must first understand the many different forms of microaggressions.
The first form is subtle insinuating. This is an indirect or covert suggestion. An example of this is I was talking with someone and they asked me what I like to do in my free time. So I said, “oh I host a podcast. I usually spend my weekends recording and editing episodes”. They then responded with “oh what ‘actual’ hobbies do you have”. I didn’t notice it until after I was done talking to them when I went “wait a second, that was rude”.
They were trying to insinuate that podcasting is not a real hobby, and I felt hurt and taken aback. I was confused because podcasting is a hobby and I was asking myself “why are they making me feel like I don’t do anything with my time”. That’s subtle insinuating, which is not always as subtle as the name would suggest.
The next form of a microaggression is backhanded compliments. This is a microaggression that is always a dig but it is disguised as a compliment. An example of this is if someone said “oh you look really great in those jeans, but I’m not really into skinny girls”. While your gut reaction is to take it as a compliment, once you sift through the compliment it’s like wait a second you’re not into skinny girls though. So am I not attractive because I’m skinny? Who are you to call me that?
Unfortunately, I hear backhanded compliments more often than I would like to, not to me specifically, but in observing people’s conversations. Usually after a backhanded compliment, I hear the person on the receiving end says “thank you”. We say thank you for being insulted almost because it’s disguised and when it is disguised as a compliment it throws us for a loop. But that’s not okay, that’s a microaggression.
Diminishing Comments Disguised as Jokes
This next form of microaggression is actually the reason that one of my last friendships ended. What I’m talking about here are those diminishing comments that are disguised as jokes. I know I’m not the only one that has unfortunately dealt with this. We all know that conversation we had, or that repeat offender, where someone said something that is incredibly hurtful, or it was just an overall low blow. But when you try to call them out on it they say “no no, no, no, no, it’s just a joke”.
In actuality, it’s not a joke. We know it’s not a joke. It is a dig that is used to protect the digger, to protect the person saying it from being called out on it. It provides an escape for them so that they can say “chill out, it was just a joke”… even if it actually hurt you.
However jokes need to be funny to both parties. And if someone is making a negative comment that they are disguising as a joke and it’s diminishing to your own experiences, it is derogatory, it makes you uncomfortable, or it crosses a boundary, then that is not a joke, that is them being rude and trying to get away with a microaggression.
I challenge all of you the next time someone makes one of those comments that are so clearly hurtful but they are calling it a joke call them out on it and say “that’s not funny, I don’t like that”.
The next microaggression is grouping. This is the most textbook microaggression. When we think of microaggressions we often think about grouping. Grouping is telling someone they are a certain way because they belong to a certain group.
A great example is that dumb blonde joke that everybody likes to make. But by saying that the entire blonde population is the same, that there is no differentiation, then that is a problem, that is stereotyping. Textbook microaggression. To anyone that’s made that dumb blonde joke or has said something that they used to clump an entire group together whether that is by hair color, race, gender, or nationality, talk about the individual. Not the group that they belong to.
Another form that can often be confused with grouping is destructive comparing. I want to make sure that we’re clear about the difference between the two. Grouping is stereotyping. It is saying that you are a certain way because you belong to a certain group. However, destructive comparing…an example of destructive comparing is let’s say you come into the office and a coworker says, “oh you look so great in that skirt today”. However, that comment makes you uncomfortable, so you say to your coworker “making a comment like that makes me uncomfortable and I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t do that again”. Then they respond with, “oh but Susie, Janice, and Sarah don’t mind when I do it, they all liked it”.
That is an example of destructive comparing. It’s when the other person speaks from their experiences or even secondhand experiences in order to undermine your own experiences and/or own boundaries. In other words, it’s the aggressor saying “Oh it must be ok with you because it was ok with these other people”. This negates the fact that you are an individual, and just because someone else likes it, doesn’t mean that you have to put up with it.
I feel like this next microaggression ties into a lot of them, and it’s called manipulative positioning. This occurs when you call people out on microaggressions, when you react with anger or sternness, and the aggressor tells you that you’re overreacting. That has happened to me more times than I would like to admit, but yes that is an actual microaggression.
It’s interesting when you think about microaggressions because you can have a situation that has every single one of these forms of microaggressions, yet when you try to call them out on it they invalidate your point by making it sound like you’re blowing the situation out of proportions.
This phenomenon goes hand in hand with another form of microaggressions, often following manipulative positioning.
