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Frame x Ask A Therapist: I Realize I Committed a Microaggression at Work, Would Love Help On What To

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Lillian Farzan, LMFT

Relationships, Ask a Therapist, Racial/Cultural Identity

Dear Therapist: I recently became aware of a microaggression I committed at work. There is a new person on the team, so I asked where they were from. She responded saying that her family is from Texas and I said but where are you really from (she is of filipino descent). I am now realizing how this might have come off to her and I am mortified. How do I handle this? Do I apologize? Or just not bring it up? I am feeling really bad.

Frame Community Therapist Lillian Farzan weighs in... Dear Mortified, Congratulations! You are a conscientious human being who realizes they’ve made a mistake and likely, though unknowingly, inflicted harm. The thing is–and I recognize this may be irritating–, the answer to your questions is that it truly depends.

Let’s zoom out a bit. It is completely normal to feel “mortified”, “bad,” and any other feelings related to shame, guilt, or overall discomfort. Though tempting, we don’t necessarily want to bid this discomfort adieu without sitting in it and thoroughly processing. Our “icky,” feelings could be telling us that it’s time to work on this area of ourselves as a responsible human being who does not wish to cause harm (yet may do so even with the best of intentions). Furthermore, this microaggression could serve as a catalyst for change and commitment to antiracism. It is unfortunate that this may have been at the detriment of your co-worker *and also,* now is as good a time as ever to deepen your self-awareness for the collective good. Although there is no one-size-fits-all response to this situation, we’ll look at a few major considerations along the way.

First, let’s regulate. While we sit with our discomfort and allow it to pass through us in its own time (as all feelings do), let’s take a breath (okay let’s take a few paced breaths) and self-soothe so that we can access a sense of calm and show up as our best selves.

Next, consider your level of rapport with this individual. If you see this person regularly and don’t think pulling them aside would inconvenience them, consider delivering an authentic apology. Authentic in this case may mean simply apologizing without expectation (and especially not with ulterior motives of absolving yourself of guilt). If you do choose to apologize, then consider doing so succinctly. Over-apologizing for your microaggression may exacerbate the receiver’s discomfort by burdening them with pressure to console someone who’s just caused them harm. This is not a good look– we do not want to further impose upon this person. Apologize and give your co-worker the space to respond however she may as you stay grounded in listening with an open mind and gentle curiosity.

If your coworker chooses to open up and give you feedback, try refraining from being on the defensive. Remember, antiracist work is your responsibility and yours to do in your own time. It is likely that this is not your co-worker’s first rodeo and she may justifiably feel triggered due to a long history of microaggressions. Be grateful if she chooses to open up to you or respect if she does not have much to say to you in return–she may very well need some space.

Here’s a script that may come in handy, I’m gonna go ahead and name your co-worker Lisa for the sake of flow:

“Hey Lisa, is this a good time to talk?” *wait for and respect Lisa’s response–if it’s not a good time, then please leave Lisa alone. If it is a good time then you can proceed with…* “I want to apologize for asking you where you’re, “really,” from. I was actually curious about your ethnicity and I realized I was being offensive. I’m sorry.”

Best of luck to you in your journey. I’ve included some resources below in hopes that you continue investing in this work. Remember it’s a marathon, not a sprint! Breaks and self-compassion are always options to help sustain you along the way. - White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack - How Microaggressions are Like Mosquito Bites • Same Difference


About the Therapist: Lillian Farzan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist and public speaker based in Los Angeles. As a first-generation Jewish Iranian American, Lillian focuses on working with marginalized communities including POC and the Queer community.

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