Most of us agree that everyone should feel safe showing up to work every day. It should be a place that is free of hate and harassment, and most companies have policies and procedures in place to help ensure this sense of safety. Still, despite all of these measures and good intentions, employees in marginalized groups continue to be subjected to biased comments and behaviors from their coworkers through microaggressions.
In an interview with NPR, Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology, explains that when many of us think of discrimination, we think of macroaggressions, which are comments or behaviors that are quickly identified as harmful in some way. Macroaggressions are usually obvious enough that if a well-intentioned person witnessed one, they’d feel confident in stepping in and saying something. Microaggressions, on the other hand, are more disguised. A microaggression can be a comment or behavior that seems innocent enough to someone unaware of it but is also triggering or painful to the receiving person.
The thing about microaggressions is that they happen more frequently than you may realize. They’re often unintentional, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t hurtful. People in marginalized groups have had to learn to let microaggressions roll off their shoulders in the workplace to keep the peace. Still, a dozen microaggressions can cause as much, if not more, damage as a single macroaggression, leaving people feeling unsafe or unwelcome in their workplace and without any policies or procedures to offer protection.
So, since most of us agree that the workplace should be a safe environment for everyone, that means we need to put as much emphasis on combating microaggressions as we do macroaggressions.
What are Microaggressions?
First, here’s a scene: You’re out to dinner with your young kids and your in-laws. Your four-year-old will not stop crawling out of their seat and under the table. Exasperated, you hand over the tablet to keep them occupied. As soon as things are finally calm, your mother-in-law says to you, “You know, too much screen time is bad for kids.” You take a deep breath, clench your jaw, and smile. No one else at the table seems to notice what just happened, so you change the subject and move on.
Now, imagine you’re at work, and instead of your mother-in-law, it’s your boss or a co-worker. And, instead of commenting about your parenting, it’s a stereotypical dig at your race. Whether the insult is intentional or not, it doesn’t matter because it’s hurtful–this is a microaggression.
One research paper defines microaggressions as “subtle insults (verbal, nonverbal, and or visual) directed toward people of color, often automatically or unconsciously.” A microaggression can be in the form of comments, dismissive looks, and even tones of voice. They’re usually dismissed or overlooked because, regardless of how it made the victim feel, they’re typically unintentional.
Here’s how they might look in the workplace:
Saying “of course you’re good at math” to an Asian-American (a common stereotype)
Telling someone “I don’t see color” (this denies them their culture and ethnic experiences)
Asking “where are you originally from?” (particularly to someone with an accent or foreign-sounding name)
Declaring “I think the most qualified person should get the job” when the topic of diversity/inclusion is discussed
Regularly defaulting administrative or “house-keeping” work to POC when it is outside their regular scope of employment (such as ordering/picking up lunch for everyone)
Consistently mispronouncing someone’s name or confusing them with someone else
Telling someone “not everything is about race” (this dismisses their feelings, perceptions, and experiences
You roll your eyes at the topic of race, diversity, inclusion, etc.
Remember, most people are well-meaning, and microaggressions are often unintentional. However, it’s still critical to make an active effort to identify and reduce microaggressions both in yourself as well as in the workplace as a whole.
The Effects of Microaggressions
Microaggressions can have an extremely negative impact on the workplace. When they go unchecked, they play into “microinequities”, which is “the pattern of being overlooked, underrespected, and devalued because of one’s race or gender.” Therefore it creates a toxic work environment for anyone constantly subjected to microaggressions, especially when no one else seems to recognize it’s happening. From a company perspective, this can result in losing valuable employees to other companies with healthier cultures.
On an individual level, microaggressions can affect a person’s self-confidence and negatively impact their mental health and well-being. Microaggressions can also result in reduced performance and job satisfaction. It also means employees might become generally unhappy at work (which will often further microaggressions and possibly even prompt macroaggressions), and or they may hesitate to go for promotions, adding to the problematic lack of diversity in leadership positions.
Microaggression can be difficult to spot and very easy to pass off as innocent, so combating it can be tricky. The first thing all of us can do is be more conscious of ourselves. Think about what you’re saying and how you’re behaving, and if you suspect you unintentionally hurt someone, ask. Similarly, if someone tells you that you’ve hurt them somehow, listen to what they have to say so that you can learn from your mistake and change your behavior moving forward.
If you witness it happening, you need to avoid going into white savior mode. Instead, if it's appropriate, hop into the conversation and try to help reframe and redirect it. You can also ask them to clarify what they’re saying or asking, which will require them to take a beat and think about what it is they are genuinely trying to say–this alone may help them recognize what they’re doing. (Here’s a helpful resource on being a better ally in these situations).
To create a safe workplace (not to mention a thriving one), we all need to do our part in recognizing and stopping microaggression. Remember, this behavior is often unintentional, and no one is perfect, but the only way to improve the situation is to better ourselves as individuals.
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