Two episodes ago I talked about how women say sorry for everything, even things that are not their fault. When it comes to microaggressions. There’s something called victim situating. This often occurs after manipulative positioning, after someone has said “you’re overreacting, stop overreacting”. If you find yourself apologizing because you responded to a microaggression, you are experiencing victim situating. Victim situating is when the perpetrator will make you feel like you are in the wrong and that you shouldn’t have said anything.
When you apologize, what happens is the narrative turns from you being the victim of a microaggression to the microaggressor being the victim. I really want to make sure that we’re avoiding that. We need to be able to tell ourselves, “no I’m not going to apologize”. Tell yourself, “I am not going to apologize for putting my foot down, no, I’m not going to apologize for standing up for myself”.
Now that you know what microaggressions are and the many forms they come in, you are ready to learn how to combat them.
Think about all the different names that I used throughout this episode when defining microaggressions. You don’t need to remember the exact name but at least remember the differences and then name the type of microaggression that someone is using.
Is this manipulative positioning? Is this a backhanded compliment? Is this a destructive comparison? What is the microaggression? Once you have decided on it, name it in your head.
Once you’ve done that, do a reality check. Tell yourself that the uneasiness you feel, your gut feeling that something is off, is not lying to you. What happened did just happen. Someone did just say this to you and you have to respond, you can’t shut down. Because someone is trying to diminish your power and you can’t just stand there and pretend it didn’t happen.
As you’re thinking about the reality of the situation, determine If you think the microaggression rises to the level where you need to call it out. Addressing microaggressions is a deeply personal choice. You set your own boundaries, and you do not owe anyone an explanation for whether you choose to say something or whether you choose not to say something. It is all about your level of comfort, and if you feel like you are not in the space to say something then don’t.
What you’re doing is you’re making a personal choice of whether or not you feel safe to say something and that goes into the next check that you have to do. You have to do a safety check. Consider whether it is safe to call out what’s happening. Could calling it out put your emotional or physical safety at further risk? If you are in a room with no allies, it might not be the time. However, if you have a strong ally in the room then you might want to go for it. If you are with someone that you feel closer to, maybe it’s a partner or a friend, then absolutely call it, because they should be the first to know your boundaries.
But don’t expose yourself to more microaggressions by calling them out at the wrong time in a space that’s not safe emotionally or physically safe.
As a rule of thumb, if you’re not sure if you want to call something out as a microaggression ask further questions. If someone asked the only woman in the room “why are you wearing trousers?”, you could respond with, “I’m wondering why you’re asking me about wearing trousers when everyone else is also wearing them?”.
If you’re afraid to say the word microaggression ask a question. Not only is this a tool to clarify a statement, and if it is actually a microaggression, but you’re also getting the conversation started so that the other person can ask themselves the same thing. The other person then has the opportunity to reflect and come to the realization on their own.
This is something that I have struggled with because when a microaggression happens it’s tempting to jump in and make the microaggressor uncomfortable. But if you’re not sure what was actually said and you want clarification. Ask the other person.
Then after you ask the question listen to their response. Asking a question doesn’t mean you’re just asking it for the sake of asking it, it means that you want to actually hear what their intention was.
Take advantage of the silence between your question and their response. If you are waiting for the other person to think through that question and respond, that silence can actually signify to the other person that there is something wrong and that they need to answer you. By letting them live in silence for a moment they can sit in their own thoughts and hopefully come to the conclusion “I need to apologize to this other person because what I said was pretty bad”.
Applying questions and living in silence also prevents them from feeling vindicated and feeling like they have learned nothing right? If you are jumping right in and just pounding your point in then they haven’t learned anything. You have also put them in a position where they can turn themselves into a victim. So don’t fall for it. If you find yourself about to step into the trap take a time out. Take a second to breathe and formulate your thoughts. If you absolutely need to, suggest talking about it at another time. Beneficially, that’s going to give the person time to reflect on what happened.
Identify the microaggressions and combat them head-on, or find a way to walk away.
Trust Your Gut
And a quick side note here. If you’re ever unsure if something is a microaggression, if something just doesn’t feel right and you’re not sure if you should call it out, try reversing the situation. Would this other person want to be treated the way that they are currently treating you? If they were treated that way would they tolerate that behavior? If they wouldn’t, would they demand to be treated fairly? If the answer is yes to all of the above, then it’s best to take those next actionable steps to do something and right the situation. Long story short, If it feels off, trust your gut, believe yourself, and take action to protect your power.
You deserve to be treated with respect and dignity. Recognizing and eliminating microaggressions is an important step in making that a reality. Whether it’s through speaking out, educating ourselves and others, or simply being mindful of our own actions, every effort counts. So, let’s be bold, let’s be brave, and let’s be unwavering in our efforts to eliminate unsafe spaces.
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