Broadstone Diversity & Inclusion

Microaggressions and the impact they can have on individuals in the workplace

By Kylie Arbon as part of Broadstone’s Diversity & Inclusion Committee content series.

As some of you may be aware, October was Black History Month and, in line with this, I took some time to raise awareness around microaggressions and the impact they can have on individuals in the workplace.

I shared this blog with colleagues, and it started some great discussions internally.  I hope it might do the same for others.

I admit that in the past, I have made comments that may have been microaggressions, without any ill intent but also without realising the potential negative impact. I hope the information below will be useful to you also and help us all to continue cultivating a more inclusive workplace.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are small and commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate an underlying negative message toward any minority group.

In essence, it is when we act or speak with bias, often in a very casual way and without any harm intended, but the unconscious message behind the words or actions is negative.

Examples of microaggressions include:

  • Complimenting a colleague of ethnic minority for speaking perfect English when it’s actually their first language
  • Instinctively touching a black person’s hair or asking them if it is ‘real’
  • Commenting to someone that their name is too difficult to pronounce
  • “So, where are you really from?”
  • Using “All lives matter” in place of “Black lives matter”

These are all examples of racial microaggressions as their underlying message is pointing out how someone is different to ourselves by implying they don’t belong or, particularly related to the last example, failing to recognise the disproportionate impact on certain groups of systematic racism as well as everyday microaggressions.

However, microaggressions can impact anyone from a marginalised group, such as:

  • “You’re transgender? Wow – you don’t look like it at all.”
  • “Are you a manager? You look so young!”
  • “The way you’ve overcome your disability is so inspiring.”

These are all examples of comments that on the face of it may seem complimentary, but the underlying message is insulting:  not every transgender person is aiming to look as much like a cis gendered person as possible, colleagues are unlikely to enjoy comments about their looks, even if they do look younger than average and we shouldn’t be shocked when a person with a disability is able to accomplish just as much as their able-bodied colleagues.

How do microaggressions cause harm?

Although comments or actions like the above in isolation may seem fairly harmless, it’s the build-up of everyday slights that can have damaging impact on mental and physical health.

The cumulative effect can lead to:

  • Reduced confidence
  • Anger
  • Depression
  • Undermining trust, which causes a barrier to inclusiveness
  • Psychological toll
  • Lower productivity

A good analogy I have read that explains how it might feel to someone else is as follows:

Stepping on someone’s toe: some people wear hard shoes, soft shoes, open toe shoes.  And there are different ways you can step on someone’s toe: quickly, hard, gently, repeatedly – the impact can and will be different.

The same is true of microaggressions – it can be the first or the thousandth time someone has experienced it.  It is not for us to determine the impact on others based on our lives and experiences.

How to avoid microaggressions

Firstly, be aware of common microaggressions, such as those listed above, and make a conscious decision to avoid them.  Recognise that our language is continually evolving, and the meaning of words can develop over time so it’s important to be open to change and consider how you use certain words.

Challenge yourself to understand your own assumptions or judgements and take into consideration other people’s experiences – try to imagine how the message could be received by others.  Diversify your media (films, TV, books, magazines, music, podcasts, etc.) to learn more about different perspectives or just try to speak to someone new.

We all get it wrong sometimes, so what do you do if someone calls you out on a microaggression?

Don’t get defensive:  Microaggressions are often unconscious or unintentional, so by flagging a microaggression to you they are unlikely to be labelling you as discriminatory but more asking you to consider your choice of words or behaviour more carefully.

Do ask questions:  If you’re not sure why your action is being highlighted as a microaggression, politely ask for an explanation.  Note that the act of calling you out would likely have been uncomfortable for that person and you can acknowledge that.

Don’t be afraid of getting it wrong:  No-one gets it right all of the time and by learning to recognise microaggressions and being able to have conversations about them, we can all do better.