Are you guilty of these microaggressions?
You might have had good intentions when you told your Black or Brown co-worker they were articulate or assumed that you were sparing your older coworker from an exhausting night out when not inviting them for after-work drinks.
But microaggressions are sometimes good intentions gone awry, as they’re often rooted in the ‘-isms,’ including racism, ageism, and sexism, says diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) expert Ella Washington. In her forthcoming book, The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion, Washington emphasizes the importance of having uncomfortable conversations, knowing how to call out microaggressions intelligently, and owning up to our mistakes (because we all make them) with grace.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a microaggression is a comment or action that “subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Typically, we associate these types of aggressions with racialized groups — with dictionary.com even using “I don’t see you as Black” as an example.
But as Washington points out, nothing in the DEI journey is quite “black and white.” What offends one person in a racialized or marginalized community may not offend another in the same demographic; there are the murky zones of intent versus impact; and there’s a distinction — albeit a slippery one, she says — between straight-up rudeness and racialized or prejudiced microaggressions.
Why calling a man ‘bald’ is now considered sex-related harassment in the UK
Consider the recent case in the UK where an employment tribunal ruled that calling a man bald is equal to sex-related harassment. During a heated argument between an electrician and his supervisor, the former called the latter a “bald c—.” According to The Guardian, the all-male panel of judges ruled that commenting on a man’s baldness in the workplace is equivalent to remarking on the size of a woman’s breasts. Given that hair loss is more prevalent among men than women, the judges ruled that tossing out the word ‘bald’ in a pejorative manner is a form of sex-related harassment. The Guardian also notes that the judges bemoaned their own lack of hair in their ruling.
When asked to comment, Washington — who is a professor at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business in D.C. and founder of Ellavate Solutions which provides corporate training in DEI — chooses her words carefully, pointing out that she’s not an expert on sexual harassment. But she draws extra attention to the fact that the victim and the judges are all male and called the ruling “curious.” A little like “certain people trying to enter into the DEI conversation,” she says.
“I think we have to be really careful to not conflate being rude and saying things that just aren’t nice in the workplace with really important terms like harassment and microaggressions.”
Everyone harbors unconscious biases: victims of microaggressions can be perpetrators just as perpetrators can be victims. As Washington explains, people form unconscious biases based on their individual experiences, which are also fed by societal prejudices and stereotypes. They’re the snap judgments and assumptions we make daily as we try to order and categorize the world around us. And therein lies the trouble.
“In the workplace, we see microaggressions happen generally when someone says something they think is good or innocuous, but is actually hurtful and many times rooted in the ‘-isms’ like racism, sexism, ableism or homophobia,” she says. “We have to actively work against them and manage them.”
What to do when you’re the perpetrator
The knee-jerk reaction when we’re called out for committing a well-intended but offensive verbal gaffe is to go on the defensive. The classic “I didn’t mean it that way” reply. But at the end of the day, the impact — not intent — is what matters most, Washington says. “Instead of stopping there, I encourage people to go beyond and say something like ‘I’m sorry, tell me more about how you experienced that,’” she says. “You have to take accountability, even if you didn’t mean it in a bad way.”
Likewise, if someone has given you a good reason for taking offense at something you said or did, Washington advises listening to the feedback and “opting for a different path.” Take “You’re so articulate” as an example. Though you genuinely meant to compliment the Black or POC speaker on a well-delivered presentation or speech, the aforementioned comment is a racially loaded one. It’s not hard to reframe the compliment. Alternatives could include “I really enjoyed your speech,” “I learned so much,” or “You really commanded the room.”
How to handle microaggressions if you’re the victim
Pick your battles. Just as it might not be worth engaging with a stranger in the grocery store about why their offhand comment was racist or homophobic, it might not be worth the effort to correct someone if it’s someone you’ll never work with again. However, if it’s someone you work with regularly and the issue could create a professional and mental roadblock, it’s worth having these tough conversations, she says.
“For every person and situation, you have to consider your own mental health and the emotional burden it could put on you to engage in that conversation and determine whether it’s worth it or not for you,” she says. “The two things I like to think about are how important is the issue and how important is the relationship.”
Don’t be afraid to circle back, either. Not every situation requires an immediate response and may benefit from a night or two of reflection.
“People often think that you have to react in the moment, that you’ve got to jump in front of it. And sometimes that works. But other times, it’s OK to circle back and say, ‘I went home and thought about what you said yesterday, and this is what it triggered for me.’”
Microaggressions to avoid
“Once you have that context and understand that something is inappropriate, stop doing it and find a better way. Rethink your approach,” Washington says.
Here are a few common phrases in the workplace we all need to avoid:
“That’s crazy” or “My boss is crazy”
Calling a co-worker or boss crazy in the workplace belittles the struggles of people with mental health issues. If the boss is a woman, it can also feed the sexist stereotype of ‘female hysteria’ and women who can’t control their emotions.
“You’re so articulate”
Even if you mean well, praising a Black, Brown, or other POC for being ‘articulate’ is a back-handed compliment that infers, ‘you’re so articulate — for a Black person, or for an Asian and can reinforce feelings of perpetual foreigner status. As discussed above, there are better ways to phrase this.
“Historically, when people have said that about POC, it means ‘I didn’t expect you to speak so well because you’re X, Y or Z.’”
“Sorry, wrong person”
Mistaking a coworker for another person of the same racial background or demographic makes the victim feel invisible and like they’re interchangeable.
“Unfortunately, that’s usually done out of pure mistakes. But that doesn’t lessen the impact,” Washington says. “It requires us to be more intentional about getting to know our colleagues and to work a bit harder to learn that person’s name to be sure I’m speaking to the intended person.”
“Your name is too hard to pronounce. Can I call you something else?”
Mispronouncing non-Anglo names repeatedly or re-naming a co-worker with a shortened or Anglicized nickname is offensive because it gets to the core of a person’s identity. It’s a sign of disrespect that says the person is not valued or seen.
“Not only are you offending me in the moment, but you’re also saying you don’t see me or value me for who I am,” Washington points out.
Further, if the person offers an alternative name, consider that perhaps they’re doing so to make your life easier.
“Many times, people with non-Anglo names do this for the comfort of other people, and that’s not fair. That’s not inclusive.”
Ask to be corrected and keep working on getting their name right.
“We didn’t think you’d be interested in coming out with us” and “Do you know X technology?”
Assuming that an older person in the workplace wouldn’t be interested in joining after-work drinks or wouldn’t be up to speed on the newest technologies and trends is an ageist attitude that is hurtful, exclusionary, and can rattle their self-confidence.
“And it’s unfortunate because we will all, if we’re so blessed, get older. We’ve got to think about that.”
Washington’s book The Necessary Journey: Making Real Progress on Equity and Inclusion will be published on November 8, 2022.