While blatant displays of discrimination are clearly not tolerated in the workplace, microaggressions are more subtle examples of bias that are ubiquitous and equally harmful, yet often overlooked. The term microaggression is attributed to a Harvard psychiatrist, Chester M. Pierce, and dates back to the 1970s. Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Columbia University, is an expert in microaggressions. He has defined microaggressions as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”
Individuals experience microaggressions as a result of their race, ethnicity, sex, gender presentation, sexual orientation, religion, or disability. These comments and behaviors are incredibly detrimental to the mental and physical health of everyone who experiences them, yet they are normalized in almost every aspect of life.
To learn how to recognize microaggressions and how to respond to them effectively, we have gathered the best resources below:
“How to Respond to Microaggressions” by Hahna Yoon at The New York Times
This article discusses the difficulties inherent in facing microaggressions. It discusses determining whether a comment or action can be considered a microaggression and deciding if, and how, to respond. Confronting a microaggression is referred to as a “micro intervention.” It includes three useful tactics: requesting clarification, separating the intent of a statement or behavior from its actual impact, and sharing your own process in learning to prevent these kinds of situations. The author also considers microaggressions committed online and focuses on the importance of self-care by drawing boundaries and seeking support from allies.
“Tool: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send” by Derald Wing Sue
This resource, created by microaggression expert Dr. Derald Wing Sue, takes the form of a straightforward chart that details several examples of harmful, discriminatory statements and categorizes them based on an overall theme. Common themes of microaggression include the denial of bias, the myth of meritocracy, stereotyping, the ascription of intelligence or criminality, and treating a victim as “an alien in one’s own land” or as a second-class citizen. Statements and behaviors are also translated to illustrate their true message.
“A Guide to Responding to Microaggressions” by Kevin L. Nadal
In this article, examples of microaggressions are categorized by their focus on racial, gender, LGBT, religious, or intersectional identities. A three-step process is described for choosing how to respond: step 1) determining if a microaggression actually occurred, step 2) deciding whether to respond, and step 3) choosing how to respond. When deciding whether to respond, a list of five questions is provided for measuring the potential consequences or risks of a response. The article includes tips to employ based on the reaction of the perpetrator and concludes with helpful advice for individuals who have themselves committed a microaggression.
“When and How to Respond to Microaggressions” by Ella F. Washington et al. from Harvard Business Review
This article focuses specifically on microaggressions experienced by Black Americans in the workplace. It details the three primary reactions that are possible when confronted with a microaggression: let it go, respond immediately, or respond later. The authors then provide a framework for deciding which course of action is best and discuss how to develop an effective dialogue if a response is chosen. This includes: 1) discerning the level of investment you would like to make in addressing the microaggression, 2) disarming the individual by warning them this discussion is important even though it will be uncomfortable 3) challenging them to clarify their statement or behavior, and 4) deciding how you will allow this interaction to affect you.
“Microaggressions in Everyday Life” video by Derald Wing Sue from Wiley channel on YouTube
In this video, Dr. Sue defines microaggressions and employs dramatic reenactments to demonstrate three examples of individuals experiencing microaggressions. He lists five steps we can all take in addressing and combating microaggressions: 1) learn from constant vigilance about our own biases and fears, 2) recognize that the experiential reality faced by individuals of different races, cultures, and ethnicities is distinct from your own, 3) do not react defensively, 4) be open to discussing your attitudes and how they may reveal bias or hurt others, and 5) be an ally by standing against discrimination.
The Connection Between Microaggressions and Diversity and Inclusion
While microaggressions are much less obvious than many other forms of discrimination, they do have a significant impact on the daily lives of many individuals. Studies have shown microaggressions can negatively impact many aspects of one’s health and well-being and are known to trigger physiological symptoms of trauma. Business and individuals alike are proactively seeking more information about diversity and inclusion best practices. Now that you have learned how important it is for all of us to recognize and mitigate microaggressions, learn how to take the best next steps for your organization by learning more about our Diversity and Inclusion programs.