Tolerance – one step forward

Title of this article, one step forward, refers to the classic anti-discrimination activity “Take a step forward” from Council’s of Europe publication Compass[1]. As in the activity I would like to ask all the readers few questions to reflect on, but this time without getting into the role of someone else. This is an auto reflection activity to help us get into the topic, and see, what we can do in order to promote tolerance, and celebrate this 16th of November – International Day of Tolerance, together.

So, let’s reflect on individual level on the following questions:

  • Have you ever experienced subtle things at work or in your private life, that made you feel disrespected, undervalued, or as if you didn’t belong?
  • Have you ever felt excluded? If so, why? What happened to make you feel that way?
  • Have you ever witnessed a situation or an act that you felt is violent but you could not explain why?
  • Have you ever been around someone who was telling you that an action was violent but you did not feel this way?

Often happens that if witness situation, which feels that is violent, is disturbing us in some level, but is considered normal in the society, there is no legal framework to call it violence, or seems too small for us to consider that might be harmful, most probably we experience microaggressions, or as other authors call them, Subtle Acts of Exclusion (SAE). And, although they are subtle, often unconscious, and even might happen that the subject of microaggression doesn’t recognize them, or directs them to oneself, in the long term they help to strengthen our internalized bias towards different oppressed groups, reinforce the status quo of what is considered normal in our societies, and reinforces and maintains system of power. They often become invisible, or confusing. “In a nutshell, that’s what’s confusing about SAE – they happen when people are not intending to do anything bad”. They can slip out when we try to compliment someone (you lost so much weight, great job), be curious (Where are you really from?), show comfort (You are from Jamaica? I love Bob Marley!) and be funny (many types of jokes).

Authors Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran states in their book “Subtle acts of exclusion (SAE)” that microaggressions and SAE are a big problem and a big reason why we have not seen more progress in creating a more just and equitable society. They claim that inclusion must happen actively, what in case of microaggressions mean to learn more about them to become aware of the internalized bias and microaggressions we perpetuate; we should be able to speak up when we witness any type of microaggressions, and policies against microaggressions should be put in place in any organization.

There is quite some research that analyze the consequences of microaggressions, and some authors consider them more harmful than direct violence. To help us understand the consequences of microaggressions, I would recommend the youtube video, where they are compared to the mosquito bite. If someone is bitten once by mosquito, it might be slightly uncomfortable, but quickly we forget about it. When we are bitten by 100 mosquitos at once, and they continue biting us constantly, it might become unbearable. Therefore, one of the characteristics of microaggression is that they are frequent, and the more we are subject of them, the greater the consequences.

Microaggression, as a term is well known in certain circles but largely unknown to most people. First time it was mentioned by the Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, and was further develop by Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue. The last author defined microaggressions as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, and environmental indignities whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial, gender, and sexual-orientation, and religious slights and insults that target a person or group”. (Sue, Capodilupo, et al., 2007)

The characteristics of microaggressions:

• Microaggressions are brief: they can consist in a simple phrase or even one look that can go very easily unnoticed;

• Microaggressions are frequent: they happen on a regular basis, often daily;

• Microaggressions are directed at marginalised groups: similarly to discrimination, the most common are based on ethnicity (micro racism), gender (micro machismo) and sexual orientation (micro homophobia), but they can be directed as well to fat people or elderly people, etc.;

• Microaggressions are normalised: they are deeply rooted in culture, therefore they are often done in an unconscious way, and without the objective to really harm someone;

• Microaggressions contain a degrading message: a message that, if analysed, can turn out to be harmful, usually based on stereotypes

• Microaggressions are the result of power relations: often they are the expression of power that one has towards those with less power.

Framework for identifying what each SAE is implicitly communicating:

  • You are invisible
  • You (or people like you) are inadequate
  • You are not an individual
  • You don’t belong
  • You are not normal
  • You are the curiosity
  • You are a threat
  • You are a burden

Fatphobia as an example

Let’s take the fatphobia as an example to illustrate how the microaggression works. Imagine a young girl, growing up in the society where all the “famous” people are slim, in which they are bombarded with the diet culture and diet products all the time. She cannot go shopping with her friends, since she is afraid that she won’t find anything in her size, and when she is with her straight-size friends, they often comment that they gain a kilo, as it is the worse thing that could have happened to them. When she starts studying, she cannot find a side job to pay for her expenses, since in all the waiter or hostess positions, she was told that they don’t have work cloth in her size, and therefore they cannot hire her. Once she was even told that she doesn’t fit the image of the company.

