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Responding to Microaggressions

December 3, 2021

Tactfully responding to others’ unintentional sexist and/or racist behavior can be very difficult. In this month’s Pediatrics Ethics Rounds (10.1542/peds.2021-052758), Drs. Jamilah Hackworth, Meera Kotagol, Ray Bignall, and Ndidi Unaka clearly describe cultural stereotypes about race and gender and examine the negative consequences that slights and invalidations based on these assumptions cause; microaggressions erode the vitality and sense of belonging for those who are subjected to them.

The authors importantly emphasize the obligation of observers, who are not members of marginalized groups, to intervene. These individuals, like me, have an ethical obligation to address these injustices. It is the right thing to do, and the cost of our speaking up is substantially less than the cost to the person(s) affected. Dr. Hackworth and her colleagues describe the limitations of privately responding to the person(s) after the event and make several useful suggestions about how to respond effectively. They emphasize that the response need not be confrontational and suggest having a one-on-one conversation with the person(s) later. In that conversation, the observer can assume that the person(s) had positive intentions but clearly state the negative impact of the behavior. They also suggest how to respond to defensive or aggressive replies. 

I encourage you to read this article, think about how we can incorporate the authors’ suggestions into our practices, and share it with colleagues. It is important for everyone, especially those of us with privilege, to learn more about these issues.

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