Microaggressions: Definition and Examples

15
Microaggressions-Definition- Examples

“Microaggressions,” “unconscious bias” and similar terms have become commonplace in the business vernacular as companies have stepped up diversity and inclusion efforts following the movement for racial justice in 2020.

Microaggression Definition

Psychiatrist and Harvard professor Dr. Chester M. Pierce is credited with coining the term “microaggression” to describe insults and put-downs of Black people. In 1974, Dr. Pierce wrote:

“Almost all black±white racial interactions are characterized by white put-downs, done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. These mini-disasters accumulate. It is the sum total of multiple microaggressions by whites to blacks that has a pervasive effect to the stability and peace of this world.”

Since then, the definition has expanded to include slights against any marginalized group. Derald Wing Sue, psychologist and professor of counseling psychology at Columbia University, defines microaggressions as “brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.”

Microaggression Examples

Microaggressions typically spring up from a deep well of commonly-held stereotypes about a particular race, gender, or sexual orientation. The crux of a microaggression is typically not the words themselves, as they usually do not contain explicit racial slurs. The key issue lies in the stereotypical assumption that caused the aggressor to speak up in the first place. For example:

  • “Where are you from? (Assuming someone is from another country based on race.)
  • “Your English is really good!” (Assuming someone is from another country based on race.)
  • “You are so articulate.” (Assuming race is related to intelligence.)
  • “You are a credit to your race.” (Assuming race is related to intelligence.)
  • “I don’t see race.” (Asserting color blindness, negating the idea of privilege and diversity.)
  • “I’m not biased, I treat everyone the same.” (Asserting color blindness, negating the idea of privilege and diversity.)
  • “The way you've overcome your disability is so inspiring.” (Assuming people with a disability aren’t able to perform at high levels.)
  • “Have you ever tried to straighten your hair?” (Assuming natural hairstyles are unprofessional or somehow unique.)
  • “Can I touch your hair?” (Assuming natural hairstyles are unprofessional or somehow unique.)
  • “Why do you people have to be so loud?” (Assuming behaviors are related to race or that white culture and values are superior to others.)
  • “Why are you getting so hysterical?” (Assuming gender stereotypes.)
    (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “Are you an Indian giver?” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “That’s gay.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “I jewed him down.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “I got gypped.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “He welshed on the bet.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “Don’t get your Irish up.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “It was a Chinese fire drill.” (Using terms that are based on negative stereotypes.)
  • “Wives are invited too.” (Assuming gender.)
  • “We’ll need extra manpower.” (Assuming gender.)
  • “Hey guys, listen up…” (Assuming gender.)

How to Respond to Microaggressions at Work

If you ever find yourself on the receiving end of a microaggression, consider taking these steps to address it:

  1. Ask the microaggressor for a one-on-one conversation.
  2. Calmly, kindly, and firmly share that their comment or question was offensive or insensitive, and tell them why. More often than not, the microaggressor will apologize and share that their intention was not to offend.
  3. If the perpetrator gets defensive and/or doesn’t apologize, you should consider going to the person’s manager. Again, microaggressors can ruin cultures if left unchecked, so an escalation may be necessary to stop the perpetrator from hurting you or someone else again.

Whether or not you’re part of a marginalized group, always question your own assumptions about people and resist the temptation to make snap judgments. Curiosity about people’s lifestyles, cultures, and personal history is natural. But asking insensitive questions, giving backhanded compliments, or making them question their belonging is not ok. Building a diverse inclusive culture means that everyone belongs, period.

SHARE
Kevin Kruse
CEO of LEADx, and NY Times bestselling author, of Great Leaders Have No Rules and Employee Engagement 2.0. Get a FREE trial of the LEADx platform at https://page.leadx.org/demo.