Taking a Macro View of Microaggressions

While there are certainly many painful and shocking exceptions, the racism and discrimination faced by women, people of color and other marginalized groups is generally different than it was several decades ago. Directly disparaging someone based on their gender, ethnicity, skin color, religion or sexual orientation would be met with shock and derision in most circles and especially in professional settings. Instead, racism and other forms of discrimination take on much subtler forms.

Taking a Look at Microaggressions

We’ve written a great deal about implicit bias – the ways people think and generalize about other groups without even being consciously aware they are making those generalizations. One of the ways implicit bias manifests itself is through microaggressions. While many have no doubt heard the term, it helps to define it clearly, so we’ll take the definition used by Merriam-Webster: “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).”

Note that the definition says, “often unconsciously or unintentionally,” and this is an important element. While people often aren’t aware of their microaggressions, some people may use them intentionally to get under someone’s skin or put others down. And don’t let the prefix “micro” fool you. Microaggressions are not only hurtful; they can have very real and significant physical and mental health impacts for those on the receiving end, ranging from depression and anxiety to heart disease and diabetes.

Steps to Address Microaggressions

The challenge for those faced with microaggressions is that they are, by definition, subtle, meaning it’s hard to know how to respond or even whether to respond. That very issue was the subject of a recent Harvard Business Review (HBR) article by Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch and Laura Morgan Roberts. The authors note that there are essentially three ways to address microaggressions, each with its own pros and cons:

  1. Let it Go – Avoids uncomfortable confrontation but does nothing to change behavior and can be emotionally taxing.

  2. Respond Immediately – Addresses the offending behavior right away but can come across as confrontational.

  3. Respond Later – Allows behavior to be addressed in private, but can be seen as petty or holding a grudge over something “small.”

Which approach to take depends on the situation: Who else is present for the microaggression? How egregious was the situation? Does it seem intentional or unintentional?

A Framework for Determining the Best Course of Action

The authors of the HBR article offer a framework for determining which course of action is best, using four elements:

  1. Discern – Determining how much effort to put into addressing the microaggression

  2. Disarm – Taking steps to address the situation in a way that doesn’t make the perpetrator shut down or become defensive

  3. Defy – Challenging the underlying assumptions of the micro-aggressive statement or action or explain how it has caused offense

  4. Decide – Taking control of the impact the microaggression will have on oneself.

Outrage in response to blatant discrimination, such as the use of racial slurs or policies that explicitly discriminate is an obvious and appropriate reaction. But this type of racism is relatively rare compared to several decades ago. Instead, women, people of color and other marginalized groups are often faced with microaggressions that are subtle and often unintentional. Knowing how and whether to respond to them is an important skill to help eliminate such conduct as well as protect one’s mental and even physical health.

Recommended Reading

Becoming an Inclusive Leader

Inclusion: The New Competitive Business Advantage

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Are you tired of workplace diversity training that does not link to business? Are you tired of tactics that don’t drive business results? InclusionINC has inclusion training solutions and strategic consulting that link inclusion to employee engagement, productivity, innovation and retention, moving inclusion beyond tactics to a critical business strategy.

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