Microaggression is a term used for commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights – whether intentional or unintentional – that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. Microaggressions have also been called, “death by a thousand cuts”, because they feel like slices taken out of a person’s being. Simply put, microaggressions are assumptions made, and you know what they say about assumptions…I use this saying all the time! These generally stem from opinions formed from our past or how we were raised, and we often say microaggressive comments or take actions without even realizing it. But because it’s such an easy thing to do, especially in the workplace, as an organizational leader, you must be cognizant of what these microaggressions look and sound like to better understand how to respond productively to them, whether they happen to you or your employees.
Creating Psychologically Safe Spaces
First, how many believe that ignorance means innocence? It holds some truth—you are not culpable for your mistake if you didn’t know it was wrong. However, ignorance does not preclude your personal improvement. Just because you are unaware of the harm you may have caused, it does not negate the wrongness of the action itself, or the pain that is caused. You can only claim ignorance for a slip-up once; then, you should know better and must learn from it.
Every single one of us has made an assumption before, there’s no doubt about that. Something that may seem ‘normal’ to us or come off as a lighthearted joke, can end up being extremely hurtful to someone else. We must transform our workplaces into Psychologically Safe Spaces where microaggressions desist as people learn to avoid discriminatory behaviors. Simultaneously, we must create a comfortable and safe way for employees to report bad behavior. Inclusive work environments are not just nice to have, they positively contribute to employee well-being and mental and physical health.
Secondly, it does not fall upon the shoulders of the person or group of people you are offending to educate you. For example, a non-Black person asking to touch a Black person’s hair. It is not their job to explain to you why something like that isn’t acceptable, and I would advise you not to seek out lessons on microaggressions from your peers who identify as a member of a marginalized group in some way. If they freely offer information on this topic, by all means, listen to their experiences. It is a great way to learn, but do not put the responsibility of resolving this issue on their shoulders.
There are many things we subconsciously do that can be very offensive to those around us. Such as calling a woman ‘little lady’ or assuming she can’t attend happy hour because she has to get home to the kids. Or the assumption that your Asian colleague is incredibly smart, and maybe you decided to volunteer them to bring fried rice to a company picnic. Even asking someone where they’re from just because they have an accent can be taken the wrong way. Accents can originate from everywhere. Many of us US-born and raised individuals have accents from our parents, or grandparents even, but there is nothing ‘foreign’ about them.
I even remember a time when I had seen someone in a wheelchair approaching a doorway, and I just assumed they needed help getting through. So I opted to give them a little push. Little did I know, they had been in a wheelchair for the majority of their life, and just as they’d been able to function on their own as an adult, they certainly didn’t need my help getting through that doorway. But because I assumed they did, there sprouted my unintentional microaggression.
The moral of that story is, don’t touch anyone’s wheelchair unless they ask for assistance. Don’t open the door without asking, “May I get the door for you?” That small piece of their day might be a huge hurdle they are slowly attempting to overcome, and by assuming they need your help, you may be stripping them of that success.
The reality now remains, microaggressions are not so micro in terms of their impact, and creating a culture where people can thrive doesn’t happen overnight. They should be taken seriously because, at their core, they signal disrespect and reflect inequality.
Microaggressions affect everyone, so creating more inclusive and culturally competent workplace cultures means each of us must explore our own biases in order to become aware of them.
But we shouldn’t be afraid to communicate with one another. At the end of the day, we choose how we speak and behave. That is our choice. We choose how to show up, how to think, and how to educate ourselves. So let’s think more about how we can learn in order to evolve, and growth will surely follow.