While organizations continue efforts to create more equitable workplaces and many implement policy changes to increase opportunities for underrepresented team members, microaggressions often fall into a murkier area that can land squarely in the realm of personal responsibility.
Because they can be both subtle and familiar, microaggressions often go unrecognized by those committing them. Even people being harmed may sometimes struggle to identify exactly what is happening in the moment, even though they feel it. Each of us has a responsibility to educate ourselves about how we may be committing harm through these seemingly “small” comments and behaviors, and then be humble enough to change them.
Impact vs. intent
The term “microaggressions” was first used by Harvard University Professor and psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, M.D., in 1970 in describing offenses he saw committed against Black people in a “gratuitous, never-ending way.” His concern, one since borne out by research, was that, “These mini disasters accumulate.”
Since that time, the concept has been further researched and broadened to include any marginalized group. Some definitions focus on a lack of intent to insult or cause harm, others point to their “everyday” and subtle nature. Microaggressions can even appear in the guise of a compliment or joke. Psychologist Derald Sue, Ph.D., who’s written two books on the topic, defines microaggressions as, “The everyday slights, indignities, put- downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”
How they harm
Part of the harm of microaggressions is that they tend to be so constant and pervasive that they become an almost expected part of the environment. Their nebulous nature can actually make microaggressions especially toxic for those impacted because, while the harm is real, our understanding and appreciation of it can be sorely lacking. Complaints about microaggressions are also sometimes brushed off as excessive political correctness, and those who call them out can be labeled overly sensitive.
But a broad body of research (from Stanford’s Claude Steele, Ph.D., to Yale’s Jack Dovidio, Ph.D. and Samuel Gaertner, Ph.D., of the University of Delaware and others) shows that the harm caused by microaggressions is very real. Black Americans and women perform worse on academic tests if they are first told that people of their race or gender do not do well on such tests. Even the uncertainty and difficulty of deciphering microaggressions causes additional stress to people of color, Dovidio’s research shows.
Offhand comments that reveal underlying biases can cause those on the receiving end to feel that they don’t belong, are not trusted, are under constant watch and suspicion and that it is dangerous to trust others. The ongoing existence of microaggressions can create hostile working environments and being on constant alert can lead to anger, depression, lower productivity, and increased emotional strain for those impacted.
See them for what they are
The University of California Santa Cruz (UCSC) adapted Sue’s work to share examples with its community about the destructive messages microaggressions can send. When we understand the impact of what may at first seem like “harmless” comments or even kidding, we are more highly motivated to remove them from our repertoire. Here are some illuminating examples the University shared.
When you use phrases like, “I don’t see color,” or “There is only one race, the human race,” it negates an individual’s personal experience and sends a message that assimilation in the dominant culture is what’s expected and desired.
When you defend yourself against bias by saying, “I have numerous Black friends,” or “As a woman, I understand what you’re going through,” you suggest that simply having friends of color has inoculated you against the impact of living in a racialized society, or that as a white woman you also understand the experiences of people of color.
When you call attention to the appearance or names of Asian Americans, Latino Americans and others who differ in look or name from the dominant white culture by asking where they were born or complimenting their command of English, it can send the message that they are somehow not true Americans or that they are strangers in their own country.
When you fall back on the idea that our workplaces and society function strictly as meritocracies, it suggests that everyone enjoys the same opportunities and that the obstacles people of color face are of their own creation.
When you minimize someone’s experience of microaggressions by questioning whether a comment really had racial overtones, or if their boss actually treats them differently than white colleagues, it denies the individual’s lived experience.
Even as we intentionally strive to create workplaces where everyone belongs and opportunities are shared, we may still unintentionally engage in behaviors and comments that reveal implicit biases and cause real harm. One of the most effective anti-racist things well-intentioned people can do is to accept feedback from those harmed, and be willing to change.