How to Process Microaggressions | Josh Rutherford

I remember asking myself, “Did that just happen?”

It came after a look I shared with a friend across the table. He had the same befuddled expression on his face. The subject of our horror, a visitor to our Toastmasters club, had just left the restaurant where many of us usually went after meetings to have a meal and relax. About an hour earlier, I was feeling pretty good about myself, having given a speech on a topic I’ve long forgotten. In fact, time has erased many of the details of that night, save one, when the visitor – a middle-aged Caucasian male – cornered me on my way from the meeting to point out the mistakes I had made.

When I say “to point out,” I mean that literally. As he stood there, picking apart my speech, he wagged his finger at me.

It would be easy for anyone who witnessed that scene, and indeed anyone reading this piece, to label me as being too sensitive. And they’d be right. Growing up, I was a sensitive child. I became a sensitive man, one far too concerned with what others thought of me and how I came across in social situations. As I’ve eased into age and tried to handle my sensitivity with more maturity, I’ve aspired to take such slights to my ego in stride, with less defensiveness and judgment.

Still . . .

That wagging finger.

That patronizing gesture. That accompanying condescending tone. 

That microaggression.

The term microaggression has become something of a buzzword in the past few years. Referring to small or slight comments or actions that can be interpreted as insults or assaults, microaggressions come in many forms. Many times, they are unintentional, the byproduct of prejudices or bias gone underground, reduced from their macro status to persist like sludge in stagnant water. By their very nature, microaggressions can be fickle to discern; an insult to one person can look like tough love to another or an unfiltered thought from a different generation. Such subjectivity means microaggressions can be (and often are) overlooked, ignored, or dismissed altogether.

“That’s nonsense.”

“I didn’t mean that.”

“No, no, no, no. Don’t take it that way.”

And so on and so on and so on.

As a mixed person, I’ve often found microaggressions even more elusive to identify and process. Though I’ve experienced racist and colorist microaggressions, for so long, I resisted calling them out . . . For who was I to suffer racism when I had no one race? I’ve never identified with being just white, or just Mexican, or just Filipino. If someone made a joke about how Mexicans speak Spanish, a language I never learned, who was I to feign disgust?

Confusion about my identity meant I suffered in silence. My tolerance wasn’t so much about complacency as it was about the lack of entitlement. I was unsure of who I was. I kept quiet because I was uncertain of my right to speak up against any insult, let alone a subtle one directed toward how I looked, the things I said, or the way I spoke.

As a result, I buried every endured microaggression.

When their lingering effects welled to the surface, I became angry – at myself. Frustrated with having not gotten over the past. So I buried those feelings deeper . . .

And deeper . . .

And deeper . . .

After a long stretch of soul-searching in my thirties, I began to make the long-put-off connections between the microaggressions of my youth and my multiracial heritage. Such realizations and the processing that came with them stung at first. More soul-searching followed, giving way to sadness, then acceptance, and finally, forgiveness. And by forgiveness, I don’t only mean forgiving those who slighted or misunderstood me but allowing myself the room to forgive myself.

I forgave myself for not fully understanding microaggressions as they were happening.

I forgave myself for being ashamed of being mixed.

I forgave myself for always thinking I was a minority within minorities.

On the eve of my fortieth year, I find myself processing microaggressions differently than I ever have before. My approach involves a greater emphasis on self-care, one I share now in hopes others will be inspired to discover their own personal prescription.


This first step is a hard one. In experiencing a microaggression, my go-to responses ranged from anger (expressed outwardly or not) to condemnation to disbelief and all the emotions in between. As justified as those reactions may seem, all in all, I was left exhausted and hurt. As years passed and such up-and-down patterns continued in the wake of microaggressions, I knew I needed a better way.

Not long ago, I finally sought mental health treatment, in part due to the microaggressions I have experienced. That journey opened my eyes to better coping mechanisms. My therapist encouraged me to find “my own personal recipe,” a way of dealing with pain and loss that resonated with me.

I came from that journey knowing I needed distance when confronted by microaggressions. I’m fully aware I’m expressing a generalization; for some microaggressions do call for immediacy versus space. But that’s not my journey. I know I need time and space to process what happened, which leads me to . . .


I’m an overthinker, so reflection has never been an issue for me. Still, a more thoughtful, concise approach is what I concluded would suit me best. As a chronic worrier, when something goes wrong, I go over the same scene repeatedly in my mind, like a bad movie on a repeat cycle with no end.

That’s not reflection.

For me, I was conflating obsession with reflection.

True reflection is healthy. It has purpose and meaning. It involves hard questions and, if you’re lucky, a few answers.

More importantly, reflection is an opportunity, one that poses the question, “What’s next?” This attribute was a key one missing from my reflection process, a factor which, when plugged in, led me to consider how to form meaningful action, the next step . . .


The product of reflection. What comes after. A plan. An action.

It may involve addressing the speaker or aggressor. Or it leads to consideration of how to handle similar situations as they arise. Whatever the takeaway, I believe resolution must have health and wellness at its heart – not only for yourself, but for all: your peers, friend, family, community . . . And yes, even for the aggressor or aggressors.


It happened.

To you.

Move on.

I really struggle with that last part. And during my sessions, my therapist saw that. In dissecting one microaggression I had experienced earlier in my career, they noted my progress in processing the incident and said, “Look, you’ve extrapolated as much value as you could from examining the incident. It’s time to move on.”

I did so. Slowly. I accepted what had happened. It wasn’t easy.

But the next time I moved toward acceptance, I found it a little easier than before.

And the next time. And the next time. Slowly. Inch by inch. Such small wins led me to . . .


Goodwill and forgiveness merge to create mercy. I found mercy towards those who had subtlety wronged me and went on as if the world would not notice. I found mercy for those who bore witness to those microaggressions and said nothing, perhaps for fear of being put on the spot or because they felt nothing terrible had happened. And then, after doling out mercy for all others, in the corner of my efforts, I found there was still enough mercy left for myself, which is exactly what I needed.

I realize there is little emphasis for acting in the moment in my approach. It may be too soft for some or be too passive for others. Which is precisely the point. My way is purposeful and personal – to me. I arrived at my approach through much effort and thought, aware others would have done differently. And that’s OK. My way reflects not just my reserved demeanor but my heritage, too; as in many non-Western cultures, taking time away from your experiences to process is the norm, not the exception.

Thank you for reading. I hope this has been helpful in some way. Whether or not my methods resonate with you, I hope you find a path that leads to your process – one steeped not in disbelief or malice but in understanding and empathy to create a better world for yourself and others.

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