The difference between microaggressions and blatant racism, sexism or homophobia tends to lay in their more subtle nature and, typically, a lack of malicious intent. That can make microaggressions harder to identify, but no less powerful in their ability to wear away at another’s self-esteem and harm workplace relationships.
Early researchers in the field and authors of the book, Microaggression Theory, define microaggressions as “everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” They can reflect race, gender, class, age, sexual orientation or other ways we categorize people.
“We may be attuned enough to avoid blatant racial or ethnic slurs today,” explains Pam Fields, founder and president of Visible Unity, a Dallas-based non-profit that works to develop more unified, diverse and reconciled communities. “However, our biases and prejudices can seep through in less direct ways that materialize as microaggressions. These slights often go uncorrected because they are less obvious, we are accustomed to hearing them or we fear being labeled as overly sensitive if we call them out.”
Their effects, however, can be just as damaging as more blatant forms of discrimination. For example, when we ask an expectant mother if she plans to return to work after giving birth, a question rarely asked of male colleagues, we subtly diminish her commitment to her career and the organization.
When a white person claims, ‘I don’t see color,’ in an effort to communicate respect for all people, the good intentions are lost in a lack of understanding that denies the unique racial and ethnic experiences of the person of color.
“Speaking up for belonging in the workplace is critical to enabling all members to contribute equally and experience genuine acceptance.” Fields explains. “Research even indicates that a variety of perspectives increases productivity and the quality of the final product.”
We all get it wrong sometimes, regardless of how genuine our efforts to follow and model best practices for inclusive workplaces. Consider these approaches for speaking up effectively against microaggressions and in support of genuine belonging.
Practice the pause. When you witness or experience a microaggression, take a few seconds to breath before responding. The Civil Conversations Project recommends what Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön calls “the pause” — taking three breaths in and out to settle your body and reset your mind for more effective communication.
Acknowledge the comment and ask for clarification. Speaking up in the moment creates an opportunity to dispel stereotypes, cultivate deeper understanding and support those who have been marginalized.
Respond with a desire to better understand and get clarification. Ask the speaker, ‘Can you say more about that’ or simply, ‘What do you mean?’ This not only gently calls attention to the comment, but gives the person an opportunity to self-correct. When given the benefit of the doubt, offenders are likely to be more open to learning.
Identify problematic words and concepts. If you’re directly impacted, say so. ‘When you said X, I felt Y. In the future please . . .’ Or, ‘That idea comes up in popular culture but many people find it problematic because . . .’ By helping the person to understand the direct impact of their words, you provide greater motivation for change.
Offer another perspective. Engage the speaker by asking, ‘I’m wondering if maybe your comment is sending a different message than intended. Have you considered . . .’
Use your own life experiences as examples. We all lack the perspective of other groups and have room to grow in our understanding. Share stories from your own life of how you’ve learned to think and act differently by gaining a better understanding of how the words you were using impacted others.
Revisit the moment. If you’re too surprised, confused or angry to respond effectively in the moment, revisit the incident after you’ve cooled down and collected your thoughts. Select a non-confrontational setting and open with, ‘During our conversation the other day, you mentioned X. I’d like to talk about that for a moment if we can.’
Support those impacted. When you witness microaggressions, in addition to speaking up in the moment, check in with those impacted privately later. Let them know you are concerned about their welfare and want to support them now and in the future.