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  • Amina Aitsi-Selmi

Taming microaggressions [Wise Wednesdays ]


I shared in a post on Facebook recently that I never know how to answer the “ethnicity and diversity” parts of application forms and other documents. I don’t see myself as “white” or “asian” or “black”, so I tend to tick “other” and add “north african”.

I can’t say I’ve ever felt the brunt of racism against me, although I’ve probably subconsciously ignored a few things to avoid feeling depressed or powerless. I’d say my experience has been more of micro-aggressions. My difference is usually physically noticed in my hair which is naturally very curly.

I shared a few examples like being sold “skin whitening cream” in a rural village when I needed something for a sun rash. Or hearing my friends couldn’t play with me and my friend Holly because we had “nits in our hair”. We didn’t. But we were the only darker girls in the school.

I can’t imagine what it must be like to be subjected to these micro-aggressions on a daily basis, several times a day, for an entire life.

These systematic distortions of perception projected onto individuals should no longer be acceptable in the 21st century.

While the collective change is catalysed we can always protect ourselves at individual level. Micro-aggressions come in all sorts of disguises and the first step is to recognise them.

Here are a few steps I learned from years of working with change makers who are at the coal-face of power struggles, to tame microaggression:

  1. Release the hidden assumption

Words can break our spirit when we start to believe them. But it’s not always the spoken words that erode our self-worth it’s the unspoken assumptions underneath. A statement may look perfectly harmless on the surface but imply a world of rejection and criticism. Identifying exactly what we’re hearing in the words e.g. you’re not good enough, you don’t belong here, etc. begins to empower us to respond.

  1. Release the harmful tension

Whether you identify the hidden assumption consciously or not, if your mind picks up the microaggression, you will feel it in your body and that will create tension and stress. Tuning in to your body and noticing this, you can take steps to release the tension in a way that works for you. Sometimes, taking the edge off will help you see the situation more clearly and prepare you to respond powerfully.

  1. Release the energy for change

Sometimes the first two steps will be enough to help you find balance again. After all it’s the long game that counts, and in my experience there is always an opportunity to right a wrong in the long term with a little patience and skill, and sometimes without your having to do anything. But if there is residual energy that feels urgent, it may mean you need to take immediate action by enforcing a boundary or making a clear request with a threat of consequence. Of course, you have to be prepared to walk your talk, otherwise, your mention of consequences in the future will not be taken seriously.

These are things we can do anytime and anywhere. Each day you’re likely to encounter real and perceived microaggressions no matter how well you fit in. It’s part of our human experience. But we can care for ourselves by releasing the built up tension and/or transforming it into energy for change.

Spaces for protest, healing, and change

Of course, we are individuals together i.e. a collective. Any change requires that we come together in a shared intention and understanding.

The 2010 Equality Act and implementing Diversity and inclusion training are steps forward in the UK. But digging into the fear of difference, particularly against black or darker skinned people, that’s nestled in our psyche and needs to be uprooted is urgent. We know how to do that.

Holding a mirror up to people so they can see the horrific implications of their ignorance is intense but cathartic and transformational. Seeing the threads of humanity that weave our society together is the other aspect of the doubled sided key of change.

But where are the spaces for transformation?

We need spaces that allow for protest to be heard and acknowledged; healing to proceed with true care; and for change to burrow deep into our social fabric through our hearts.

We need to invest time, energy, and resources consciously away from organisational politics and ego-based empire building and into the relational work that matters. The tender social fabric of our world is screaming for it.

Stay safe,


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