Skip to Content

Microaggressions at Work

Hello! You clean, well-spoken over-achievers, who I don’t think of as having a race because I don’t see color and are sooooo good looking for a <leans in and whispers> … well, you know.

I just insulted you! A lot! Sure, they may have sounded like compliments, but they’re not. At all. And in the workplace, they can make people miserable and drive them away.

Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue has done research on the comments better known as microaggressions, which are, in his terms, “the everyday slights, indignities, put-downs, and invalidations that people of color experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-meaning people who are unaware that they’ve delivered a put-down,” he says.

Although he concedes that some people are aware of their bias when they deliver their zingers, his studies indicate that it’s the unintentional forms that are the most damaging to people of color. (And I would imagine, to anyone who is not of the majority culture.)

Either way, “microaggressions, really, are reflections of world views,” Sue told PBS. “Inclusion, exclusion, superiority, inferiority.” Sue, who was born and raised in Portland, Ore. says people will often pester him to find out where he is really from. They may be trying to make a personal connection he says, or even deliver a compliment – “Wow, you speak such good English!” – but the microaggression reveals their true world view. “I am a perpetual alien or foreigner in my country. I am not a true American, because true Americans look the following way. That’s what generates these behaviors.”

For the recipient, it’s an exhausting reminder of their “otherness” at work. And for microaggressors, it’s an embarrassing blind spot that if unchecked erodes their ability to lead, not to mention, hit their diversity targets.

RaceAhead is partnering with the good folks at SurveyMonkey on a survey of workers about their experience with, and understanding of, microaggressions. Before we begin, we’d love your input.

What information about microaggressions would help you be more effective at work?

Drop your questions anonymously here, (or just vent, you know I love that) and I’ll pass it along. The abstract is below. And when the survey is ready, I’ll be sure to give you a chance to weigh in.

People from underrepresented groups feel targeted by behaviors, actions, and statements that exclude, demean, or insult them. Also known as microaggressions, these acts aren’t direct enough to be labelled harassment, but range from subtle slights like talking over someone to more explicit forms of hostility such as making derogatory remarks. They communicate negative messages about members of underrepresented groups—often that they are less competent and don’t belong.

Microaggressions can be conscious or unconscious, but when they compound, they result in employees feeling uncomfortable or threatened, or even possibly leaving the company.

But microaggressions are hard to address when you don’t know what they are—or how big of an impact they make. This research will attempt to answer both.

 

On Point

Fieldston students end their lock-out, all demands metThe students at the elite Ethical Culture Fieldston School in the Bronx have ended their days-long lock-out, saying that all twenty of their demands have been met. The students had become frustrated by the administration’s lack of attention to a viral racist video allegedly made by other students, and other ongoing issues. One of their demands is for a new system for reporting bias. The kids are alright.Bronx News 12

Greta Thunberg, teen climate activist, has been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize
Greta Thunberg is the founder of the Youth Strike for Climate, a solo protest that has spawned a movement around the world. Strikes are now expected in 1,659 towns and cities in 105 countries tomorrow, with hundreds of thousands of young people participating. “We have proposed Greta Thunberg because if we do nothing to halt climate change it will be the cause of wars, conflict and refugees,” said Norwegian Socialist MP Freddy André Øvstegård. “Greta Thunberg has launched a mass movement which I see as a major contribution to peace.” The kids are alright, part two.
The Guardian

Black workers sue UPS for allowing hate in the workplace
Nineteen UPS workers have joined a suit alleging that the company failed to end racist harassment in the workplace. Among the complaints: Nooses were hung above workstations near black employees, some workers dressed a plush toy monkey in a UPS uniform, some used the n-word regularly. The complainants say that supervisors often participated. The alleged behaviors took place at the distribution center in Maumee, Ohio, though the company told CNN that they had addressed the issue. “UPS promptly investigated and took swift disciplinary action against those found to have engaged in inappropriate actions, including the discharge of two employees.” The suit also alleges that the company disproportionately keeps black employees in lower paying jobs.
CNN

Two black women are suing a provincial Canadian government for years of systemic racism
The Ontario public service (OPS), a Canadian provincial government that employs 65,000 people, is being sued by two former employees for creating a culture that “fosters racism, dysfunction, discrimination, harassment, racial bullying, and abuse of authority/power.” Jean-Marie Dixon and Hentrose Nelson allege that senior management has turned a blind eye to the culture of racism and aggression that followed them from department to department: They say black workers overall were over-scrutinized, passed over for promotion, mistaken for janitorial staff, given office housework to do and subjected to bullying and racist comments. They’ve been organizing for years. “No dollar amount could fix the irreparable damage,” Nelson said. “I think about how my life has been altered; I can’t get it back.”
The Star

 

On Background

The college admissions scandal through the eyes of dedicated families of color
This story takes us to the Ewing Marion Kauffman School, a predominantly black charter school in Kansas City, Mo. But the stories of the students who worked diligently to prepare for college is being played out in communities of color all across the country. “It’s frustrating that people are able to obtain their opportunities this way,” says one senior. “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough.” Those who make it to elite schools are often dogged by questions about their credentials. “This scandal exposed the fact that there is a misplaced emphasis on so-called affirmative action inequities, rather than privilege,” one expert told The New York Times.
New York Times

The school-to-prison pipeline for black and brown girls
Jaquira Diaz recounts the recent story of the four black and Latinx girls who were strip-searched at a middle school in New York State. The principal became convinced they had been using substances, when in fact, they were just giggling girls. It’s part of worsening trend of the over-policing of girls of color in schools, with increasingly dire consequences. According to research, “black and brown girls are typically marginalized at school in these ways because officials judge that they aren’t feminine enough, or the right kind of feminine,” she says. Being giggly gets you strip-searched, having natural hair gets you suspended, and “any black girl who expresses unchecked emotion, even a six-year-old, can be sent to the county jail.
The Guardian

Believing in meritocracy is bad for you
Forget the fact that the concept is false on its face. But the belief that people of privilege achieves something based on their intelligence and skill instead of mostly luck, actually makes people more selfish. “[A’ growing body of research in psychology and neuroscience suggests that believing in meritocracy makes people more selfish, less self-critical and even more prone to acting in discriminatory ways,” explains writer Clifton Mark. “Meritocracy is not only wrong; it’s bad.” And yet, we continue to believe it.
Aeon

Quote

We’re currently in the midst of the fourth great expansion, which is an expansion of the idea of the American — that an American doesn’t necessarily need to be white to be considered American. “American” now includes Hispanics, for example, and people who identify themselves as multiracial. Because of this sort of great enlargement, we can no longer sum up the American as one person or the white man as one person.
—Nell Painter