During the MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, workplaces worldwide are making unprecedented efforts at diversity training in the workplace. These efforts seek to reduce or eliminate racism, sexual harassment, and other behaviors that lead to employee turnover, brand damage and costly lawsuits.
Perhaps more difficult to root out are workplace microaggressions. These are behaviors or statements that do not necessarily have harmful intent. But microaggressions at work nevertheless inflict insult or injury, often unknowingly, which is why microaggressions training is essential.
The term was first coined after the Civil Rights era, in the late 1960s and 1970s. During this time, more visible and violent expressions of racism were replaced by subtler manifestations. Today, microaggression has become a buzzword in the social justice arena.
What is a Microaggression in the Workplace?
Many employees struggle to define or recognize microaggressions in the workplace. Unless you’ve been a victim or had sensitivity training in the workplace, microaggressions can be tricky to conceptualize.
Microaggressions can be similar to implicit biases, in that they can be easy to miss, except by people impacted by them. In other cases, they might be related to the different types of unconscious bias.
As psychologist, author, and Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D., explains, microaggressions are “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations – or those who are marginalized – experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”
Microaggressions in the Workplace Examples
Here are some examples. See if any of these are familiar to you!
Alien in own land
“So, where are you from?”
You are a foreigner
A White person does not want to acknowledge race
“When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
Denying a person of color’s racial/ethnic experience
The notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/White culture are the ideal/”norm”
To an Asian, Latino, or Native American, “Why are you so quiet? We want to hear what you think. Speak up more!”
Assimilate to the dominant culture
A statement made when bias is denied
“I’m not racist. I have several Black friends!”
I could never be racist because I have friends of color
Statements that assert that race or gender does not play a role in life successes
“I believe the most qualified person should get the job!”
People of color are given extra unfair benefits because of their race
White dominant society expect Black folks to be less competent
“You’re so articulate or well-spoken.”
This remark suggests that they assumed that the person would be less articulate and are surprised to find out that they aren’t
Microaggressions at Work
Dr. Sue writes that microaggressions cause frustration, self-doubt and anxiety, as well as cumulative emotional, psychic, and spiritual burden. Unlike macroaggressions – the large-scale, overt aggressions that mostly occur at the systems level – microaggressions are interpersonal.
Microaggressions commonly occur in workplace settings. Thus they’re perpetrated by people you know and in settings you should be comfortable and feel safe in. That’s why giving your employees programs such as microaggression training online is essential.
How to Deal With Microaggression in the Workplace
If you’re commonly on the receiving end of microaggressions, it can be an exhausting experience. How do you disarm them without exceeding your emotional bandwidth? Denise Evans, a certified facilitator of implicit bias and cultural intelligence workshops in West Michigan, suggests using wittiness. Evans, who is Black, gives an example of returns microaggressions to the unwitting offender.
If an individual tells her that she’s “well-spoken” or “articulate” – a known microaggression – Evans doesn’t miss a beat.
“I have said, ‘Thank you very much, so are you,’” says Evans. She then asks, with a smile, why they felt the need to say anything, including a list of possible reasons in her question: Is it because she’s a native New Yorker? A woman? Black?
And I literally wait for [an] answer,” she says. “I give people their microaggression and their implicit biases back in a pretty box with a nice bow on it. I hand it to you, and I wait for you to open it and tell me what you see.”
While you may find this awkward at first, as an educator, Evan says that these are teachable moments. Brains have made unconscious associations, and we have the power to undo the damaging ones (i.e. “African American and “uneducated or “women” and “assistant”).
The goal is to create a truly inclusive and respectful workplace, for employees and customers alike. The solution to microaggressions in the workplace, is to ensure that your efforts include diversity elearning – focusing on workplace microaggression training.