I was reading a human resources magazine recently and an article inside infuriated me.
The consultant who penned this opinion piece remarked how talk of microaggressions may simply increase people’s sensitivity and as a result, increase conflict in the workplace through additional complaints and grievances.
“In other words,” Karen explained. “… it can damage employee engagement and encourages the ‘blame game’, which is not helpful to a successful team working environment or drives for improved accountability.”
It’s heartbreaking to think of the people working in organizations where the holders of power can be so dangerously ignorant about how oppression works.
Conflict exists in the workplace whether people report them through complaints and grievances or not. In the most hostile and unjust workplaces, workers know that their complaints and grievances won’t be handled fairly and simply leave the organization without a word.
How does an organization improve accountability without the wrongdoers understanding that they have done something wrong — without ‘blame’?
If perhaps the lack of complaints and grievances means the organization can pat themselves on the back for maintaining such a great conflict-free workplace?
And whose “engagement” is it that Karen has in mind?
It’s not the marginalized targets of microaggression whose dignity is violated every time they go to work. No — their engagement, their wellbeing, their care are all secondary to the aggressors who need to be protected from their guilt.
What Are Microaggressions?
The concept of microaggressions was first coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970. More than two decades later, Pierce summarized his theorizing and offered this definition of microaggressions as:
…the most grievous of offensive mechanisms spewed at victims of racism and sexism are microaggressions. These are subtle, innocuous, preconscious, or unconscious degradations, and putdowns, often kinetic but capable of being verbal and/or kinetic. In and of itself a microaggression may seem harmless, but the cumulative burden of a lifetime of microaggression can theoretically contribute to diminished mortality, augmented morbidity, and flattened confidence.
As overtly racist attitudes and behaviors are becoming more politically incorrect and socially unacceptable in ‘polite society’, racism has become increasingly subtle and covert.
In more recent years, the development of this poignant theory has been advanced by psychologist Derald Wing Sue. Sue describes microaggressions as the:
…brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults to the target person or group.
Sue’s work recognizes that in addition to the racial and gendered slights and insults, microaggressions can be really be directed at members of any marginalized group such as LGBTQIA+ folx and disabled people.
Despite what their name suggests, microaggressions are not insignificant. As a psychiatrist, Pierce saw the damage microaggressions wrecked on the psychoemotional health of his Black patients.
Microaggressions can be described as ‘death by a thousand cuts’. They’re pervasive and relentless signals that Black and other marginalized people receive that serve as constant reminders that we are ‘less than’.
As Sue explained earlier, microaggressions can be either intentional or non-intentional. In some cases, perpetrators actually mistakenly believe they’re being complimentary to the marginalized person they’re microaggressive towards.
A microassault can be considered the “old-fashioned” kind of discriminatory behavior such as using a racial slur or refusing to serve a Black customer because of their race.
Microassults are usually deliberate and can be both verbal and non-verbal attacks meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, or another purposeful discriminatory action.
Of course, very overt, public, and dramatic examples of this would just be outright assault. What makes something a microassault is when it’s expressed in a relatively ‘private’ situation, where the aggressor feels they can get away with the attack.
Critics of this typology argue that microassaults are just too similar to regular racial assaults, making their distinction confusing.
They have suggested that microaggressions could usefully feature just the next two forms of microaggressions, which can be both conscious and unconscious.
A microinsult is communication that conveys rudeness and insensitivity and demeans a person’s marginalized identity.
These comments usually have very subtle snubs where the perpetrator may be unaware of the deeper, hidden meanings.
Sue and his colleagues offer two examples of microinsults, where a white employer tells a prospective candidate of color, “I believe the most qualified person should get the job, regardless of race” and when an employee of color is asked, “how did you get your job?”
On the surface, these may seem like neutral, harmless statements, but the underlying messages from the perspective of the recipient may be:
- People of color are not qualified to work here, and
- As a minority employee, you must have obtained the position through some affirmative action or quota program and not because of your merits.
Given the social and historical context of racism, these statements are likely to be experienced as aggressive.
My queer friends have also shared with me the sexual microinsults they’ve encountered.
On December 9, 2017, Australia legalized same-sex marriage. In the lead up to the decision, some of my friends would get bombarded with questions multiple times a day from friends, coworkers, and strangers: “What do you think about the same-sex marriage bill?”, “Just so you know, I’ll be voting ‘yes’”, “Are you going to get married?”
On one hand, these questions and statements may express genuine interest and care from well-intentioned straight folx. On the other, their underlying meanings could insinuate, “the only thing I know about you is that you’re homosexual”, “your homosexuality is the only thing that defines you”, and “marriage must be what all homosexuals want”.
