Death by a Thousand Cuts WORDS
Microaggressions in the Workplace

This article’s title is a play on the translation of a Chinese phrase that references a form of torture which involves slowly slicing a body resulting in a lingering but certain death. Morose thoughts indeed. Why invoke this kind of imagery for a discussion of microaggressions? Psychologists have used the phrase to refer to the everyday slights experienced by marginalized people, with the phrase being a proxy for saying, “Lots of small bad things happening, none of which is fatal in itself but which add up to a slow and painful demise.”


What are microaggressions?

So again, what does all of this have to do with microaggressions? Isn’t it quite a stretch to say that words can lead to one’s demise? Before you decide, let us review the differences between some commonly used terms in this space of negative identity commentary. Stereotypes and unconscious bias are similar, yet they are different from microaggressions.

A stereotype involves one or more oversimplified ideas about a particular type of person or group of people. Stereotypes result from grouping people together based on some factor and making a judgment about them without knowing them. 

Unconscious bias behaviors are often formed based on both positive and negative feelings about someone. A key distinction of this behavior is that it is most often involuntary—unconscious. These unconscious biases often develop from a very young age and come from experience and cues, both direct and indirect. These inputs can originate from family members, classmates and teachers and a variety of societal signals.

Our focus is on microaggressions and, specifically, their use and impact in the workplace. One of the most stinging things about microaggressions is that they are very often based on identity. Including slights, insults and put-downs, microaggressions encompass an expansive range of offensive behaviors that are experienced by marginalized groups. This behavior can occur in daily interactions with peers and leaders in the workplace who are well-intentioned and may or may not be aware of the impact of their behaviors. 

The impact of microaggressions can be significant. These actions can communicate hostile, aggressive, derogatory, offensive or negative viewpoints. In the workplace, microaggressions can be particularly damaging to teamwork, collaboration and ongoing productivity. 

Generally, microaggressions don’t rise to the level of harassment or discrimination. Yet, their formation based on an individual or group’s identity can magnify their effect. Microaggressions clutter the environment. They “otherise” people. They are in direct opposition to organizational efforts that seek to ensure all employees feel a sense of belonging within the workplace.


Examples of microaggressions

“Don’t you hate that your hair does that?”—said to a Black woman in the workgroup who wore her hair in a natural hairstyle, thus promoting the white standard of beauty.

“Is that a new dress? Isn’t it so bright?” Said to a Latinx employee by a majority group employee, thus promoting the notion that the way the majority dresses is the only standard.

“Why do those Black girls have to be so loud—can’t they just calm down?” Promotes the notion that the values and communication styles of the dominant/white culture are the ideal.

“He is so well-spoken.” Said about a young Black man in the workgroup, promoting the premise that people of color are generally not as intelligent as whites. 

“I’m having trouble saying your name. Let’s just call you Joe.” Said to an individual whose name is not one the majority is used to pronouncing—promoting the primacy of the white culture.

Other behavioral examples include carelessly mistaking someone for someone else of the same race or calling Black people “bro” or “sista” (being overly familiar).


The impact of microaggressions

Much ado about nothing? Has our society become overly sensitive to comments where the person “didn’t mean anything by it”? Have we reverted to more of the “political correctness” of the 80s or succumbed to another application of “wokeness”? Must we walk on eggshells in our day-to-day casual comments and conversation? After all, “It was just a joke,” “I meant it as a compliment,” and “Since when did asking an innocent question become such a big deal?”

But we should not be so quick to dismiss microaggressions as anything but what they are—harmful behaviors that can create toxic work environments and have a destructive impact on our workplaces. 

Over the course of time the impact of microaggressive behaviors on both physical and mental health is increasingly well described in medical literature. Such things as increased rates of depression, self-doubt, frustration, reduced or lack of self-confidence, prolonged stress and trauma, headaches, high blood pressure and difficulties with sleep have all been linked to continued exposure to micro aggressive behaviors. Of course, the effects are variable based on such things as duration and nature of the microaggressions one experiences, but the negative effects are undeniable. A thousand cuts . . .


When microaggressions happen

Now to the good stuff—how do we make this better? How can you avoid being a perpetrator of microaggressions, and how might you respond if you are the subject of a microaggression?

The Rochester community is home to many different identities—it is an environment that is enriched with diversity. So, thing number one is no secret—become an enthusiastic autodidact. Seek to become culturally competent. Work to expand your knowledge of various identities to reduce the number of times that you hurt others with your words or behaviors. And do this not to flaunt your knowledge or to exoticize other groups but to promote inclusion.

We live in a multicultural community full of diverse identities. Expose yourself to new cultures and be in spaces where you are not the majority. Additionally, it is good to explore the history of different identities in our community—what are their lived experiences, what brings them joy, what are their goals for the future? You are highly likely to find commonalities that bridge not divide. 

So, what if you do “microagress”? Begin like you would on any other occasion where you have made a misstep involving another person—apologize. It is important that you do not center yourself in these situations—you are not the victim. Let us say you misgender someone—saying such things as, “I’m so sorry I misgendered you. I should never have done that. I will never do that again.” Just say you are sorry and move on. It has already been an ordeal for the person—do not prolong and confuse matters by making it about you. Apologize and use it as a learning experience.

We are in an ever-changing world where new identities are surfacing, and the diversity within our workplaces is reflective of these changes. We are all bound to make mistakes. We are all bound to microagress in one way or another. Learning how to accept, apologize and learn from your mistakes is vitally important. Be compassionate and graceful.  


Responding to microaggressions

What if you experience microaggressions in your workplace? The effect of microaggressions may send you reeling, or it may anger you for a brief time. Whether big or small, the impact of the insult, the invalidation or the ignorance may leave you unsure of how to respond.

The dynamics of the workplace, including what was said, who you are with and whether you feel safe will dictate whether you decide to address the remark. But remember, you are not at fault. If you do not feel comfortable calling someone out or believe challenging the remark and explaining the effect on you will only compound your distress, you can certainly choose to ignore it instead.

If you do choose to respond, best practice methods include pausing and taking a deep breath. Let any anger subside as it will cloud your thinking and potentially your response. 

Decide when you want to respond. If the microaggression is coming from a colleague, perhaps you would want to address it. It is helpful to assume there is no malicious intent. Take the high road. Approach the situation with a positive attitude and give the individual the benefit of the doubt. Discuss your feelings about the impact of the incident. Try to understand the situation and be empathetic. Be an expert listener. 

In the workplace, it is important to document the incident(s). If this behavior becomes a pattern, you may have to take formal action. Human Resources may request specifics (date, time) of each incident.

If you choose not to address the interaction directly, you should process your experience with a trusted colleague or an ally who will help validate your experience. Or do something creative to express your feelings about the experience (i.e., write your feelings in a journal).

Colleagues who have witnessed microaggressions can also take a proactive role by educating themselves on how to be good upstanders and allies. This provides the knowledge and confidence to speak up when you see inappropriate behavior directed at a colleague. 

We are all subject to being the recipient of microaggressions or to being a microaggresser. With education and focus, we can help to eliminate their presence and the destruction they bring from our workplaces. ::

About Author

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Barbara is the community editor for RWM. She has lived, worked and played in the community for over 30 years. Although a Texan at heart, she loves her adopted hometown of Rochester, Minnesota.

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