If You Don't Know What Microaggressions Are, You're Probably Committing Them
Updated: Nov 9
Defining microaggressions, what they look like, and how to respond
This article is a continuation of a series of exploring my white privilege and learning to take action. (Here are links to the first, second, and third.) Last week I talked about moving to action. In addition to the small steps I’ve been taking in my start-up, I took action in my personal life and went to two marches in the last week.
There’s more about my experience at the marches at the end of the article. I have never been to a protest of any kind. If you have, you’ll just roll your eyes at my trepidation. If you haven’t, come along with me. Let’s get you to a march!
First and more importantly, the resources below are all about microaggressions. If you don’t know what they are, you are committing them, guaranteed. If you work in the business world, especially if you manage people or are in HR, I wouldn’t consider you fully competent until you can speak clearly and respond to microaggressions in the workplace (raising my incompetent hand here too).
In nine minutes, Tiffany Alvoid gives you a brief overview of microaggressions. In this TEDx talk, she gives examples not only for race but for other groups like people with disabilities.
She will likely quote things you have said that are microaggressions. I had to take my own advice from one of my previous articles and breathe through my defensiveness to find my way back to curiosity.
For example, I really need to stop saying OCD when I mean anal-retentive. They’re totally different. And I worked in mental health. I know better.
The biggest defensive complaint in my head was something like, “OMG, do I really have to watch every word I say? Is it really that big of a deal?”
Yes. Yes, it is.
I think about my client with the developmentally disabled son crying in my office ofter hearing people throw around the word “retard.” She had no idea how she could protect him from the emotional pain headed his way. I think about how pissed off I get when I hear how “all men are created equal” quoted and feel excluded.
It’s not that hard to change your language. It’s only hard in the beginning when you’re changing the habit. It quickly becomes normal. Even if it was hard to do, it’s worth doing so you don’t walk through your life carelessly wounding people and sanctioning a system that is oppressing people.
It is vitally important to learn what microaggressions are, but hearing it in story-form really drives the point home. Ramesh A Nagarajah spent his childhood in two different worlds. He drew me in with his vulnerability and honesty about his experience of microaggressions and even shares some of his own missteps.
Nagarajah also shares some ideas on how to see our own microaggressions, to stop them, and how to respond to them when the come from others.
The youtube video got me started, but this story moved me from collecting information to learning.
This article is aimed at Black managers and employees and discusses the ways they can respond to microaggressions at work. What is painful to realize, is that being insulted by the ignorance of your colleague and managers is an everyday part of life at work for many if not most Black people (and any other group that isn’t part of the non-marginalized majority). It’s an emotionally draining, frustrating distraction from work.
The article got really intense for me when the authors discussed the tactics for approaching someone who has made an inappropriate comment. They talk about “disarming” me and trying not to trigger my defensiveness. Here I am, totally in the wrong, and the person I wounded has to take care of me because I could probably get them fired if I freaked out.
It would be great if people could focus on “work” at work, rather than carefully navigating ignorance and egos.
The article ends with a few tips for those confronted about their microaggressions or managers speaking with those who have committed a microaggression. My favorite is:
“Remember that intent does not supersede impact.”
That you didn’t mean to do it does not absolve anyone of the consequences of their actions.
As I’m really trying to focus on action, my thought after reading this article is that I would like to have a short online course on microaggressions of some sort that everyone joining my virtual coworking community must take to subscribe to the community.
I want everyone in my community to know what a microaggression is and what some of the most common ones are for various groups. I want to push towards a culture of confronting and eliminating them so everyone feels welcome. I don’t want community members worrying about managing other’s privilege. I want them to show up, feel safe, and do their best work.
If you haven’t participated in a march yet, here are your training wheels
I’m gonna white center a bit and talk about my experience. It’s nowhere near as important as the Black voices above. I am including this for all of the people who have never been to a protest march and are feeling nervous about going.
Something happened around my early 30s. I realized I was at a point where I could build a life where I rarely had to look foolish or feel insecure (kids being the exception here, but that’s usually in the privacy of your own home and I don’t have any). I could work at the same place, go out to the same restaurants, and hang out with all of the same people.
