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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Williams

How to deal with microaggressions in the workplace

The term “microaggression” first gained traction when Columbia professor Derald Sue defined it as; “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults”.

In his book he further classifies these slights into categories such as microassaults (conscious and intentional actions or slurs, such as using racial epithets), microinsults (verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity) and microinvalidations (communications that subtly exclude, negate, or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of colour). (1)

Today, whilst microaggressions are generally talked about in relation to race, really any marginalised group in our society can experience them; they can target many aspects of who we are such as race, gender, sexuality, parental status, socioeconomic background, mental health, or any other aspect of our identity (2). Often microaggressions can be intersectional because people can exist at the intersection of overlapping identities. (3)

Research shows that the cumulative effect of microaggressions can be significant and can not only contribute to a hostile and invalidating work climate, devalue social group identities and lower work productivity but even create physical health problems (i.e., depression, anxiety, insomnia); and mental health issues due to stress, low self-esteem, and emotional turmoil (4).

Microaggressions are hard to pinpoint and call out because they’re a subtle type of prejudice and often, they’re directed towards people in a jokey manner.

Here are a few examples of microaggressions to illustrate, and why they are a problem

1. “Where are you *really* from?”

Why this is a microaggression: Because asking someone who was born in the same country as you, asking ‘where’ they come from can be jarring as it can often imply that person is yet to return home, or that they don’t belong in the country of their birth. Only chat about their heritage if they bring it up first and don’t push to know the details of someone’s ethnicity or cultural upbringing if they don’t give you the answers you’re looking for.

2. "I'm just going to call you.... Harry"

Why it’s a microaggression: Ever met someone with a name you felt nervous pronouncing? If you’re struggling to say their first or last name, don’t shorten it or give them a nickname without their permission – that’s probably going to come off a bit insulting (who likes being called something they’re not?!). Instead, ask them politely how they pronounce or spell their name or check their LinkedIn profile to see if it has the pronunciation feature enabled.

3. "I'm not racist, I don't see colour"

Why it’s a microaggression: What many people do not understand is that the mantra is quite problematic to diversity and inclusion efforts. The idea of not seeing skin-colour is inaccurate. How can you possibly fix something that you don’t believe you see it? If you are conducting training to help individuals move past their racial biases, it’s important to understand that the goal is not to be colour-blind. The goal is to see and recognise skin colour but to control and regulate your innate impulse to make decisions based on such characteristics. We must first recognise that each of us, no matter our colour, have preconceived notions and expectations about different racial groups. Recognition and acknowledgement are crucial to change.

So how is the best way to deal with microaggressions? A few possibilities include:

  • Let it go: Because they are pervasive yet subtle, challenging microaggressions can be emotionally draining for an ally. Yet silence places an emotional tax on the affected employees, so if you want to step up, get uncomfortable.

  • Respond immediately. This approach can be risky. The perpetrator might get defensive, leaving the target feeling like they will be labelled an overly sensitive whiner, a trouble- maker, or the stereotypical angry Black person.

  • Respond later. The best response is to address the perpetrator privately at a later point to explain why the microaggression was offensive. Help the person who committed the microaggression to recall it and then appreciate its impact and how they can possibly present their ideas differently, next time.

So how can we avoid microaggressions? There are several strategies:

  • Discern. Determine how much of an investment you want to make in addressing the microaggression. Do not feel pressured to respond to every incident; rather, feel empowered to do so when you decide you should. Consider: The importance of the issue and your relationship with the perpetrator. Your feelings at the time of the incident vs after. The perpetrator's intent vs the impact of what was said. How you want to be perceived in the future for speaking up or staying silent.

  • Disarm. If you choose to confront a microaggression, be prepared to disarm the person who committed it. Perpetrators of microaggressions typically fear being perceived — or revealed — as racist which makes them defensive. Explain that the conversation might get uncomfortable but what they said was also uncomfortable. Invite them to sit alongside you in the awkwardness while you get to the root of their behaviour together.

  • Defy. Challenge the perpetrator to clarify their statement or action. Use a probing question, such as “How do you mean that?” This gives people a chance to check themselves as they unpack what happened and it gives you an opportunity to gauge their intent. Then reframe the conversation around the impact of the microaggression vs their intentions in saying what they did.

  • Decide. All those with marginalised and intersectional identities are already subject to biased expectations and evaluations in the workplace. Decide how much you want to invest in correcting this microaggression. Let protecting your wellbeing be your greatest and most persistent act of resistance.

A note of advice for allies old and new: the work of allyship is difficult. You will make mistakes as you learn — and you will always be learning. If you've been accused of using a microaggression, do your best to seek to understand why what you said has been called out and get comfortable rethinking much of what you thought to be true about the world and your workplace and accept that you have likely been complicit in producing inequity. Cultural change takes time and intention. Challenging microaggressions is step one.


1. Microaggressions and Marginality: Manifestation, Dynamics, and Impact Derald Wing Sue

4. Minimizing and addressing microaggressions in the workplace Association of College and Research Libraries


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