How to Deal with Racism

Has a comment about race left you thinking “Did that just happen?” These incidents of microaggression can be painful and confusing. Savvy Psychologist has 6 tips to deal with racist comments or actions.

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
7-minute read
Episode #57

Listener Crystal Allen from New York wrote in asking for tips on how to deal with racist interactions.  

Let me start off with a disclaimer: I won’t pretend that a 10-minute podcast can solve racism. However, I can provide tips for those on the receiving end of often innocent, yet nonetheless offensive, comments.  Next week, we’ll cover what to do if you’re the one who makes the accidental blunder (and we all will).

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Since this is a psychology podcast, we’ll cover individual-to-individual racism, specifically the subtle kind, called microaggression. This term was popularized by psychologist Dr. Derald Wing Sue at Columbia University, author of two books and many studies on the subject. 

In a nutshell, microaggressions are unintended discrimination. They include insulting actions (like clutching your purse a little tighter around minority men), invalidations (like assuming a Latino student is on scholarship or asking an Asian-American individual “No, where are you really from?”), and backhanded compliments like, “You sure are articulate,” or “I don’t even think of you as Mexican.”  

A microaggression that made the news recently occurred at Harvard, when an African-American student, dressed in a tuxedo for a formal reception, had his champagne flute taken from him by a fellow gala attendee who mistook him for a waiter offering drinks.

Microaggressions usually stem from misunderstanding or innocence, or may even be well-intentioned, but have the same effect as deliberate discrimination. In sum, it’s death by a thousand cuts.  

And perpetrators aren’t roaring racists - they’re people just like you and me, most of whom probably consider themselves to be anti-racist. Their microaggressions are unintentional.

Finally, microaggressions transcend race, and also routinely affect women, sexual minorities, folks living with disabilities, and pretty much any marginalized group you can think of.

With that, here are 6 tips to deal with a microaggression that leaves your heart racing and your feelings hurt:

Tip #1: You’re Not Crazy

No, you’re not being too sensitive. Your reaction is valid. Yes, it stings. Yes, it’s awkward. And if it’s someone close to you, it might even feel like a betrayal. But trust yourself. If the comment sticks with you, even hours later, or it makes you mad or sad to replay in your head what happened, know you don’t have to swallow it like a hot coal. Tell someone. Talk to someone who gets it, no matter their color.

Tip #2: Ask “What Do You Mean?”  

In the moment, one way to deal with microaggressive comments is to play Columbo. When you’re faced with, “You’re pretty for a dark girl,” or “You’re not like most Asian guys,” simply ask, “What do you mean?”  

Usually, they’ll start to explain, realize what they said was offensive, and trail off. There will be residual awkwardness, but a lesson will be learned in a relatively gentle way, plus you won’t have to deliver a lecture or engage in an argument.  

Now, it is possible that they’ll keep right on digging themselves into a hole, at which point we move on to...

Tip #3: Decide to Educate or Not

You are under no obligation to educate. You can if you want to, but if you’d prefer not spending another moment in the company of someone who turns your stomach, simply walk away.

Engaging in a long, serious discussion about race can be exhausting and infuriating, so pick your battles. Just as you don’t speak for your entire race, you’re not expected to to educate every tactless person who crosses your path. If it’s someone important in your life, it’s probably worth the energy. But don’t waste your breath on internet trolls, people at parties you’ll never see again, or folks you just know are never going to change.


All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen was the host of the Savvy Psychologist podcast from 2014 to 2019. She is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets. Her debut book, HOW TO BE YOURSELF: Quiet Your Inner Critic and Rise Above Social Anxiety, was published in March 2018.