Responding to Racial Microaggressions


**Note: This web-based version of the guide should be used for internal/company reference only; clients in BCx programs should be assigned this guide directly through the Lyra platform.**


Racial microaggressions are racial insults or slights that communicate negative messages to racial minorities. They happen frequently and take a large toll on mental well-being. Regardless of the intent behind them, racial microaggressions are harmful. Racial microaggressions can bring up strong emotions and catch people off guard, making it difficult to know how to respond in the moment.

This handout helps provide examples of how to respond to racial microaggressions when you:

  1. personally experience a microaggression
  2. hear a microaggression (even if it may not be directed at you), or
  3. have committed a microaggression yourself.

When making a decision about how to respond to a racial microaggression, there are a few things to think about:

  • How much “energy” do you have at the moment?
    • Are you feeling too stressed or vulnerable to respond?
    • Do you have enough emotional energy to respond?
    • Are you in the “right” headspace to respond?
  • If you respond…
    • Will your safety be at risk?
    • Will the person become defensive and want to argue?
    • Will this affect your relationship with that person?
  • If you don’t respond…
    • Will you regret not saying anything?
    • Will that show that you accept that behavior or statement?


Experiencing a racial microaggression yourself

Where are you actually from?”

  • What it communicates: You’re not White, so it must mean you’re a foreigner.
  • Option(s) for responding: 
    • Clarification: “Are you asking where I was physically born, or are you asking about my race?”
    • Curiosity: “Why would you like to know?”
    • Humor: “Is California not specific enough?  I was born in San Francisco!”
    • Challenge: “I really don’t appreciate that question.  It implies I’m not American because I don’t look like you.”

“Hey, we’re having a meeting on diversity next week. Would you mind speaking about your experiences?”

  • What it communicates: It is your duty to teach us about diversity.
  • Options for responding:
    • Clarification: “What role are you hoping that I would play in this meeting? What goals do you have for the meeting?”
    • Stating boundaries: “I’m not sure I have the bandwidth to attend that meeting right now. Thanks for thinking of me.”
    • Challenge: “I appreciate you thinking of me. I could contribute to the diversity meeting. I’d also like to contribute to other meetings not focused on diversity – would that be an option?”

“You’re so articulate!” or “Your English is so good!”

  • What it communicates: The assumption that you aren’t as smart or fluent because you are not White.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Curiosity: “Why did you assume that my English wouldn’t be good?”
    • Challenge: “Do you find that surprising because I’m not White?”
    • Humor: “I mean, I was born in the States and English is my primary language, so I should hope that it’s pretty darn good!”

“Can I touch your hair?”

  • What it communicates: You’re exotic-looking because you look different than White people.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Assert: “I’m actually not comfortable with people touching my hair.”
    • Acknowledge: “It seems my hair is a bit different than you’re used to. Do you have any questions about it?”
    • Challenge: “I’m feeling a bit uncomfortable about that. Would you ask other people to touch their hair too, or is there something about me that makes you ask?”

“Everyone has an equal chance at being successful – as long as you work hard, you’ll get what you want.”

  • What it communicates: There is no systemic racism in place; people who do not perform well are simply not trying hard enough.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Challenge: “It would be great if it were that simple! Unfortunately, minorities come up against a lot of barriers and don’t get the same opportunities and resources that others do. So, it’s not as easy as just “working hard” to get what you want.”
    • Humor: “It’s a totally equal race? Like having one person (the BIPOC) hold 200-pound weights in a race, while the other person (White) doesn’t have any weights at all? It’s all up to how hard they try, right?”

Witnessing a racial microaggression (bystander)

“I don’t really want to talk to him (Black male) about it – what if he gets mad or aggressive?”

  • What it communicates: That all Black men are considered dangerous.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Clarify: “What makes you think he will get mad or aggressive?”
    • Challenge: “Are you afraid he’s going to be mad or aggressive because he is Black? If so, that’s a harmful stereotype. I think it’s important to not make assumptions about people just because of their race.”
    • Acknowledge: “I hear that you’re feeling nervous about it. Has he acted that way in the past, or is this an assumption of how he’ll react?”

