Microaggression refers to subtle, often unintentional acts of discrimination or bias that marginalize or invalidate people based on race, gender, sexual orientation, or other characteristics. These behaviors manifest through comments, actions, environmental cues or body language.
Microaggression – meaning and definition
Microaggressions are defined as indirect, subtle, or everyday actions, statements, or behaviors that communicate discriminatory or biased messages towards marginalized groups.
They can occur in various social interactions, including conversations, body language, or written communication.
Microaggressions often stem from unconscious biases and stereotypes that are deeply ingrained in society.
What are microaggressions?
Microaggressions manifest in different forms, and it is essential to recognize and understand their variations to address them effectively.
Below are some common types of microaggressions.
Microassaults are deliberate acts of discrimination or bias, such as using racial slurs or engaging in overtly prejudiced behavior. The acts are meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior, and purposeful discriminatory actions.
A microassault is characterized by its explicit nature. It is intended to demean or dehumanize individuals based on their race, gender, or other identities.
Intentional microassaults include the following:
- Using abusive language
- Clutching or moving a purse or bag when certain individuals are around.
- Posting offensive signs or pictures with the intention to harm or offend.
People who commit microassaults may not always fully comprehend the severity and harm caused by their actions. For instance, they might dismiss their behavior as harmless jokes.
Specific examples of microassaults:
- “You’re so articulate for someone from your background”.
- “People like you can’t handle responsibilities required for this position”.
Microinsults are subtle and often rude or insensitive comments that subtly disrespect a person’s racial heritage or identity. These remarks convey derogatory assumptions, stereotypes, or biases while maintaining a veneer of politeness or indirectness.
They imply that someone is less intelligent, lacks morals, or does not belong based on their racial or ethnic background.
- Assuming that someone won’t understand a new process at work because English is not their first language.
- Suggesting that someone does not belong to a marginalized group because they do not conform to stereotypical behaviors.
Microinsults reinforce harmful stereotypes and perpetuate a climate of exclusion and discrimination. They can make individuals feel unwelcome, invalidated, and misunderstood in their everyday interactions.
Specific examples of microinsults:
- “You’re really smart for a woman”.
- “I didn’t expect you to be so knowledgeable about this because you don’t look like someone who would be interested in it”.
Microinvalidation occurs when someone attempts to discredit or minimize the experiences of a person who belongs to an underrepresented group. This type of microaggression undermines and dismisses the lived experiences and perspectives of individuals from marginalized backgrounds.
Microinvalidations include the following:
- For instance, if an Asian American coworker shares a personal experience of feeling disrespected, but is interrupted by someone who denies or downplays their experience, or diverts the conversation by sharing their own unrelated experiences.
Specific examples of microinvalidations:
- “You’re being too sensitive. It’s not a big deal, stop making it about race”.
- “I don’t see color. We’re all the same to me”.
Microaggressions don’t necessarily have to be verbal to be offensive. As mentioned earlier, they can be deliberate actions or things conveyed through body language.
Here are some examples of nonverbal microaggressions:
- Excessive surveillance: Engaging in excessive monitoring or surveillance of certain individuals based on stereotypes or biases. For example, closely watching someone of a particular race or ethnicity in a store due to the assumption that they may engage in theft.
- Nonverbal dismissiveness: Displaying nonverbal cues of dismissing or invalidation when someone expresses their feelings or experiences. For example, rolling your eyes, sighing, or exhibiting other gestures that undermine the legitimacy of the person’s emotions.
- Avoidance or exclusion: Purposefully avoiding or excluding someone based on their identity or characteristics. This can involve physically turning away from someone or actively avoiding interactions with them, sending a message of exclusion or rejection.
Microaggressions in the workplace
Microaggressions are prevalent in many workplaces, creating an environment that can be hostile and alienating for marginalized groups.
Below are some examples of workplace microaggressions.
Stereotyping involves making assumptions about an individual’s abilities or behavior based on their race, gender, or other characteristics. This can lead to limited opportunities and biased treatment.
For example, a female engineer may be subject to the stereotype that women are not as technically skilled as men. As a result, she may be overlooked for leadership positions or challenging projects, despite her qualifications and track record of success.
Dismissing or undermining contributions
This microaggression involves minimizing or devaluing the ideas, opinions, or work of individuals from marginalized groups, preventing them from fully participating and advancing in their careers.
An example of this is if a person of color suggests an innovative solution during a team meeting, but their idea is quickly dismissed or attributed to someone else. Their contributions are undermined, limiting their ability to have a meaningful impact and be recognized for their expertise.
Tokenism occurs when marginalized people are treated as token representatives rather than recognized for their talents, skills, and qualifications.
An example of tokenism is when a company hires a person with a disability solely to meet diversity quotas, without providing equal opportunities for growth and advancement. This individual is tokenized as a “diversity hire”, failing to acknowledge their unique abilities and contributions.
Microinvalidation in feedback
Microinvalidations in feedback involve providing feedback that disregards or dismisses the unique challenges marginalized individuals face, thereby perpetuating inequality.
