They Said What?! – Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace

Microaggressions can be defined as “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 (Wing Sue, 2010).” These subtle snubs can creep up in the work environment in the most unlikely places.

I have both experienced and supported others through the various microaggressions that they may have faced in their work environment, in my process of navigating the workplace as a millenial Black woman. These few come to mind:

  • ideas I contributed being re-directed for attribution to one of the men in the room (either immediately or over time)
  • being called a “girl” as a professional, full time staff member
  • prominent leadership figures subtly attributing career successes to affirmative action efforts
  • assumptions of being “angry” about something when we are professionally critiquing an exclusionary policy, practice, or protocol

Through mutual support systems and networks, colleagues and I have talked about ways to navigate these instances. Do we see it as a teachable moment and a brief lesson in diversity education? Do we call for the organization to establish diversity training sessions? Do we ignore it? Do we speak on it?

Honestly, there are just as many approaches as there are individuals and identities to navigate. Most of the time, understanding what to do comes on a case-by-case basis. However, here are a few things that have helped me in the past, and I hope that they will assist you if you ever have to navigate these murky waters:

Document, document, document!

There are lessons that I’ve learned through graduate school. There are lessons that I’ve learned through professional mentors. Then, there are those ‘common sense’ lessons that I’ve learned from the village that raised me and called me to the work that I do. One of those lessons is documentation. One thing that I know to be true, is that there is a profound difference between individual microaggressions perpetuated by a colleague… and a culture that promotes, implicitly allows, or does not challenge microaggressive behaviors. You typically can “feel in your gut” which one you are dealing with. (The good news is that this gut feeling can also help you to discern which work environments will help you thrive!) If you are feeling that you have landed within a work culture that fosters microaggressive behaviors, documenting things will become absolutely key. Having a timeline allows you to examine the environment and have robust information should you need to chat with a supervisor, administrator, ombudsperson, or HR representative. Keeping this type of documentation is not unnecessary or petty. It is a data set that can inform strategic change within the workplace or organization.

Challenge it. 

I fully understand that not everyone will feel comfortable with this approach. However, as someone who is an educator & student affairs professional, this is an approach that I fall back on quite often. Of course, methods vary as audiences change: the approach is different if I am talking with students about what a microaggression is but I tend to be a little firmer if I am talking with a colleague. Since we’re talking about the workplace, we have to realize that we are all coming in with different backgrounds, experiences, and mind sets. And bias is real. Thus, creating a truly inclusive and affirming environment is a continual process.

In instances where microaggressions arise, the hope is that we can communicate supervisors, administrators, and / or HR representatives that these instances threaten the inclusivity of the environment, and thus, impede overall productivity. This process might include addressing the matter directly, challenging what was said, and offering clarity (i.e. asking my age in a board meeting is inappropriate for the following reasons…).

Though the methods vary, this is an approach that many can use, if it’s their choice. For clarity’s sake, I am, by no means, suggesting that every microaggression is a teachable moment. Here’s why: many times, we ask those within marginalized communities to be the primary teachers and educators on that community. This can take up a lot of cognitive energy that you want to use for the actual work that you are doing (Fries-Britt & Griffin, 2007). While this is a work that I am committed to as a multicultural student affairs professional, I do not blithely suggest that this is something that everyone should take on, if they do not feel comfortable. Please understand that creating these teachable moments with your colleagues or co-workers is something that you are empowered to choose… or not choose.

Sometimes, there just isn’t enough time or energy for a lesson about microaggressions. In those cases, I ask clarifying questions in hopes that these questions will help people to think through what they just said or did. It can be as simple as, “Help me understand what you are really saying,” or, “To me, your statement implies _______. Help me understand how you’re interpreting what you just said”. For example, in instances where my speech choices are attributed to being “a credit to my race”, or “not speaking like” a person of color, I typically ask them to help me understand what they mean: “What made you say that? How are you defining the speech patterns of persons of color? Are these speech patterns all synonymous?” (I won’t lie… I’ve thrown in “I didn’t know you studied sociolinguistics! Will you tell me more about that?” as appropriate). Many times, asking for more information allows people the space to process through their own words, thoughts, and actions… and the implications of it all.

Facilitate meaningful connections within the workplace.

If there were any one approach that I had to stress, this one would be it. The three that are above will be contingent upon your personal circumstances, ideology, and comfort levels. However, facilitating meaningful connections within the workplace is important, regardless of the circumstance. There have been instances where I have experienced microaggressions (and / or just general discrimination) and I have accessed supervisors, colleagues, and co-workers to have those ‘close the door’ conversations. In those spaces, they told me about the organization’s history, who I needed to talk to, and in some cases, what approach I needed to take. These connections came from within my field and outside of my field. They are the people who invested in my success and who believe that workplaces could and should be inclusive and affirming. Start branching out to make those meaningful connections.

Understand that sometimes, self-care trumps all.

It’s no secret: we put in work! And many times, our work requires us to be present and effective for the long term. So, we have to be diligent about paying attention to our own self care when faced with microaggressions in the work place.
The thing about microaggressions is that they subtly challenge the core of your dignity and brilliance, because of your race, ethnicity, and gender. They are not always easy to shrug off, dismiss, or confront with colleagues (and /or especially those who might be in higher leadership positions). So, in those instances, think about the ways in which you can care for yourself, right there, in that moment.

Self-care looks different for everyone. If you need to take some breaths after being the target of a microaggression, do that. If you need to talk it through with one of your connections, do that. If you find that these types of instances keep coming up on a regular and consistent basis, and you can afford to do so without considerable cost to your socioeconomic reality, then self care might also look like facilitating a search for a new work environment. I’ve done this before and trust me, it comes with both the pros & the cons of transitions – as well as the ever-present understanding that microaggressions at the intersections of race & gender are prevalent for Black women in the workplace (Crenshaw, 1993; Harris Perry, 2013).

An older version of this piece has also been posted on the Black Career Women’s Network.
Image courtesy of createherstock.com

Resources (not linked)

Fries-Britt, Sharon, and Kimberly Griffin (2007). “The Black box: How high-achieving Blacks resist stereotypes about Black Americans.” Journal of College Student Development 48.5: 509-524.

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They Said What?! Navigating Microaggressions in the Workplace by Jade Perry is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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