As a consequence of the microaggressions throw-out many years, the girl developed the mental health problem of compulsive eating, she was exposed to a lot of stress, always thinking that she is judged based on her weight, she has chosen the career in which she can be invisible to others, and she friend-zoned the potential partners, since she believes that she is not attractive, and no one would be interested in her. Still, many comments about her weight provokes intense stress, and from the psychology we know that stress can bring both mental and physical harm.

The seriousness of the problem is also confirmed by a 2019 UNESCO report according to which physical appearance is the main cause of bullying at school, followed by racism[2]. According to a survey conducted by Esquire Magazine, 54% of women would rather be run over by a truck than be fat[3].

“To truly address subtle acts of exclusion, we need to collectively shift both our mindset and our behaviors”. And there are several steps which need to be undertaken, in order to eradicate effectively microaggressions. Those steps are based on the learning model where we analyze the conscious and unconscious competence and incompetence.

Steps to overcome microaggressions

Often, youth workers ask what they can do to improve their practices and support the movement to eradicate different forms of micro-aggressions in their work. Well, the first step is to become aware. There is a very interesting model of the four steps of the learning process:

– Unconscious incompetence: when we don’t know that we don’t know something.

– Conscious incompetence: when we realise that we lack a specific competence.

– Conscious competence: when we have already acquired the competence, but we still need to remember and think about how to put it into practice. This state is similar to a person who has just obtained a driving licence, but cannot yet drive a car automatically.

– Unconscious competence: when we have already internalised the learning. Taking the previous example, in this state we would start the car without stopping to think about what to do next, i.e. driving is already an automated process.

In our experience working with subtle acts of exclusion, we have observed that many people are at the stage of unconscious incompetence, but in order to be able to perform fully inclusive activities we must aim for the last stage of learning: unconscious competence. This does not happen overnight and we have to go through all the stages that we summarise in these three steps:

STEP 1. Awareness

This is the step to move from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence or, in other words, to become aware of what I know and what I don’t know through awareness-raising activities. To understand this phase, let us take the feminist struggle as an example. In the 20th century, women did not have the right to vote in several European countries, which is socially unacceptable today. To change this situation, it was necessary, first of all, for a large number of people in our societies to understand the injustice of the denial of this right to women.

By raising awareness we lower the line of tolerance, and make the subtle acts of exclusion not that subtle. We stop normalizing certain behaviors, and by making them visible, and not that broadly accepted, we can start overcoming them.

STEP 2. Learning

This part allows us to move from conscious incompetence to conscious competence or, in other words, to learn to work with young people in activities free of microaggressions. Again you are on the right track, as you are reading this text. As part of learning I always recommend including this aspect in the evaluation of your activities, both when asking those who have participated in them how they felt about the various aspects of inclusion and what could be improved, and when evaluating this element in the team. Remember that learning is a long-distance race that requires time and motivation.

STEP 3. Practice

This is the step that will take you from conscious competence to unconscious competence. When you have internalised the learning and inclusion issues, you will be able to detect microaggressions and react quickly. That will mean that the mechanism is automated. And the only way to achieve this is through continuous practice. When preparing an activity, plan how it can be more inclusive, keep developing your own tools and approaches that reinforce good treatment within the group, talk about your own experiences with microaggressions and apologise if necessary and try to modify your behaviours.

“To trully address subtle acts of exclusion, we need to collectively shift both our mindset and our behaviors”.

I hope that this will help you to understand better our unconscious excluding behaviours, and modify them in the way that we will work towards tolerant and inclusive societies.

Aga Byrczek – free-lance expert is available for keynote speaches, webinars and trainings as well as consulting.

Contact: agabyrczek (at)



[3] 7 Gaesser, Glenn A. Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health. Gurze Books: California, 2002

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