You’ve heard the term “microaggression,” but what does it mean?
I celebrate Christmas. I love celebrating Christmas. But it’s important to remember that not everyone does. When I was in my first year of college, I thought I’d surprise my hallmates by hanging personalized stockings for each of them. I was confused when some people weren’t gushing with gratitude over my gift, and then realized I’d overlooked the fact that almost half of my hall was Jewish.
What I did is known as a microaggression, an action that does not necessarily reflect malicious intent but can nevertheless inflict insult or injury, typically to members of marginalized groups and often related to someone’s race, gender, sexual orientation or disability status. They repeatedly send a message to people from underrepresented groups of, “You are not one of us. You do not belong.”
Microaggressions can happen anywhere, and frequently occur in the workplace. At work, this might look like someone mistaking an employee for another employee of the same minority racial group. Or saying someone “must be in the wrong room,” if they don’t look exactly like everyone else attending the meeting.
It could even be the simple act of choosing a seat in a meeting room. People may subconsciously gravitate toward seats next to people who look like them, not even realizing the seats next to someone with a physical disability, or of a different race, are being taken last.
If this has happened to you, you might have thought, “Oh, my coworker was well-intentioned when they told me I speak English well. It’s a compliment, they didn’t mean anything negative about my race.” You might not want to bring it up as an issue for fear of being seen as overly-sensitive or politically correct, or even setting yourself further apart by highlighting what differences made the statement offensive to you.
What can you do if you’ve experienced a microaggression?
Listen to yourself. What you’re feeling is valid. Think about what aspects of the situation made you feel hurt. How does this affect you—whether it’s at work or elsewhere—and what can you do to make sure you’re getting what you need?
Find support. A microaggression can be hurtful and shocking. It can be helpful to discuss the issue with peers who are members of your group, or peers you feel comfortable with. You can also reach out to a sounding board like Empower Work if you prefer to talk to a peer counselor anonymously.
Try to be patient. I know it’s hard, but most people who commit microaggressions usually aren’t doing it intentionally. They don’t think their actions are harmful, mostly because the prevailing culture has reinforced their belief. If you’re feeling up to it, you can treat this as a teaching moment to inform someone how these dominant ideas affect people in marginalized groups.
If you happen to witness a microaggression, what can you do?
Be an ally. Sometimes people experiencing microaggressions are hesitant to respond, for fear of being labeled over-sensitive or biased, or being seen as a representative for the experience of their entire group. As an ally, you can bring attention to something that might have been hurtful without putting your personal identity at stake.
Speak for yourself. Avoid speaking on behalf of the person who experienced the microaggression, especially if you are not a member of the same marginalized group. Instead of saying, “That was offensive to them,” try saying, “Here’s why that could be found offensive.”
If, like me, you committed a microaggression or are worried you did, what can you do?
Be humble. I know, from firsthand experience, that it’s very easy to get defensive in these situations. (“I was doing something nice! They can’t be mad at me.”) But the fact of the matter is that someone was hurt by your actions, and that needs to be acknowledged.
Listen and learn. Listen to what the person you hurt has to say. Take responsibility for understanding more about your own set of privileges that led to this microaggression.
Forgive yourself. I was well-intentioned, but I made a mistake. We are all human. It’s important to remember that just because you caused someone harm once, intentionally or unintentionally, you can learn from it and choose not to do so in the future. Try thinking of this as a growth opportunity.
You might be wondering, “Wait, does this mean I can’t wish my coworkers a Merry Christmas?” You can share the joy of what you’re celebrating, but I would advise against giving them a personalized symbol of the holiday. You can also always ask what other people are celebrating, giving them space to feel seen if they’re part of a minority group. When in doubt, a generic “Happy holidays!” can avoid discomfort.
If you’ve experienced, committed, or seen microaggressions at work, you’re not alone. Text 510-674-1414 to get in touch with a trained peer counselor immediately and anonymously. Talk through the situation and explore ways forward. Support is just a text away.