Destigmatize – Why We Should Talk about Microaggressions | Josh Rutherford

My wife is a saint. And a genius.  

She puts up with me. With her endless patience, she listens to me ramble while I offer her my musings on the world.

Just the other day, our conversation took a turn, and we found ourselves analyzing a relative’s microaggressions.

“Should we call them out when they do something wrong?” I pondered.

“Maybe a better approach is to discuss how they can do it better?” she replied.


The topic of microaggressions is a thorny one, to say the least. Addressing them head-on is a herculean effort, where both civility and resolution are evasive.

The optimist in me believes it can be done.

I’ve seen it. Over the past few years, as increased polarization has arisen on several social fronts, I attended a unique selection of Zoom calls. Hosted by groups within my professional circle, these fireside chats featured guests panelists who analyzed the macroaggressions around the country, including anti-Asian hate crimes. Such conversations went deep into the stigmas and prejudices which have historically impacted these communities. In all of them, the discussions brought up the microaggressions minorities continue to endure to this day.

As an audience member of these community events, I sat in awe at how the panelists navigated such dark waters. Their professionalism gave way to vignettes, both private and personal, revealing moments of vulnerability and courage. Such speakers do society a great service, not only for their selfless efforts to talk through the bias and injustices they witness, but to make known their thoughts and, in doing so, destigmatize the apprehension around racism and prejudice, including microaggressions.

If I were a savvy influencer (and believe me, I’m not), I would continue this post with an encouragement modeled on these fireside chats. I would advocate for readers to have similar discussions with their peers and colleagues, whether through their company’s employee resource group, a local nonprofit, or other professional organizations. I would grandstand further, pointing out how we all share the responsibility of confronting microaggressions in the outside world to build a brighter future for the next generation.

I almost wrote that kind of post.

However, in consideration of this topic, an old saying from my past dawned on me:

When you point at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back at you.

About two years ago, I was having a friendly chat with a colleague I knew through a volunteer organization. We had just come from a group meeting earlier and were now talking over the phone in a recap. The conversation shifted to the discussion points brought up earlier, with my friend commenting how she appreciated my input.

“You know, when I first met you, I thought you were a bit intimidating,” she said.

“Really?” I responded, puzzled.

“Yeah, because you’re so quiet.”

That struck me.

We continued to converse for a few more minutes before ending our call. It was a great discussion. Yet, for all we reviewed, I couldn’t shake her casual observation. It stuck with me. Her words gave me food for thought.

I was not offended, simply baffled. Honestly, I couldn’t wrap my head around it.

How could I be intimidating?

In no way does that concept align with my self-image.

As a kid, I was the one being intimidated. I was made fun of and bullied incessantly for a variety of reasons: I was too skinny, I was not good at sports, I had a speech impediment, my hair looked weird, I wore funny clothes, I was a nerd, I was a schoolboy, I was the teacher’s pet. The list went on.

I had very few friends, and sometimes years stretched between them. As the years passed, I saw the cliques at my school divide along racial lines, which further isolated me. I was too brown for the white kids and too white for the brown kids. My parents, whose racial identity and sense of self were more singular than mine, openly expressed how they couldn’t understand why I didn’t have any friends.

Such social isolation gave way to silence. As an already quiet kid, I toned down my voice even further. I was not only shy. I avoided talking. I deflected attention. I did everything possible not to be noticed.

That tendency of being the quiet, reserved type followed me into adolescence. My marks in school were high enough to earn me the label “smart,” so whenever the topic of my habitual shyness came up, people just assumed it was because of my studious nature.

Adolescence gave way to adulthood. I made a few friends, and I even had a girlfriend (who I later married). With my social circle leaps and bounds better than what I had in childhood, I never gave my reserved nature back then much thought. “He just grew out of it,” my parents would often say.

And while I did speak more as an adult, I also remained reserved.

Which brings us back to the conversation with my friend, who called me out for being “intimidating.”

Again, what?

How can a shy, bullied kid grow up to be an intimidating adult?

I’ve been half-tempted to brush off that comment to avoid the overthinking that comes with analyzing every minor criticism. Instead, I challenged myself to do otherwise. Deep down, I wondered if there was but a kernel of truth to her observation, one I had been glossing over all along.

As an adult, I’ve never wanted to be the focal point of attention. Being multiracial, my multiple points of heritage had taught me to be polite, to allow others the chance to speak before I did, assuming I had anything to say at all. So, in addition to all the self-consciousness I endured as a child, I believed that being quiet and reserved was the polite, nice thing to do in every setting, especially professional ones.

Though looking back, as much as I identified with silence as a positive, I can honestly say there were times when I found other reserved people standoffish. Pauses would give way to long silences. Awkwardness dwindled. The validations and assurances that come with words proved nonexistent. I thought of all the ways in which I encountered the strong, silent types, products of toxic masculinity that towered over my childhood like titans from mythology. I internalized that behavior. Silence became a part of my vocabulary, as did all the subtleties – the good and the bad – that came with it. 

And in considering those small moments, those fragments of life who made me who I am, I reflected on all those times when I could have bettered a situation . . . yet I didn’t. And stepping outside of myself further, I could see how such moments could be interpreted as microaggressions.

This exercise of self-examination may seem slight and overblown, like someone making mountains out of molehills. I may be too hard on myself. But that’s beside the point. It’s difficult enough to speak out against microaggressions and destigmatize the process when one is the recipient. It’s harder still – and yes, painful – to do so as both a recipient and an aggressor.

I choose to take such a comprehensive view of microaggressions because I believe they are the products of both the individual and the system. Yes, individuals make subtle, indirect comments and actions which cause harm. Whether unintentional or not, I reconsider those slights against me through the lens of someone who can be a better advocate for understanding, kindness, and empathy. I dwell on that responsibility not only when attending lectures and fireside chats, but when I reflect on my everyday interactions with the community, with those I love . . . especially the sons I’m trying to raise into healthy, well-adjusted adults.

When the conversations shifts from them to us, empowerment can grow.

This is not an attempt to moderate, dismiss, or excuse the microaggressions of others. No “we all do it” generalizations here. Those views don’t move the needle. And believe me, it needs to be moved.

With words . . .

Born out of respect . . .

Aimed at increasing understanding . . .

With the goal of improving the world.

Say both your piece and your peace, one micro-effort at a time.

So, what do you think? Do we all have a role to play in creating and perpetuating a more respectful world? What will you pledge to do today?

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