The way our bias leaks out is through everyday microaggressions: seemingly minor slights, exclusions, messages, looks, jokes or quips to someone from a marginalized group that highlights their difference.
They’re so common that you may not even realize you’re guilty of them. But these small acts of prejudice can have an outsized impact on others.
Note that there are many terms for this concept, including micromessages and micro-inequity.
We prefer to use the term microaggressions as we feel it captures the spirit of these slights: generally committed by a well-meaning person unaware their message is gauche, inappropriate and harmful.
🌏 Some real-world examples:
“I’d never heard of twerking until Miley Cyrus popularised it, but apparently being a black woman meant it was okay for my colleagues to ask me for a demonstration in the staff room.”
“One of the most insidious comments I get when white colleagues learn I’m a Muslim is “Yeah, but you’re one of the good ones, mate!” which is a punch to the gut disguised as a ‘compliment’, mate.”
“I have a visible disability and I know every person that simpers ‘Wow, I could never deal with that’ also believes my disability means inability and will condescend me no matter how many times I prove myself.”
Here are some humorous examples of what microaggressions could look like towards your white co-workers:
What if we treated white co-workers the way we treat minority co-workers? pic.twitter.com/hYlkrkEe7i
— ATTN: (@attn) November 3, 2017
It’s more insidious and harmful than you think
If you’re from a marginalized group, microaggressions are a constant in your world.
They may sound trivial, but the cumulative effect of countless tiny messages that you don’t belong leads to low self-esteem and feelings of alienation – and sometimes triggers the imposter syndrome (when people doubt their accomplishments).
In fact, research from Derald Wing Sue has shown that microaggressions can be more harmful than overt prejudice or hatred.
Not to mention microbias also creates an environment of hostility when it goes unchecked.
In short, microaggressions hold people back from fulfilling their potential. That’s a problem for you and the business – so that’s why it’s your responsibility to spot it and stop it.
How it really feels
Do you know how today’s young children are taught about microaggressions in the classroom? The not-so-complex thesis of their sessions is that the small moments add up.
As adults, though, it’s hard to accept this “death by a thousand paper-cuts” explanation unless we have the lived experience ourselves.
The reasons recipients of microaggressions don’t just point each one out are complex:
- It can come from a place of being ‘helpful’ so is complicated to address
“I was just adding my insider tips…”
“But I just thought I’d be gentlemanly, it’s a man’s job.”
“She was complimenting you, be flattered!”
- It’s hard to convince people that it happened and that the wider problem exists
“That was just a joke. Jonny likes to tease all of us.”
“I didn’t see anything, are you sure?”
- It can be invalidated. Since no one wants to be racist, sexist, etc, they will argue that it isn’t about race or gender – which is a stalemate, uncomfortable conversation.
“Whoa, you know I have lots of Asian friends and would never be racist toward them.”
“Being gay is so accepted nowadays, I think my joke was fine.”
Overall, if a victim stands up to a microexpression, it is made to seem as though they are hypersensitive, as though they are the aggressor or as though the whole thing is a non-issue.
🚨 Alternate point of view: “Underrepresented groups just have a chip on their shoulder and are too sensitive in their reactions. They need to give people a break.”
Comedian and author David Sedaris caused a stir when he spoke out about microaggressions in a short sketch. His take was that “honest mistakes” shouldn’t be confused with “true” microaggressions and people should learn to be less sensitive.
❌ But he was wrong.
New research from Goldsmiths University has proved that ethnic minorities are not more sensitive to microexpressions. Majorities experience the exact same decrease in happiness if they are subjected to a microexpression equivalent.
What’s more, who are you to determine what affects someone else?
It’s been hotly debated in and outside of academia. Are microaggressions truly damaging? How and how big are the effects?
- They can deteriorate confidence and increase anxiety, even leading to a higher number of sick days and damaging coping strategies.
- Mental health professionals, mentors, and coaches don’t recognize they exist so they are ill-equipped to support through and heal the damage.
- Sufferers can miss out on opportunities – big and small – to share knowledge and bond. This leads to an asymmetry in career development.
You can see how microaggressions silently reinforce ideas about superiority, in-groups, and out-groups and reproduce patterns of privilege.
. . .
The bottom line?
Microaggressions are seemingly harmless but impactful everyday slights and exclusions that negatively highlights an individual’s Otherness. Research shows that the cumulative effects of microaggressions are worse than blatant prejudice.
In practice, microaggressions seem tiny but can have outsized, lasting ramifications. This mismatch between small actions and big knock-on effects means addressing a microaggression is often a tough conversation for all participants.
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