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Are You A Microaggressor?

May 1, 2019, 4:30 PM UTC

“Hey, can I touch your hair?”

Last month, raceAhead announced that we were working with SurveyMonkey on some fresh research on microaggressions in the workplace.

Well, the results are in, and they’re just as illuminating as you might expect.

And no, I can’t touch your hair. It’s a microaggression. And if my asking upset you, then I should be given a chance to apologize and coached on how to do better.

That’s one of the big takeaways from the research, which asked 4,274 workers about microaggressions, and explored how people from a variety of underrepresented groups experienced them differently.

As it turns out, some 68 percent of U.S. workers say they consider microaggressions a serious problem. Managers were frequently mentioned as the aggressors.

More than a quarter of respondents (26 percent) have definitely experienced a microaggression at work, and another 22 percent are unsure. Thirty-six percent have witnessed one (with another 24 percent unsure).

That leaves about 40 percent breezing through their workdays unbothered by the nuanced biases of others. Since only 10 percent of people admit to or understand that they’ve actually been an aggressor in the past, either they’re doing the lion’s share of offending, or there are plenty of us who have some learning to do.

The stories the researchers collected speak for themselves:

  • Went to a meeting; I was the only woman in the meeting. I was asked to sit in the back and take notes. This occurred in 2019; I have an MBA. (White female, 53, Education)
  • Someone said I reminded them of their friend’s grandmother. (White female, 56, Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals)
  • Senior partner asked to “touch my hair” in order to confirm it was “all mine.” Just wow. (Latinx female, 37, Advertising and Marketing)
  • When people speak to me over the phone before meeting me, they think I’m white. When meeting me, there is an unintentional facial reaction because I’m black and they are a little shocked. This happened when I interviewed for my current job. It implies that being black and well-spoken isn’t the norm.(Black female, 38, Food and Beverage)
  • My boss at my old job thought it was funny when my car broke down and I had to walk and catch the bus that I wasn’t losing any weight because of all the walking I was doing. (Black female, 32, Government)
  • While I was talking to another colleague who was older, we were having an intense conversation about how to solve a challenge we had identified. He interrupted me and said, “now young lady…” and then told me how what I was saying was incorrect in his opinion (White female, 47, Nonprofit)
  • Jeff looked at the wall of fame and saw my name was mentioned many times during the 12 month period. He told me “you will see a lot more American names.” (Asian male, 69, Finance and Financial Services)
  • A co-worker was describing the behavior and attitude of African Americans in general with a negative connotation but I was excluded because I was one of the “good kind”. (Black male, 60, Healthcare and Pharmaceuticals)
  • An interviewer rejected my candidacy for an open position because I was 50+ and was believed “unable/unwilling” to learn new Marketing techniques/skills (White male, 58, Manufacturing)
  • I started a new position… and when I asked questions to a team of predominantly white males I was asked what was my qualifications instead of answering my question. I was the only one qualified on the entire team. I have an engineering degree and training (before certifications) (Black female, 50, Nonprofit)

Microaggressions! Not as subtle as one might think.

Jillesa Gebhardt, the lead researcher on the survey, says that these kinds of interactions do more than just sting. They further alienate an already underrepresented segment of your workforce.

“This research shows that microaggressions are widespread in our workplaces, and they are deeply upsetting to the people who experience them. Companies need to take this seriously to prevent people who may already feel marginalized from leaving their organizations—and taking their talents and abilities with them,” she says.

While gender (35 percent), age (33 percent), physical appearance (31 percent), and race (30 percent) are the identities most commonly targeted, up to a quarter of workers said that they considered unprofessional behavior, hearing demeaning comments about peers, or having one’s idea taken by someone else to be so upsetting that they’d consider leaving their jobs.

This is why it’s important to get management on board, says Gebhardt.

For one thing, the data shows that people need help dealing.

People who have experienced a microaggression are nearly twice as likely to say that the harasser should be spoken to by their manager (47 percent) or by human resources (44 percent) than by the victim (25 percent).

“There seems to be a general understanding that microaggressions don’t come from hardened prejudice—they often stem from a person’s ignorance or lack of awareness. So people don’t want those who commit microaggressions to be fired, but they do want companies to do something about the problem. Providing resources to increase awareness of microaggressions and encouraging conversations about their impact in the workplace are good places to start.”

More resources here.

