Microaggressions at Work: What They Are and How to Fight Them

It’s 2020, but dealing with microaggressions at work is still a regular experience for professionals from underrepresented backgrounds. Whether you’re a person of color who’s experienced this yourself or a would-be ally who wants to avoid being a microaggresser at all costs, here’s a primer.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggressions are brief statements or actions that communicate a negative message about a non-dominant group. Unlike outright racism, sexism or other “isms,” microaggressions aren’t always intended to be offensive. Indeed, many microaggressors will bristle at the suggestion that their statement or action was harmful. Nonetheless, microaggressions are rooted in bias and have harmful consequences for members of non-dominant groups. 

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a professor of psychology at Columbia University, is a thought leader in the field of microaggressions. Along with colleagues, Dr. Sue has identified three forms of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. Breaking down each form of microaggression is important, as it helps further explain why seemingly minor comments or actions can hurt.

Microassaults are what we typically think of as microaggressions. These are a more overt form of discrimination in which “actors deliberately behave in discriminatory ways, but do not intend to offend someone or may think that their actions are not noticed or harmful.” An example of a microassault would be a comment like “He throws like a girl” to suggest that someone doesn’t throw well, or “That’s gay” to suggest that something is unappealing. 

Microinsults are harder to confront, because they are an even more subtle form of microaggression. Microinsults are statements that “unintentionally or unconsciously communicate discriminatory messages to members of target groups.”  Think of these almost like backhanded compliments. Telling a black man he is “so articulate” is an example of a microinsult. While it may have been intended as a compliment, it implies that black men are not expected to speak clearly. Asking to touch a black woman’s hair is another form of microinsult, as it further serves to “other” black women. 

Finally, microinvalidations are a form of microaggression that reject or undermine the lived experiences of a member of a non-dominant group. For example, when a white person asserts that they don’t see color, they are invalidating the daily effects skin color has on people of color.

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What’s the impact of microaggressions?

Consider it death (or resignation) by a thousand paper cuts. The subtle nature of microaggressions at work can actually make them potentially more distressing than overt discrimination. According to psychologist Dorainne J. Levy, PhD, “There’s uncertainty about whether or not (a microaggression) was due to your race, for example, or due to something unrelated, such as the other person being in a bad mood or having a bad day. That uncertainty is distressing.” 

Researchers have found that biological responses to microaggressions have implications for motivation, memory and executive functioning. Moreover, according to the American Psychological Association, microaggressions can cause posttraumatic stress symptoms, depression and anxiety. At work, trying to understand a colleague’s insensitive comment diverts time and attention from actual work. This diversion negatively impacts performance. Left unaddressed, microaggressions at work can set off a downward spiral leading to resignation or termination.

What is the most effective response to microaggressions at work?

Take a deep breath

While they’re called “micro,” research shows that microaggressions cause their recipients immense harm. If you’ve been on the receiving end of a microaggression at work, you’ll be right to experience any number of emotions. You might feel angry, frustrated or sad. Unfortunately, voicing these feelings might get you labeled as overly sensitive or hostile. 

In the moment, try to take a deep breath. Remind yourself that the offensive comment or action was a result of someone’s ignorance, not your existence. This mindfulness, perhaps coupled with a quick affirmation, can help ground your response. 

Consider the context

After taking a deep breath and affirming your worth, the next step is to consider the context. How you respond to a microaggression at work can vary based on who made the microaggression. Was it your manager or the company’s CEO? Or was it your direct report or someone on a different team? Perhaps it was a vendor or one of the company’s clients. 

If the microaggressor is someone with whom you don’t care about maintaining a relationship, ignoring the comment or action might be the best approach. Examples of this might include a random vendor or even a CEO with whom you rarely interact. While correcting certain microaggressors might benefit the greater good, it isn’t always worth your time or emotional well-being. 

On the other hand, if the microaggressor is someone with whom you regularly work, it’s probably worth the time to engage. In these cases, you’ll want to be careful not to burn bridges. While they were in the wrong, the best outcome is one in which you move forward with a stronger relationship. 

Respond with education

Regardless of what was said, accusing someone of being racist or homophobic won’t get you far. This is particularly true when the microaggressor didn’t consciously intend to cause offense. Instead of attacking the microaggressor, no matter how many times they’ve slipped up, it’s important to attack the microaggression itself. In educating a microaggressor, base your response in your own perspective. Explain how the statement or behavior made you feel and why it made you feel that way.

If you value the relationship, or it’s someone with whom you regularly work, you might go further than this initial conversation. Dr. NiCole Buchanan, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, suggests scheduling a time to talk about what happened later. This gives the microaggressor time to think about what they said or did. It also gives you time to cool off and better formulate your thoughts. Buchanan suggests that you even practice what you want to say with a sympathetic friend in advance of the scheduled conversation.

Respond with humor

If having a serious conversation doesn’t seem to fit the working relationship, you might alternatively consider responding with humor. Sue has shared that, as an Asian-American professor and speaker, he often hears comments along the lines of, “You speak excellent English.” At first inspection, this sounds like a compliment. However, the underlying message carries with it an implicit bias of what a native English speaker looks like.

When microaggressions like this happen, Sue suggests you “kindly acknowledge the compliment, while also correcting the person’s bias.” In Sue’s case, for example, he replies “Thank you, I hope so, I was born here.” Sue states that the addition of the fact that he was born in the United States “underlines the unconscious misconception that I am a foreigner in my own country.”

Don’t respond at all

Another option is to not respond at all. This is part of considering the context. While all microaggressors should be corrected, there may be times when it’s in your personal interest to refrain from engaging. Perhaps you are running late to a meeting and don’t have time to address what was said in the moment. Maybe you’re concerned that the microaggressor is in a position to retaliate against you at work. Or maybe you’ve just had enough that day and don’t want to deal with an awkward conversation. 

Whatever the case, don’t beat yourself up if you decline an opportunity to respond to a microaggression at work. It’s hard enough being a member of an underrepresented group in your workplace. When someone commits a microaggression, it’s even harder. Remember to reaffirm your worth, focus on your unique strengths, and keep moving forward.

How can I respond to microaggressions I witness at work?

There may be times when you aren’t the recipient of a microaggression, but you witness one in your workplace. If you have the opportunity to speak up, this is a great way to be an ally at work. A study published in the Academy of Management Journal found that underrepresented people receive penalties for speaking up about diversity at work. Their white, male counterparts, however, receive no penalty for speaking up. As a member of a dominant group, your voice and allyship can be powerful.

With microaggressions in particular, their subtle nature makes it easy to dismiss the target as overly sensitive if they complain. Because of this, your voice as an ally will likely be heard more powerfully than the voice of the targeted person. This makes it all the more important that you speak up.

Begin your response by making it clear that you are speaking on your behalf, and not on behalf of anyone else. Use “I” statements. For example, tell people, “I don’t want to hear that kind of thing in our office.” 

If you aren’t sure how to respond in the moment, you can try to be an ally after the fact. Find the colleague who received the microaggression and acknowledge what occurred. This will help validate their experience. You should also apologize for not saying anything when you saw it and ask how you can provide better support should you witness another microaggression. 

Final thoughts

Microaggressions are subtle but powerful. If your workplace experience includes repeated microaggressions, document each one and report them to your company’s human resources department. At some point, microaggressions in the professional arena add up to a hostile workplace — and you don’t have to stand for it.

Kelli Newman Mason is the VP of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at Notley Ventures, a social impact firm based in Austin, Texas.