We all want to work in a place where we feel comfortable — it’s never a great feeling to get to work and feel like you don’t fit in. But even worse, it’s awful to work in an environment where you’re treated differently because of something you can’t help, like your gender or race.
Nowadays, we’d like to assume that most colleagues wouldn’t intentionally discriminate against someone on purpose. But we all have biases, whether we realise it or not, and these can manifest in something called microaggressions.
In this article, we’ll look at what microaggressions are and where they come from. We’re gonna go into some different kinds of microaggressions someone might face, as well as what they might look like. We know it seems scary to unpack all of this — you may even feel as though you can’t say anything anymore, which is definitely not true. To help with this, we’ll show you how to identify microaggressions, give you examples, and teach you how to deal with microaggressions in the workplace.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are actions rooted in biases and stereotypes. We can define microaggressions as: “brief, everyday, derogatory slights or insults that communicate hostility and bias (e.g., racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, etc.) toward a marginalised person or group.” [Oxford Bibliographies]
Microaggressions are complicated; they can be intentional or unintentional, which means that even well-meaning individuals can accidentally commit them against someone belonging to historically marginalised groups. If you're not sure whether something you're about to say or do might be a microaggression, take a step back and ask yourself — would I say this to someone who was exactly like me? If the answer is no, it might be worth reconsidering.
Harvard psychiatry professor Dr Chester M. Pierce used the term first in 1970, naming small insults and dismissals inflicted on African Americans by non-Black people 'microaggressions' compared to larger racist acts. Nowadays, the term includes aggressions motivated by other prejudices, such as sexism or homophobia.
Microaggressions can be expressed verbally, behaviourally, or environmentally. Over time, these seemingly small, harmful actions add up, having potentially serious consequences for the victims.
The Different Types of Microaggressions
Microaggressions negatively target marginalized groups of people. Here's a list of communities or identities that can be targeted:
- Sexual orientation
- Socioeconomic class
People can, of course, have one or more overlapping identities. For example, your co-worker might be a gay, Chinese woman. So it's important to remember that microaggressions can be intersectional. Intersectionality is defined as: "the complex, cumulative way in which the effects of multiple forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect, especially in the experiences of marginalized individuals or groups." [Merriam Webster] Read more about intersectionality in our recent article.
So, your colleague could be suffering from a terrible combination of discrimination!
How to Identify Microaggressions at work
Microaggressions can happen verbally, environmentally, or behaviourally. Here are some examples of each, and how they manifest in the workplace.
- Verbal Microaggressions
These happen when someone says something offensive about a marginalised group.
Example 1 — Racial discrimination
Imagine a White colleague saying to your Black colleague: “Wow, you’re so articulate!” as if it’s a compliment. Although the first colleague probably meant their comment kindly, it demonstrates an unconscious bias toward how a Black person might speak.
Example 2 — Homophobic discrimination
If you overhear another colleague saying to your queer colleague: “I don’t even think of you as gay!” then they are displaying subconscious homophobic views. It suggests that they think being gay is bad, or other, and that it’s better to be thought of as straight.
Example 3 — Gender discrimination
When you hear someone telling a female colleague “Don’t be so sensitive” in response to a situation, it a) suggests that women are less rational and more emotional than men and b) that their concerns are invalid.
- Environmental Microaggressions
These microaggressions happen structurally, usually through a lack of representation in society.
Example 1 — Gender discrimination
Excluding women from executive positions or denying women the opportunity to be promoted.
Example 2 — Gender and Race discrimination
Having every significant room or initiative in an organisation be named after White men.
- Behavioural Microaggressions
These happen when someone does something which insensitively plays into identity stereotypes.
Example 1 — Disability discrimination
An example of this would be if your colleague is planning a work event and excludes a disabled member of the team because they assume that person can’t come. It would be better not to assume someone’s capabilities, not to mention communicating with a venue in case accommodations are needed.
Example 2 — Age discrimination
Say, your company’s software was recently updated, and one colleague assumes that an older colleague can’t use the new technology. This shows that they think everyone of a certain age is the same, and that they’re judging their coworker by their age rather than their ability.
You can identify a microaggression by thinking proactively about the language you and your colleagues use. Identify whether or not your actions and speech might alienate or offend other people, and pay attention to how your colleagues react. If someone tells you that something you’ve said offends them, first, apologise, and then reflect on your behaviour. Chances are, you implied something without meaning to. So simply learn, grow, and don’t repeat the mistake again.
How to Respond to a Microaggression
It’s not only important to know how to grow after hurting another person, but also how to respond to a microaggression committed against you or a colleague.
If you see a microaggression, you have a few options on how to respond. You could say something — politely point out to the colleague who committed the offending action why their behaviour may be harmful. Try to do it in a way that doesn’t make the marginalised person feel awkward, or even more othered. If you don’t feel comfortable doing that, you can always report the action later to HR, or speak to the colleague after the incident has passed about what they said.
You should always think about the victim in these situations; offer support, distract them from the moment by bringing up something else, or check in with them afterwards to see how they’re feeling without placing anymore emotional labour on them.
It is in everyone’s best interest to create a workplace where everyone feels welcome. Inclusivity and acceptance lead to happy, productive workers capable of doing their absolute best, which is what we all want!