On Point

The Obamas reveal their first projects with NetflixThis is the first glimmer of the inner vision for Higher Ground Productions, Michelle and Barack Obama’s new production company. Seven projects are in the works, part of a multi-year deal, many of which touch on history, inclusion, race, class, and justice. “American Factory” is the story of a factory opened by a Chinese billionaire in Ohio, “Crip Camp” is a film about disability rights, and you can look forward to a film adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, “Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom,” as well. My personal fave: a scripted anthology series of The New York Times “Overlooked” section, which publishes obituaries of people overlooked by history and the paper.New York Times

Joaquín Castro takes on the Census
Congressional Hispanic Caucus Chair Joaquín Castro [D-Tex] has sent a letter to the Census Bureau asking for more information about the Bureau’s outreach to the Latinx community in advance of the 2020 census. “You are well aware of the consequences our communities would pay with another undercount, including minimized influence on national policy and less federal dollars to support our neighborhoods,” he writes. The Supreme Court recently heard arguments over the Trump administration’s quest to add a citizenship question to the census. Census officials are estimating an undercount of about 6.5 million people. Read the letter here, an interview with Castro, the only Latinx presidential candidate, below.
Latino Rebels

A woman who found a noose in her workplace is not allowed to return to her job
Charlene Lust snapped a picture of the noose, which she found hanging in a Michigan auto plant’s paint shop where she was helping a coworker. At first, it made her sad. “I literally almost fainted. I’ve never seen one,” she says. But because she posted photos and video of the hanging noose, Lust, a contractor, was terminated. Now she may lose her home. Lust has filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and her union.
USA Today

The 50 people changing Hollywood
The Hollywood Reporter released its first-ever list of the 50 most influential people in front of and behind the camera, people who are striving to make all voices heard. Many well-known names are on the list like Laverne Cox, the transgender actor famous for her role in Orange is the New Black, Lee Daniels, the creator of the hit TV show Empire, and Shonda Rhimes, the Netflix mega-dealmaker who also created shows like Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy. However, there are many less familiar faces who are doing the work behind the scenes. Consider Lorrie Bartlett, a Hollywood power player who is the first black board member of a major talent agency. “My job is to help create a pathway that is filled with fewer potholes than I had," she says.
The Hollywood Reporter


On Background

Remembering Rodney King
It’s been almost 30 years since the video of the violent police attack on Rodney King catapulted him to national fame. The video and the brutality it showed sparked a national conversation about civil rights and police reforms, but seven years since his death, much of King’s legacy is fading. His daughter, Lora, is trying to change that. Three years ago, she launched the Rodney King Foundation. Since then, she’s been traveling the country speaking about civil rights issues. She recently created the “I Am A King” scholarship, a financial award given to black fathers to fund activities and trips for their children that would otherwise be unattainable. She is trying to keep her father’s image and memory alive, she says. “As long as I continue to follow my vision, he will always be represented.
Los Angeles Times

New research says the number of teen suicides increased after “13 Reasons Why” appeared on Netflix
A new study, funded by the National Institutes of Health finds that teen suicide rates increased dramatically after the premiere of Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why in March of 2017. The series, which centers around a young girl who dies by suicide and leaves a set of thirteen tapes behind, sparked controversy over its portrayal of suicide at the time. The new research appears to confirm that suicide rates for 10- to 17-year-olds increased 29% the month after the premiere and were notably higher in June and December of 2017. Jeff Bridge, Ph.D., the director of the Center for Suicide Prevention and Research at Nationwide Children's Hospital says, “This study should serve as a wakeup call to those creating media that goes against guidelines for who suicide should be depicted.”  Netflix has said they are looking into the research while the third season is in production.
CBS News

Dee Rees calls how we view films “a limited blindness to social context”
During the Film at Lincoln Center’s 50th anniversary Chaplin Gala celebration, many prominent artists gave many light-hearted speeches. But Dee Rees, director of Mudbound, struck a deeper chord with her words. Rees addressed the discrimination encountered by movie-going African Americans across the country, and used her own personal and family anecdotes to drive her point. Starting with a story about the racial insults her grandparents faced in theaters in 1946, to a more recent encounter with “selectively enforced policies” alongside her wife in 2015, she reminded the audience that “this is a vision test.” She concluded by saying “Today, what seems like a highbrow aesthetic argument about how we view films is actually a limited blindness to social context, a willfully focused nostalgia.”

RaceAhead student intern Aidan Taylor assisted in the preparation of today's summaries. You'll get to know him better tomorrow.


America, the world, we are becoming. This is one of many chapters and this may feel like a dark chapter, but any story has its highs and lows but it continues – and yeah, we are in a low, but we’ve been lower. We’ve had tougher times, we’ve had more to fear, we’ve lived through slavery and the Holocaust and segregation and we’ve always come out on the other end, better and stronger.
—Michelle Obama