Boss: You’re black?
Me: Yes… (I’m wondering how this is surprising information).
Boss: Wow. I didn’t realize. You don’t talk like them. And you’re not as dark as them.
Me: (baffled) I’m going to leave before this conversation gets any worse.
Me: *To myself* (Was that supposed to be some kind of compliment? Well, I feel horrified. Because I just heard: “black people are generally not articulate, well-educated, or intelligent. You don’t fit that description, so you must not be black.” Am I now going to receive unfair treatment because my boss clearly thinks black people are inferior, and she just found out that I’m black?)
Yes, that actually happened to me. And, no I didn’t sue for discrimination (against my husband’s urgent advice). I didn’t even tell HR. That takes so much emotional energy, and I was just trying to do my job.
But I wonder how many people receive those little jabs every day. This one was a bit more obvious than the subtle comments, jokes, back-handed compliments, and other demeaning actions that can really get under one’s skin. It’s called microaggression, and here are four things socially-conscious organizations need to know about it.
1. Microaggression perpetuates injustice.
Microaggression has been compared to ‘death by a thousand cuts’, or having a constant onslaught of mosquito bites. This video (disclaimer: it contains 2 expletives) helps provide a humorous perspective.
Derald Wing Sue, Ph.D. shared a comprehensive definition in Psychology Today:
“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. [They] …may invalidate the group identity or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”
While microaggressions are by definition, ‘small’, or hidden, Dr. Sue argues that overt discrimination is no longer the likely culprit that maintains the current inequalities in our society; rather it is well-meaning citizens who act on implicit biases.
Consider that only 33% of Americans are white males, but they hold 80% of tenured positions in higher education, over 80% of the House and Senate, 92% of Forbes 400 C-level executive positions, 99.9% of athletic team ownership, and represent 97.7% of US presidents (source: Psychology Today, 2010). Microaggressions are at least a symptom of, and likely contribute to, the implicit biases that fuel systemic racism and marginalize women and people of color.
2. Microaggression can adversely affect business growth.
These small moments can add up, causing organizations to miss big opportunities, and become less competitive over time. Among other things, microaggression creates a culture that:
- Underutilizes talent
- Impairs recruitment and retention
- Erodes individual performance
- Stifles innovation
- Inhibits teamwork and collaboration (source: pcom.edu)
From a legal perspective, unresolved microaggressions can lead to claims of a hostile work environment – and a costly settlement or lawsuit (source: Findlaw.com).
3. Microaggression can negatively affect the mental and physical health of those targeted.
This happens for several reasons:
- It causes stress. This is because microaggressions are usually subtle and therefore confusing. They consume cognitive resources because targets cannot distinguish whether the affront was due to racism or some other implicit bias, actual poor performance, or the aggressor just having a bad day. This can disrupt sleep and increase stress hormones. On the job, microaggression signals an unsafe environment, triggering psychological and physiological responses (even if there is no open conflict). They are ‘harder to shake off’; overt racism can be easily identified and dismissed, especially if it comes from a complete stranger (source: apa.org).
- These sort of stressors can pile up as ‘injuries to the psyche’, and result in “everything from depression, fatigue, and anger to physical ailments such as chronic infections, thyroid problems, and high blood pressure” (source: news.harvard.edu).
- One study links microaggression to suicidal risk among young adults of color (source: pcom.edu).
- Targets can often find themselves in a ‘catch 22’ – if they address the microaggression, the perpetrator is likely to deny any malintent or bias. Targets may find themselves labeled as ‘overly sensitive’, ‘angry’, or ‘paranoid’ as a result. They may even experience retaliation or further exclusion. However, if they don’t address the microaggression, the issue festers internally, “taking a huge emotional toll” (source: PsychologyToday.com).
- Research shows additional detrimental effects on people of color.
4. There are healthy ways to deal with microaggression.
Here is a list of examples of messages or behaviors that could make people feel marginalized. Once you know what you are looking for, you can take the appropriate next steps:
If you’re white, and an observer
Remember that your perspective may be taken more seriously as a ‘neutral third party’, so speaking up has extra value. People of color (and women) will appreciate you being an ally. Instead of trying to speak on their behalf, though, share your own perspective. For example, “That is hurtful. I think her comments are valid. I would like to hear what she has to say”, etc. Microaggression perpetuates implicit biases, and calling it out helps dismantle ideologies that contribute to injustice.
If you are on the receiving end
You may choose to address the issue directly with the micro-aggressor. If you work with them regularly, consider planning your conversation (maybe with the help of a friend) and either scheduling for a later date or addressing it when you can find a private moment. Share the underlying message you received and how it made you feel. It may help to bring in an ally or take it up with another party who can hold them accountable (such as their supervisor) if you don’t think a one-on-one discussion will be productive. Whether you choose to address it or not, be sure to talk it out with friends, counteract the negative emotions with self-care, or employ other coping strategies.
If someone is calling you out for microaggression
(Or bravo! you realize after the fact on your own), it’s going to be okay. Remember that everyone carries implicit biases. It is wrong, however, to make people feel excluded or inferior, even if you have good intentions. Resist the urge to get defensive. Take the time to listen, learn a new perspective, and apologize (we wrote a whole blog about this) – you’ll build stronger relationships, and find yourself (and your organization) growing!
Microaggressions still happen (even if by accident), and they take a toll on individuals, corporations, and society as a whole. If we stay informed and take action when necessary, we are helping make this world a better place for ourselves and our children!