“Can we not talk about race?  It’s too controversial.”

  • What it communicates: We should just dismiss issues of racism because it’s too uncomfortable to talk about.  It’s not important enough to bring up.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Acknowledge: “I can understand how uncomfortable it can feel to talk about racism.”
    • Challenge: “It’s important to remember that racism is happening all the time, and nothing will change if we don’t talk about it.”
    • Appeal to values: “I know you really care about treating people fairly.  One way to work towards that is to shine light on the injustices that are happening, so we can cause some change to happen.”
    • Share own growth: “I used to stay away from these conversations too because they were really uncomfortable.  But, I’ve learned that it’s important to talk about it, or else we’ll end up invalidating people and the difficulties they face.”

“I can’t be racist – my best friend is black!”

  • What it communicates: Having a good friend who is BIPOC means that nothing I do can possibly be racist.  It doesn’t matter if I do or don’t challenge the many other ways racism may come up.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Appeal to values: “You have been great friends, and you care a lot about her! To continue to be supportive and anti-racist, it’s important to continue learning and stand up when we see injustice.”
    • Curiosity: “It’s great that you and your best friend have a great relationship! Have you been able to engage in some advocacy work for BIPOC rights as well?”

“I have a hard time understanding him.  He should really work on his accent.”

  • What it communicates: Everyone should conform to the majority.  Differences from the majority aren’t tolerated.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Challenge: “I mean, he does speak 3 languages fluently, which is pretty remarkable. That’s definitely more than I can! I’m curious, how many languages do you speak fluently?”
    • Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t mean it this way, but asking people to “work on their accent” can make them feel like they don’t belong and need to change who they are.”
    • Empathy: “If you had to move to a different country and learn a different language, do you think you’d have the perfect accent?”

[after being called out for committing a racial microaggression] “Geez, it’s not like I meant to be hurtful.  She doesn’t have to be so sensitive about it.”

  • What it communicates: Because I did not intend to be hurtful, it shouldn’t be considered hurtful.  The impact on the person doesn’t matter because I didn’t mean it.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Separate intent from impact: “I know you didn’t mean to be hurtful. When you made that statement, it was harmful because it made it seem like you were thinking of her like an outcast who didn’t belong here.”
    • Suggest: “It would be better to not make assumptions about where people are from or what they’ve been through, simply because of the color of their skin.”
    • Humor: “If you meant to throw a ball to a person but ended up knocking over a vase, does the vase not get broken just because you didn’t mean to break it?”

Committing a racial microaggression

“I just value the person – I don’t really see color. Why can’t others do this too?”

  • What it communicates: Being colorblind is okay – I don’t need to think about race or consider the unique experiences and challenges of being BIPOC.
  • Option(s) for responding:
    • Apologize: “I’m sorry, I understand now that these statements can be really hurtful.”
    • Share own growth: “I’ve learned that I need to acknowledge color in order to recognize all the systemic challenges and barriers that are in place. I’ll continue to work on this.”
    • Appeal to values: “I was coming from a place of care, but that doesn’t excuse my statement. I’ll be more thoughtful about what I say next time.”


Given the toll that racial microaggressions can have on mental well-being, it is important to take a moment for self-care.  Activities such as validating your feelings, taking care of your body, or reaching out to a trusted friend can help recharge you and connect with others during these challenging times.  How do you think you could recharge or connect with others?  Write down a list of ways to recharge or connect on a piece of paper, or enter it into your phone.

Do you have other ways you would prefer to respond to racial microaggressions? Feel free to write them down or enter them into your phone for easy access.


  • Goodman, D. (2011). Promoting Diversity and Social Justice: Educating People from Privileged Groups. New York: Routledge
  • Nadal, K. L. (2014). A Guide to responding to microaggressions. CUNY Forum, 2, 71-76.