Once you get out of that habit of trying new things and looking foolish, it’s hard to get back up on that horse. I made a personal decision to continue to push myself. Even so, I’ve found myself stretching in a calculated way. I push the envelope on things I’m practiced at.
Going to a protest march was doing something totally new for the first time. I don’t do that very often. And as someone in recovery from crippling shyness, I still have my sore spots. I also knew I had to do it. Some discomfort or time looking like an idiot is nothing compared to the ongoing experience of discrimination and oppression.
Luckily for me, I have learned how to ask for help. So, I put on my big-girl pants and got a Protest March Mom. My friend Amy agreed to shepherd me through my first one. It started in the park behind my house in my hippie, liberal neighborhood.
“Just bring your mask and some comfortable shoes, Heather. You’ll be fine,” she told me over messenger.
“Hmm,” I thought to myself, “Maybe I’ll invite some of my friends in the neighborhood. I could then have even MORE babysitters!”
Give me a void and I’ll fill it with a vague sense of impending catastrophe. I don’t know what I thought could go wrong and that was the hard part. The possibility of a surprise screw-up.
Six of my friends and neighbors and I walked over to the park. Like any gathering, people were in groups and mingling about (almost all were in masks #scienceisarealthing). Then the organizers got on the back of a truck, grabbed their megaphones, and lead the way. A few other volunteers with megaphones walked further back with us to help spread the chants.
They had all of the Black people and people of color march in the front. Some people had signs, some didn’t. We rotated through various chants throughout the march. There were parts of some chants I didn’t really like so I just skipped them. (Don’t stay home just because you’re not comfortable shouting the f-bomb in front of your neighbors. Just skip it).
Along the route, people came out of their houses and watched, clapped and some even held signs. There were a few dirty looks but our group was too big.
Halfway through the march, we stopped in an intersection and sat down on the sun-warmed asphalt. The organizers gave a short speech while their medical personnel roamed around the group with hand sanitizer.
My crew peeled off shortly thereafter. The marches around here skew young. I go to bed at 9 pm. As we headed home I could hear the chanting continue. I breathed a sigh of proud relief that I freaking did it and mentally rolled my eyes at myself for being such a dork about it.
“I have to march in Springfield,” was my next thought after the eye roll. That’s the neighboring town where the marches have been much tenser, with police blocking the streets in riot gear and unfriendly motorcycle gangs surrounding protesters menacingly.
It’s easy to preach to the choir. I needed to show my support where it counted.
The Springfield march actually went much the same. I didn’t need my Protest Mom (she was there and checked in on me anyway), but I did bring some local friends and my partner. I did peel off early to go to bed.
There were two differences worth mentioning.
First, the organizers leveled-up the sit-down-and-listen portion of the march. I only got the first one due to my early bedtime. The topic was about the “defund the police” movement. She clarified that it was about not only dismantling and rebuilding our system’s response to violent crime, but also about not having the police in their current state respond to everything.
Over the years, police training has trended towards responding to violent crime. Not helping people with addiction and mental illness. Not de-escalating domestic conflict. Not partnering with demonstrators to ensure a peaceful demonstration. Defunding the police is about looking at the best ways to provide public safety. The woman speaking encouraged us to talk about this not just with people at the march, but to the people around them who are not yet part of the movement.
She also illustrated the point with a powerful story about a person with schizophrenia who was killed by the police, who mishandled the situation entirely.
The second difference simultaneously warmed and broke my heart. After one of the organizers was run down by a car at a children’s march, the group organizing the protests now has a safety squad. There were people in cars and on bikes blocking the side streets to protect the marchers.
As the speaker pointed out, no weapons, no aggression but providing a presence to help ensure a peaceful demonstration. She noted that we had the opportunity to model one of the different ways to support public safety. To the Springfield Police’s credit, they were doing much the same, but a block away.
I know all marches are not the same, but do a little research and get out there already. If you need to, get a Protest March Mom. I certainly won’t judge you. And if it makes you nervous, just focus on the pain of those being discriminated against. Focus on the pain and injustice of being told you’re not enough for no real reason.
We rarely regret the risks we take and almost always regret the ones we don’t.