It’s happening. And not before time.

We are finally engaging in real conversations about how to combat racism, antisemitism, injustice, inclusion, diversity and equality, not just in the workplace but in society as a whole.  Hopefully, in time, the conversations we are having and the actions we are taking will pave the way for real and lasting positive change to happen.

But, as Neil Armstrong said as he stepped onto the surface of the moon, ‘one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind’, and that is no truer when we talk about microaggressions.

For massive, societal change to happen, we must all take a collective responsibility to affect such change on a personal level.

First, a few questions – Have you ever laughed at a racist joke? Have you ever judged a person based on their skin colour, ethnicity, sexuality of disability? Have you ever displayed – conscious or unconscious – bias towards an historically marginalised group?

Don’t think for a second we’re suggesting that anyone who has ever laughed at the joke where the Pope and the rabbi go into the pub should go down for hate crimes; it’s far more subtle, more nuanced, and that subtlety and nuance comes in the form of microaggressions.

What Are Microaggressions?

The term was coined in 1970 by Dr. Chester M Pierce, a professor of education and psychiatry at Harvard Medical School based on observed experiences that black people endured. Today the definition has been extended to include any minority or marginalised group or individual who possesses a protected characteristic.

There are a number of explanations of microaggressions, here are a few:

Michelle Bogan, CEO of Equity at WorkMicroaggressions are small, off-the-cuff comments that reflect assumptions about people based on some element of their identity.’

Sheri Crosby Wheeler, Vice President, Diversity and Inclusion, Mr. Cooper Group ‘Those seemingly innocuous comments, often appearing to be compliments or genuinely expressed questions, that are in actuality unintentional expressions of bias and/or racism, sexism, ageism or other forms of discrimination.’

Kevin Nadal, Professor of Psychology, John Jay College of Criminal Justice ‘Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviours that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalised groups.

And the difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination? Those that commit microaggressions may not even be aware they’re doing it.

And therein you honour, lies the problem.

How Do I Recognise Microaggressions?

If you’ve ever had a conversation with a colleague and they have said something based on your skin colour, ethnicity, disability, religion or sexuality that made you feel uncomfortable– even though the words appear on the surface to be complimentary – you have been on the receiving end of a microaggression.

Here are some of the most common workplace microaggressions.

Wow, you’re so articulate!
Despite sounding like a great compliment, this comment can very easily feel condescending as if a black or Asian guy or girl isn’t expected to have a complete command of the English language even though they were born here and went through exactly the same education system as their white counterparts.

But where are you really from?
A seemingly innocuous question which appears on the surface to be just a way to get to know someone but there are some who aren’t satisfied with ‘Watford’ when asking someone who’s surname is Lee where they’re from. The inference being is that the answer must be China because they look like they’re from China.

Would you mind ordering the lunches for the meeting?
Diversity, equity, inclusion and antiracism consultant Aaisha Joseph explains that one of her pet peeve microaggressions is expecting the black or Asian employees to be the ‘staff’, i.e. to serve and not to lead. Of course it’s not always the case and every member of a team is expected to pitch in but in her experience, a far greater percentage of the time these types of questions are aimed at minorities or marginalised individuals.

Oh you’re gay? You should meet my friend Steve, he’s gay too.
Again, it seems well-intentioned on the surface but just because two random people happen to have the same sexual orientation, it in no way means they’d be a match. The inference here is that since there are fewer LGBTQ people in the dating pool, two gay guys or girls would instantly click based on the single thing they have in common.

She’s hysterical!
Calling a female colleague or boss hysterical has historically sexist undertones. In the 19th century, what today would be clinically diagnosed as anxiety or depression was seen as nothing more than women being troublemakers and they would be described as hysterical. The word itself comes from the Greek ‘hystera’ meaning uterus, signifying that the condition was specific to women. Call a woman hysterical and you are suggesting her actions are illogical rather than the result of reasoned thought.

The way you deal with your disability is so inspiring!
People with disabilities in the workplace have to deal with microaggressions every day including the tired trope of being told that they are inspiring because they’re in a wheelchair or being tip-toed around because they have a ‘special need.’ Stella Young was an Australian comedian, journalist and disability rights activist and she said ‘I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning.’ In other words, don’t be so shocked that a disabled colleague can accomplish just as much as their able-bodied peers and it’s highly disrespectful to assume they can’t.