The hypervisibility of queerness can be dehumanizing.
Microinvalidations are statements that “exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person of color”.
A classic example is when people say “I don’t see race”. Some people mistakenly believe that saying you’re colorblind means you can’t be racist, that ‘racists’ are people who see and talk about race.
In fact, statements like those that pretend race doesn’t exist negate the recipients’ racial identity and deny their racialized experiences.
Many of us may also relate to the experience of microinvalidations where we tell a friend about a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, or ableist experience and they chide us for being “hypersensitive” and “reading too much into things”.
Being called “too sensitive”, such as when talking about microaggressions, is the ultimate example of a microinvalidation.
A study of college students by psychologists Jonathan Kanter and his colleagues found that white students who agreed with the statement that “a lot of minorities are too sensitive” unsurprisingly held greater racist attitudes toward Black people.
Criticisms against microaggressions, like those expressed by Karen in the introduction, are almost never raised by the targets of microaggressions.
Rather, criticisms are overwhelmingly raised by the perpetrators of microaggressions who feel entitled to exert oppressive behaviors without being called out for them.
Mounting research evidence shows that the stress of microaggressions accumulates over time, indeed, over a lifetime for many.
Studies in the past decade have connected experiencing microaggressions with symptoms of mental illness, including anxiety, depression, substance use disorders, and even suicidal ideation.
Not unlike bullying and sexual harassment, the continual experience of microaggressions can lead to distress, frustration, and/or hopelessness.
“It’s Not Intentional!”
When I see microaggression theory introduced in corporate workplace training, one thing that concerns me is the way trainers and participants sometimes obsess over the NON-INTENTIONAL label.
As racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism, can be sensitive topics in many cultures, there’s an anxious tendency to rush to soothe the emotions of people who might feel called out as the aggressors.
“Non-intentional” is bandied about as though to make racists, sexists, homophobes, etc. feel better by assuring them, “we know you didn’t mean it!”
Understandably, with ‘microaggression deniers’ around, anti-discrimination trainers need to tread a very fine line about how they introduce these sensitive topics into highly conservative arenas.
Yet in all this is a cruel irony, where a theory that was developed to alleviate the pain and suffering of marginalized people can end up being more about absolving their aggressors of shame in corporate training.
Intent should not override impact.
The non-intentional ways racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and ableist violence can be exerted highlight the systemic nature of dominator culture that makes these harms such a taken-for-granted part of everyday social life.
Rather than chasing the “non-intentional” condition as the justification to evade blame and therefore responsibility, we’re all beholden as subjects of the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy to challenge domination in all its overt and covert forms.
In the video below, Robin DiAngelo talks about how white fragility manifests through behaviors such as defensiveness and how these behaviors reinforce racism.
Examples of Microaggressions
Microaggressions take on infinite forms. How they appear always relates to the unique sociocultural and historical meanings associated with marginalized people and their communities.
For example, the question “where are you from?“ is a well-documented racial microaggression when posed by white people to Asians. I’ve lived in Australia since I was five years old but I still get this question all the time from white Australians. When I explain, “I’m from Australia”, they frequently follow up, “No, but where are you really from?”
This questioning is predicated on the assumption that whiteness is the Australian norm and those who “look ‘Chinese’ and/or ‘Asian’ … must be foreign to Australia”. Although Asian migrants have settled in Australia since the mid-1800s, they’re persistently seen as outsiders in an effect known as ‘forever foreign’.
This is a classic example of a microaggression where aggressors may think they’re being curious or even friendly by showing interest in a non-white person. However, there’s an objectifying quality in the ways that our ethnicities are treated as a public guessing game by white strangers.
It’s the power dynamics here make this a microaggression — not the question or statement itself.
The same question would unlikely be considered a microaggression if it’s posed by a recent migrant seeking community from a genuine place of connection.
Or if it’s posed by a tour guide wanting to break the ice with the members of their tour group.
Also, it might be frustrating, insulting, and hurtful for white migrants in non-white countries to be persistently asked that question, but it wouldn’t be definitionally accurate to call that a microaggression.
Microaggressions are about power.
Our colonial history has produced a white supremacist ideology that valorizes white people, white cultures, and white places.
When non-white people ask a white migrant in their country “where are you from?” that question rarely carries with it the hidden meanings of “you are not welcome”, “your people and culture are inferior”, “all white people are the same”, “stop swamping our country and go back to where you came from”.
