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  • Writer's pictureAnisa Aven

What are microaggressions?

A microaggression is any unwittingly harmful words or behaviors that cause another to experience emotional pain, exclusion, or discrimination. Microaggressions are rampant and while most often perpetrated against historically marginalized groups, majority groups experience microaggressions too, albeit to a lesser degree.

A microaggression is any unwittingly harmful words or behaviors that cause another to experience emotional pain, exclusion, or discrimination.

I come from the camp of, “If I can name it. I can change it.” And, identifying and labeling these subtle acts of exclusion* means we can begin the process of increasing awareness and buy-in to change.

Here is the kicker – microaggressions are small, seemingly innocuous acts, committed by clueless people with biases (hint: that is every one of us), from a place of ignorance to the full weight of their effect on others. These slights are harmful because, to the victim, this is not the first, second, or 100th time they have experienced this - it’s the 100×100th time.

One ant bite stings. One hundred ant bites are awful.

And 1000+ ant bites are disabling and even deadly. Let me share some examples (and please forgive the lack of nuance, missing factors, and many variances that are surely present in every instance):

  • A woman is answering a question at a team meeting. She is interrupted and talked over by her male counterparts. The men never meant to cause her to feel insignificant or invisible, but she does. To some women, this is disrespectful because there is a history of, “It’s better for you to be seen, not heard.”

  • Complimenting a black person with, “You are so articulate.” It does not matter if this was meant to be a complement. What matters is, in most cases, they have experienced people making similar assumptions that, because they are black, they are not expected to be an eloquent orator.

  • Saying to a man, “Oh, really? You got custody of the children?” implies that men are not as good at parenting as women.

  • Asking an overweight woman, “When are you due?”

  • Asserting hetero normative expectations such as, “Are you married?” and, when they say, “Yes.” You ask the man, “When will we get to meet your wife?” Thus, subtly implying that being married to another man would be abnormal.

  • Assuming a non-white person is foreign-born. Questions that imply “You are not American” like “Where are you from?” are not innocently experienced by the Asian American or Latino American that has been asked that, and the follow-up question, “No, where are you really from?” one too many times.

  • Upholding the myth that we live in a meritocracy with statements such as, “All they have to do is work hard. Everyone in America has the same opportunities.”

  • Using effortlessly offensive phrases such as, “sold down the river,” “off the reservation,” and, even “peanut gallery.” There are many more, and we will unwittingly use terms and phrases with innocent cluelessness. It’s how we respond to feedback that matters most.

The offending party does not intend to be racist or discriminatory. They are typically shocked and will not agree that there was aggression or racism in their comments. This is in fact why, when the microaggression is called-out, the individual will often respond defensively, “I’m not a racist. I would never intentionally say something meant to hurt you or any BIPOC.”

Furthermore, you may also be aware of more virulent reactions such as, “I’m so tired of all this political correctness. All the snowflakes out there think everything anyone ever says is offensive.”

Resistance and defensiveness is a sign that greater attention to mindful deliverance of diversity and inclusivity values, and communication learning experiences are needed. This includes interpersonal effectiveness development to help us better respond with neutral appreciation, when we say something that offends another.

This leads us to the logical next step: What is the best way to manage microaggressions in the workplace? The answer requires more than a simple checklist. However, there are a few tips that I would like to briefly leave you with:

  • Campaign for awareness: Establish the value of sensitivity and compassion for the experiences of others.

  • Establish a resilient philosophy: We are a work in progress. We will make mistakes. We will forgive one another and try again. We will chart a course for awareness, inclusivity, and growth and stay the course, until this is a respectful and safe-to-be-unique workplace.

  • Initiate targeted training topics: Emotional Intelligence, unconscious (implicit) bias, productive conflict, mitigating cultural differences, sensitivity, interpersonal effectiveness, cultural competence, anti-racism and anti-discrimination in the workplace.

  • Facilitated discussion circles: With the help of a trained expert, discussion circles, when managed well, can open the dialogue and over time, foster compassion, understanding, and a culture tolerant of direct communication.

  • Review policies and change practices influenced by racial biases: Examples include unskilled managers failing to provide meaningful performance reviews and career-pathing support; hiring policies that fail to mitigate racial prejudices, etc.

I hope this is helpful! Do let us know how we may support you and your DEI program goals.

Anisa Aven

*Recommended Resource: Check out a good book called Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran.



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