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Ouch! Workplace Microaggression Hurts

According to Derald Wing Sue, PhD, of Columbia University, “Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

There are comments like the following:

  • “You don’t act black.”
  • “Can I touch your hair?”
  • “But you sound white.”
  • “You’re pretty in an exotic way.”
  • “You don’t dress ghetto.”
  • “You’re lucky there is affirmative action.”

Though the previous comments are in reference to an African-American person, microaggressions can be expressed against any marginalized group of people. Microaggressions make people feel as if their identity is not welcome by others and that they are “outsiders” in the workplace and society. They can intimidate and threaten; perpetuate supremacy and superiority; invalidate; be ambiguous, hostile, derogatory, or negative; demean and humiliate; be subtle, automatic, or unintentional; and be brief or occur on a daily basis.

In many cases, these messages invalidate a group identity or experiential reality of the targeted people, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment. In other words, these statements and behaviors hurt, even if they weren’t intended to.

Nearly every day we hear someone make questionable remarks or ask insensitive questions that include insulting offensive references to someone else’s appearance, sexuality, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical or mental ability, physical attributes, religious or political affiliation, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, or any other difference we are capable of observing. The impact of this behavior on others can create painful, hostile, and invalidating spaces.

Over time, the hostile environments zap a person’s energy and lead to depression, anger, low self-esteem, anxiety, frustration, sleep difficulties, diminished confidence, helplessness, loss of drive, intrusive cognitions, diminished cognition, and even rage. The relational effect of microaggression is avoidance, exclusion, withdrawal, isolation, distance, devaluation, and disrespect.

So, what can we do about it? How can we check our own behaviors and advocate for more inclusive environments?

Sometimes, we will say things out of frustration to try to let another person know that “we understand” or that “we get it.” However, sometimes our words have the opposite effect. So, when we mess up, as most of us inevitably will, we should:

  1. Accept responsibility;
  2. Apologize;
  3. Offer restitution, if there are adequate options available for you; and
  4. Now that you know better, do better.

Maybe you haven’t caused the wound of microaggression. Perhaps you’ve simply seen or heard it in your workplace. Know that when you remain silent and do nothing, it signals to your co-worker that you agree with the microaggression. Desmond Tutu said it this way: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” So, when you witness a microaggression:

  1. Be an ally;
  2. Interject — Ask a clarifying question of the person making the microaggressive comment (e.g., “Did I hear you correctly? Did you really mean to say that?”); and
  3. Redirect the conversation.

How can we create more inclusive workplaces that are microaggression-free zones?

  • Continuous education;
  • Create safe and respectful spaces to discuss microaggressions that people from diverse communities, backgrounds, and identities face;
  • Start consciously using small, appreciative gestures like a smile or a nod to acknowledge the worth of employees as individuals and find ways to appreciate your co-workers; and

Create inclusive workplaces where employees are respected and valued for whom they are and feel a level of supportive energy and commitment from others, so that they can do their best work.

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