Microaggressions in the Workplace

Written by
Marley Bessette

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As a part of the observation of May as Mental Health Awareness month, I would like to discuss a common elephant in the room, described by some as a “death of a thousand cuts;” Microaggressions.

Those of us that identify as a part of a historically marginalized group, have experienced them. For example, imagine you are a person of color and are a new employee at your workplace.  A colleague approaches you to ask:

Where are you from?

You tell them where you grew up and you are met with a quizzical expression.   They then lean in and ask the question you didn’t think you would hear:

No, where are you actually from?

Surprised, you ponder, “What did they mean by that question? Do they ask that to everyone?” and you receive another imaginary cut. Although this question may seem innocent and in fact indicate a genuine interest in you and your background, the implication when the colleague rejected your original answer might be:

you don’t seem to belong here and I’m seeking to identify your origins so I can mentally categorize you based on my assumptions about people from a particular race, nationality, or ethnic group.

We have increasingly heard more about the importance of creating psychological safety in our workplaces, but microaggressions are so commonplace that they easily slip into everyday speech and thereby reducing that sense of safety.  While they are incredibly common, most offenders did not intend their statement to be offensive or inappropriate.  Odds are, you’ve experienced them, have seen someone experience them or have even contributed yourself to microaggressions.

What are microaggressions?

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, microaggressions are “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”  While traditionally, microaggressions are made towards marginalized groups, anyone and everyone can experience them.  At their core, they express the idea of “because you are x, y statement applies to you.”

Examples of Microaggressions:

  • “When I look at you, I don’t see color.”
  • “You don’t look gay.”
  • “You people…”

Did I hear what I thought I heard? Things to consider:

What should you do when you overhear a microaggression or one is directed towards you? Unfortunately, there isn’t one way to dealing with them.  Victims of microaggressions can address them in the moment, respond later or ignore it.  When deciding on your options, here are a few things you could consider:

  • Is this the appropriate environment to address this?
  • How will this affect my relationship with this person?
  • If I respond, will my physical safety be in danger?
  • If I don’t respond, does this imply that I agree with the message?
  • Did this person intend their message to have this impact?

Addressing a microaggression is a personal, (and potentially exhausting) choice. Your mental and physical safety always comes first but with more “cuts” piling on, they can become more difficult to ignore.

How to respond to microaggressions against you?

If you choose to respond to microaggressions, you’ll want to convey that the aggressor is not under attack.  Diane Goodman, a social justice and diversity consultant, has written a helpful guide on how to respond to microaggressions and bias.  She suggests re-stating or paraphrasing what the aggressor said or asking for more clarity.  She also recommends using “I” statements to help separate the impact of the statement it had on you from the initial intent.  If you notice that you used to think the same way as the aggressor, share with them that you used to think like x, but learned y.  Be sure to practice self-care as your mental health is a top priority.

How to respond to microaggressions as an ally?

Allies can utilize similar tactics but be mindful that it may be harder to spot microaggressions as an ally.  If you think that you’ve witnessed a microaggression, you can ask someone you trust. It can be powerful to respond as an ally and lessens the burden of emotional labor for the victim .  Because the statement was not directed towards you, you can choose to use the opportunity to educate the aggressor.

What if I committed a microaggression?

We are all capable of making mistakes.  If someone approaches you and tells you that you said something offensive, take a moment to pause and breathe.  It’s natural to want to defend yourself, but you might end up saying something that could escalate the situation.  Sometimes, you won’t realize you have committed a microaggression and, in those moments you can:

  • Seek More often than not, your colleagues will be interested in engaging in dialogue and can help you to understand how your comment was received;
  • Consider received; behind the message versus the impact the message had;
  • Acknowledge your misstep and apologize for your statement;
  • Take time to reflect and educate yourself on the issue; and
  • Remember that we all have room for growth.

There are a variety of ways to handle dealing with microaggressions.  One thing that is important to remember is that we are all humans who can make mistakes. And as humans, we also have the potential to educate ourselves and others, and the ability to grow and change.