Likewise, documented microaggressive statements and questions about LGBTQIA+ people include different stereotypical assumptions.
It couldn’t be microaggressive if a straight man was asked, “you were in a hardware store?!” or a straight woman told, “you don’t look like a straight woman”. There is no culture of homonormativity in our society that has systematically oppressed straight people throughout history and made us feel deviant and wrong.
Microaggressions can appear anywhere.
Their pervasive and persistent feature is what can make microaggressions so difficult to bear.
Microaggressions in the Workplace
I had a bizarre experience with racial microaggression in the workplace. Of all places, it ironically happened in a focus group meeting for women of color to discuss their experiences with intersectional discrimination.
One of my fellow participants was a Caribbean woman manager who recounted the racial hostility she experienced when she first joined her all-white team.
The white facilitator interrupted the interview, “I’ve got to introduce you to my friend, Bastian, you and him will definitely get along.”
Wearied, the manager replied, “Yes, we quickly found out we were the only two Caribbeans here.”
No more than ten minutes later, the facilitator started talking about how much she admires Black women’s “resiliency” and loves working with them. Looking straight at our Caribbean member the whole time.
Five minutes after that, she rattles off all the good Caribbean restaurants in her neighborhood.
Psychologists Kimber Shelton and Edward Delgado-Romero in their study of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and queer people, found overidentification to be a common theme among sexual orientation microaggressions.
A straight person would make frequent references to distant relatives who identify as gay, being overly friendly with them, or noticeably altering their speech and body language to appear as relaxed as possible.
All these microaggressions (microinsults specifically) serve to suggest to the LGBQ person, “I get you because I know someone who is gay (and you’re all the same)”, “I can’t be homophobic because I have a bisexual friend”, or “you’re an oddity and I’m ‘cool’ because I know you”.
When I shared the experience of the women of color focus group with the organization, I received an e-mail affirming the organization’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
However, as is common among organizations without a clear and sustained commitment to anti-racism, there were no concrete actions for how those repeated microaggressions would be addressed.
Microaggressions in the Classroom
My most memorable experience with gendered microaggressions as a student (and I would classify it as a microassault) is when I had a professor who used to tell us long stories during class about the female students he dated.
One time, he described in excruciating detail how he was kissing his younger girlfriend over the weekend in attempts to give a tenuous example of cognitive processing.
All his stories about his girlfriends and his sex life contained subtly derogatory ideas about women, their bodies, and their seemingly sole purpose in satisfying the sexual desires of straight men.
Now that I’m a lecturer myself, my students share with me harrowing stories of their own experiences with gendered, sexual orientation, racial, Islamophobic, and ableist microaggressions (and regular aggressions):
- A lecture room full of students being told by the lecturer that women are bad at accounting.
- A South Asian student being told her name is too hard to pronounce so the lecturer will just call her “the Selena Gomez girl” for their likeness.
- A Muslim student who was noticeably treated nicer by her classmates and teacher after she decided to stop wearing her hijab three weeks into semester.
- A student with depression being asked by his group members if he had “taken his crazy pills” that day.
- Sexist and racist memes being posted in chats for group work.
- International students raising their hands to answer a lecturer’s question, but the lecturer continually ignores them and chooses local students to answer their questions instead.
Dealing with Microaggressions
In the Workplace
If we have influence in the workplace, we need to implement and support microaggression workplace training.
Before forcing employees into a program they don’t understand nor want, it may be valuable to do a workplace assessment. Employees should receive some training to help them identify microaggressions and then they could be asked to keep a log for 2–3 weeks of the microaggressions they observe at work.
The observed incidences will provide insights into the extent of a microaggressive work environment and the common forms that they might take.
Policies and procedures for how microaggressions will be handled need to be written with as much consultation and collaboration with regularly targeted employees as possible. However, don’t make marginalized employees responsible for educating, designing, and implementing the entire microaggression program, especially if they’re not receiving adequate workload allocation or remuneration for this work.
These policies and procedures then need to be clearly communicated across the whole organization. Responses must also follow the policy quickly and consistently.
In some organizations, it can become common knowledge that the diversity and inclusion policies are never followed. It creates a damaging environment where aggressors will come to believe that they’ll always be protected by the organization as they engage in abusive behaviors.
I’ve even interviewed diversity and inclusion officers who disclose that their organizations have never, during their tenure, seriously investigated claims of discrimination and harassment. They’ve shared how the targets will often be branded a troublemaker and invalidated and silenced by the organization.
