The chances are extremely high that during your lifetime you have experienced a microaggression, if not hundreds. Whether you’ve been the target, the victim or the microaggressor, we’ve all been there, and it’s not comfortable. We’d like to think there’s some perfect world, country, organization or team, but up until now, it’s a mythical place.
It would be wonderful if we could all live in perfect peace, harmony and cooperation, but until that happens, as human beings, we need to begin to consciously recognize the microaggressions that happen all around us every day. Until we train ourselves to really pay attention, listen and observe the interactions happening all around us, we won’t make much progress.
According to the authors of the book Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Beth Spanierman, “Microaggressions denote some sort of interpersonal interaction involving a perpetrator and a target (marginalized group member). Second, we must keep in mind the term ‘aggression.’ Most often, socials psychologists have defined aggression as verbal or nonverbal behavior intended to harm.”
Some of these comments or actions are overt, and sometimes they can be quite subtle — which only makes recognizing them more challenging. My interactions with people of many different races, gender identifications, economic levels and education levels, and the array of microaggressions I’ve witnessed, have been bewildering.
In my experience, the quickest way to identify a microaggression is when it is directed at you personally. At that moment, your gut reaction is usually correct. What’s left to assess is the level of the offense. How did it make you feel? Uncomfortable, weak, powerless, marginalized, or…?
I’ve had microaggressions directed at me that were bizarre (a male blatantly touching my hair without permission), obvious and demeaning (“Are you missing your family pet?”) and, in my younger days, deliberately hurtful (“You’re young yet, and you don’t get how the corporate structure works”).
Why any of these perpetrators would even let these dismissive words and acts occur is astounding.
When I give it further thought, my own transgressions over the years come to mind, and I can almost understand. Little looks and comments I have given colleagues, with no intention at the time of causing any harm, sometimes come back to me in widescreen and Technicolor. I believe they were not numerous, and perhaps not as dramatic as I remember, but with the passage of time, I can’t be sure.
The point is, I have learned to spend more time thinking about how my speech and actions might affect another. The more I reflect on that, I believe the less damage I unintentionally commit against everyone in my life.
One of the goals of recognizing microaggressions is to understand them from a different perspective. What follows this is education — your own and that of others — especially if they report to you. One needs to separate the event from the person, which helps take the accusatory tone out of the process.
If there is any ambiguity, ask the perpetrator to repeat what was said or done so they have a chance to review it at a slower speed. Remaining calm is a good starting point.
In her article for The New York Times, Hahna Yoon relates, “Discrimination — no matter how subtle — has consequences. In 2017, the Center for Health Journalism explained that racism and microaggressions lead to worse health, and pointed out that discrimination can negatively influence everything from a target person’s eating habits to his or her trust in their physician, and trigger symptoms of trauma.”
There can be many roadblocks to recognize and attempt to resolve the commission of microaggressions. As noted by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran in their book Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions, “First, people sometimes think that this is political correctness run amok. They may think that people are being policed for the small things they say, and therefore it is impossible to speak about any challenging issues.”
Besides the roadblocks, there may be landmines disguised as opportunities. In her article for the American Psychological Association “Did You Really Just Say That?,” Rebecca A. Clay writes, “Don’t be fooled by microaggressions packaged as opportunities. When a particular group isn’t well-represented on campus, at work or anywhere else, well-intentioned authorities may keep turning to the same members of that group to speak on panels, serve on committees or mentor other members of their group, thereby overloading the minority students or staffers with all the minority-related work.”
Learning new ways of interacting with our fellow workers and friends is a daunting task for some, and mistakes will be made along the way. Whether you look different to some people or think differently or act differently should not affect your work and life opportunities. This is a serious subject that we can’t take lightly. Going forward, it will become only more important as we try to advance as a society, a culture and a workplace.
This article has previously been featured on Forbes.