How To Deal With Microaggressions

By using the suffix ‘micro’ the implication is that the transgression is small. One instance may well be small and not worth bothering about but compounded over time and they can have a detrimental impact on an employee’s experience, physical and mental health. In fact there is research to suggest that microaggressions are at least as harmful as overt expressions of racism or sexism.

By definition, microaggressions undermine a culture of inclusion and as with many workplace issues, increasing awareness can go a long way to dramatically reducing the number of incidents. However, complete eradication is probably impossible so how should those on the receiving end respond to the microaggressions they face?

There are three main ways to react:

1. Let it go. This is the default position for most people on the basis that each one can be emotionally draining to confront. However, silence places an emotional tax on the receiver while they wonder what happened and start to question their right to be offended. This in turn reinforces historical beliefs that they aren’t safe at work from what’s known as identity devaluation.

2. Confront it immediately. By reacting instantly, it allows for the transgression to be called out and explained. Immediacy can often be a vital component of correcting bad behaviour but this approach can also be risky. The ‘accused’ will often get instantly defensive – ‘I’m not racist/sexist, how dare you accuse me of such a thing’ – and this can often lead to more serious issues.

3. Respond later. Less confrontational, a private considered response explaining why the microaggression was offensive leads to a much calmer conversation but the risk here is the time lag. It requires the perpetrator to remember what was said and also to appreciate the negative impact it had. It can also lead to ‘no, I definitely didn’t say it like that, you are mistaken’ or ‘I didn’t mean any harm but if I did say that it was just banter’.

But which is the best course of action?

Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch and Laura Morgan Roberts have identified a 4D framework for a response to ensure an effective dialogue, should you decide to respond.

Discern – Determine how much of an investment you want to make in addressing the microaggression. Don’t feel pressured to respond every time; rather, feel empowered to do so when you decide it’s the right time.

You need to consider:

  • The importance of the issue and the nature of the relationship you have with the microaggressor
  • How it will impact your own feelings
  • How you want to be perceived, both now and moving forward

Disarm – If you decide you want to confront a microaggression, you should be prepared to disarm the perpetrator. It’s natural to avoid conversations about race or sexuality because they make people feel uncomfortable and those who commit microaggressions will live in constant fear of being perceived – or worse, outed – as a racist or misogynist. It’s worth saying that as uncomfortable as it the conversation is for them, the microaggression was far more uncomfortable for you.

A relaxed, non-confrontational chat as to why you felt uncomfortable is more disarming than making instant accusations.

Defy – It’s absolutely within your right to challenge anything you find uncomfortable. Ask your microaggressor to clarify what they mean. ‘When you just seemed surprised I was so articulate, what did you mean?’ It gives you the opportunity to gauge the perpetrator’s intent.

‘Acknowledge that you accept their intentions to be as they stated but reframe the conversation around the impact of the microaggression. Explain how you initially interpreted it and why. If they continue to assert that they “didn’t mean it like that,” remind them that you appreciate their willingness to clarify their intent and hope they appreciate your willingness to clarify their impact.’

Decide – It’s up to you to control what a microaggression means for your life in the office. What will you take from it and perhaps more importantly, what it will take from you? It’s for you to decide how it will affect you now and in the future.

If you’re black, Asian, Jewish, disabled, LGBTQ or indeed a member of any marginalised group you are already subject to biased expectations at work and life in general is sufficiently emotionally taxing without having to endure microaggressions.

What Can We All Do?

It’s worth noting that there’s no specific litmus test to gauge microaggressions. What is considered offensive to one may not be to another and each situation will vary dependent on elements such as tone of voice, situation, type of relationship, history and context.

In the day and age we live in, it’s prudent to educate your teams and colleagues about what microaggressions are and wherever possible, try and put a filter in place between the words forming in your brain and coming out of your mouth.

The general rule of thumb is that if you think someone might be offended by what you’re about to say, they probably will be so don’t say it. Conversely, what one shouldn’t do is to clam up for fear of saying something that might be considered a microaggression. Instead, be well intentioned, authentic and be open to learning.

If you do say something that is considered to be a microaggression, however unintentionally, apologise and correct your course.

It’s never about being the perfect human being, it’s about striving to be a better human being. For more information on the work we love to do contact Jules Peck at Vital Minds Business Training w: t: +44 7931 325 642 e:

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