As such, workplace microaggression initiatives such as training programs and policies and procedures will be ineffective unless the organization itself is committed to social justice.
Where injustice is normalized and institutionalized, the organization will struggle to garner the trust and commitment from their employees to honestly disclose experiences of discrimination and harassment or invest the time to report and resolve them.
In the Classroom
Educators can address microaggressions in the classroom in a similar way.
Use the syllabus and the orientation lecture to establish the principles of your classroom. Introduce students to the concept of microaggressions and help them understand why they matter as well as their damaging effects.
Facilitate a safe and confidential channel where students can report experiences of microaggression, even when you might be the aggressor.
Establish from the outset how racist, sexist, heterosexist, and ableist incidences will be handled in your classrooms. Most importantly, keep to this promise and confront and address incidences as they happen.
I have another post all about the necessary groundwork from which to set up a classroom for teaching social justice. You’ll find a ton of examples about how to write syllabus statements and set expectations for a radically inclusive learning environment.
Support your policies and procedures with formal codes of conduct at your institution. That way, you can escalate more serious cases to the Faculty and be supported by your school or university when you enforce those rules in your class.
Micro-affirmations are also powerful practices to counteract microaggressions and their harmful effects.
Making a point to recognize marginalized students and modeling the respect and kindness that they, like all students, deserve, can go a long way to show students that they matter and they’re worthy.
In Everyday Life
When we notice an incidence of microaggression around us at work, at school, or beyond, we have a number of choices to make in how we deal with it.
If we’re a bystander, especially if we don’t share the oppressions of the target, we have the opportunity to practice meaningful allyship through intervention.
If it’s safe to do so, we need to call out the behavior. We can be more explicit and point out to the perpetrator why what they said or did is racist/sexist/heterosexist/ableist.
If we suspect the perpetrator may retaliate, we could try to disarm them with a more open-ended question, such as “What did you mean by that?”, prompting the perpetrator to stop and reflect on the underlying meanings of their statement.
If the situation feels more volatile and dangerous, we should engage the target rather than the perpetrator. Interrupt their interaction and draw the target away from the situation if it’s appropriate to do so. Ask them if they’re okay. If it’s at work or school, seek their permission to report the incident on their behalf to a manager or teacher.
If we’ve just been called out as the perpetrator, we must notice and resist the urge to rush to invalidation, gaslighting, and self-defense.
We need to apologize and not expect (or feel entitled to) immediate forgiveness.
We must then do the work for growth and learning. We can take the time to educate ourselves about microaggressions and oppression more broadly. Check our privileges and critically reflect on the assumptions and beliefs we’ve accumulated growing up within the imperialist white supremacist capitalist cis-heteropatriarchy.
We must take full responsibility to be and do better.
If we’re the target, assess the situation and decide if it’s worth your time and energy to respond.
If we choose to engage, disarm the defensiveness of the perpetrator by explicitly acknowledging we know that they didn’t have ill-intent. Perhaps we could even acknowledge that we’re only sharing our hurt about their comment or action because we know them to be a compassionate and just person and would want to know if their actions are causing harm.
Relinquish all attachment to and responsibility for their response.
Do not feel responsible for their self-righteousness, their anger, or their fragility.
Do not feel responsible for their guilt, shame, or moral awakening.
As always, prioritize your self-care.
Take time to be nourished by all that is beautiful to you in this world.
Love and be loved by your family, friends, and community.
Decolonize your mind, and love yourself.
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Despite what their name might suggest, microaggressions are subtle yet pervasive and persistent assaults, insults, and invalidations experienced by marginalized people every day.
Because as a society we still think of oppression as overt, dramatic situations of physical violence, microaggressions can be easily minimized and dismissed as insignificant, even though there’s now compelling evidence that they have serious psychological and physiological consequences for their targets.
Through this post, you’ve now gained a thorough understanding of what microaggressions are, examples of what they look like, and how they appear at work and school.
If you’ve been experiencing microaggressions all your life and had people invalidate your experiences, accusing you of being “too sensitive”, please know that your pain is seen and heard.
Life in the margins is difficult enough without microaggressions.
Make rest and joy the foundation of your resistance.
Lindsay Pérez Huber and Daniel Solórzano (2020) Racial Microaggressions: Using Critical Race Theory to Respond to Everyday Racism
Gina C. Torino, David P. Rivera, Christina M. Capodilupo, Kevin L. Nadal, & Derald Wing Sue (2019) Microaggression Theory: Influence and Implications
Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Spanierman (2020) Microaggressions in Everyday Life (2nd ed.)
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Featured image by Italo Melo