For instance, a manager gives feedback to a non-binary employee by saying, “You’re too sensitive about gender issues. It’s important to focus on work and not get caught up in identity policies”.
This feedback dismissed the employee’s valid concerns and experiences, invalidating their identity and hindering their ability to fully thrive in the workplace.
Specific examples of microaggressions in the workplace
- “You’re so bossy”.
- Telling a woman she’s bossy demeans her leadership and management skills, perpetuating gender stereotypes and undermining her contributions.
- “You’re so articulate for someone like you”.
- Commenting on this to a person of color implies surprise or low expectations regarding their communication abilities based on their race, reinforcing biased assumptions and undermining their confidence.
- “I’m so OCD because I organize my desk”.
- Making light of mental health conditions by jokingly claiming to have obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) minimized the experiences of individuals who genuinely struggle with these conditions, perpetuating stereotypes and trivializing their challenges.
- “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?”.
- Persistently asking questions about someone’s origin or heritage implies that they don’t belong or are not a true member of their current community, creating a sense of otherness and reinforcing stereotypes.
- “He or she is really talented”.
- Assuming gender pronouns without clarifying can lead to misgendering and excluding individuals. It is important to use inclusive language and ask for pronoun preferences to ensure respectful and inclusive communication.
The controversy surrounding the use of “micro”
The term “micro” in “microaggression” has sparked some controversy and debate. Critics argue that labeling these acts as “micro” downplays their significance and impact, suggesting that they are minor or inconsequential.
However, it’s important to recognize that the term “micro” does not refer to the severity of the aggression itself but rather to the subtle and often unintentional nature of these acts.
The term emphasizes the covert nature of discrimination and highlights how seemingly small acts can contribute to a larger pattern of marginalization and oppression.
The recipient matters
It is important to understand that the perpetrator’s intentions do not solely determine the impact of microaggressions. Regardless of whether the person delivering the microaggression intended to harm, it is the experience and perception of the recipient that matters.
Microaggressions can accumulate over time, leading to significant emotional and psychological distress for those targeted.
Dismissing these acts as insignificant overlooks the systemic nature of discrimination and undermines efforts to create inclusive and equitable environments.
The psychological effects of microaggressions
Research shows that microaggressions can have profound physiological effects on individuals who experience them. These repeated subtle acts of discrimination can create a hostile and invalidating environment, leading to various negative outcomes.
Examples of such include the following:
- Psychological distress: Microaggressions can cause feelings of frustration, anger, sadness, and anxiety, contributing to overall psychological distress.
- Imposter syndrome: Consistent exposure to microaggressive behavior can make individuals doubt their abilities, leading to imposter syndrome, where they feel unworthy of their achievements.
- Negative self-image: Microaggressions can erode self-esteem and self-confidence as individuals internalize the negative messages conveyed by these acts.
- Stress and burnout: The constant vigilance required to navigate microaggressions can lead to chronic stress and burnout, affecting overall well-being and job satisfaction.
How to deal with microaggressions
Addressing microaggressions in the workplace or any other context requires a multifaceted approach that promotes education, awareness, and accountability.
Below are four examples of ways to effectively deal with microaggressions.
1. Education and awareness
Foster an environment that promotes understanding by:
- Providing training and workshops on microaggressions, unconscious bias, and diversity and inclusion.
These educational initiatives can help employees recognize and understand the impact of microaggressions, challenge their own biases, and develop empathy towards marginalized groups.
By creating opportunities for learning and self-reflection, organizations can foster a culture of respect and inclusivity.
2. Lead by example
Organizations should establish clear policies and guidelines that explicitly state zero tolerance for microaggressions. Leaders and managers play a crucial role in creating an inclusive environment by setting a positive example, for instance, by:
- Demonstrating inclusive behavior
- Intervening when they witness microaggression acts.
- Holding individuals accountable for their actions.
By consistently modeling inclusive behavior and demonstrating commitment to addressing microaggressions, leaders can set the tone for respectful interactions within the organization.
3. Empower marginalized voices
It’s important to create an environment where everyone feels safe and empowered to speak up and share their experiences:
- Establish channels for anonymous reporting of microaggressions, such as suggestion boxes or confidential feedback systems, to encourage individuals to come forward without fear of retaliation.
- Take reports seriously and ensure appropriate action is taken to address and resolve the issues.
By actively listening to marginalized voices, organizations can better understand the challenges faced and work towards creating a more inclusive and supportive environment for all.
4. Promote diversity and inclusion
Actively work towards creating a diverse and inclusive workplace through equitable hiring practices, representation in leadership positions, and ongoing diversity initiatives:
- Encourage diversity of thought, background, and experiences within teams and departments.
- Implement policies and practices that promote equal opportunities for career advancement, fair compensation, and recognition for all employees.
- Celebrate and value different perspectives and create spaces for employees to engage in open dialogue and cultural exchange.
By fostering diversity and inclusion, organizations can reduce the occurrence of microaggressions and create an environment where everyone feels valued and included.