Microaggressions: Not a Tiny Issue

Microaggressions are a well-known and well-documented experience. In light of current events, we thought it would be a good time to review microaggressions: what they are, why they’re important to consider, and how to recognize them in the workplace.

This post is the first in a four-part collaboration between authors Marjie and Bella.

What is a microaggression?

The ‘micro’ prefix in the term ‘microaggression’ isn’t a measurement of the size of the slight. It means that it happens at the ‘micro’ level, i.e. between individuals. This is in contrast to the ‘macro’ level, which refers to social structures and institutions.
(Dr. Robert L. Reece and source)

A microaggression is an intentional or unintentional comment, question, or statement that is offensive or insensitive. They are unique from other social blunders in that they communicate and assume negative or derogatory stereotypes about historically marginalized groups. These stereotypes not only make people in these groups feel “othered”, they perpetuate falsities about groups of people.

Microaggressions can, and do, occur everywhere, but for this post, we’re going to focus on microaggressions in the workplace. Understanding microaggressions is important because everyone wants to feel comfortable at work and know that they are treated well by their coworkers.

Anyone who experiences microaggressions will tell you — contrary to the name, they are not a small issue. This perception has been supported by scholarly articles, which found that microaggressions can be as harmful as more overt discrimination and harassment. A co-worker who is on the receiving end of a microaggression might feel alone, fearful of standing up for themselves, personally attacked which can lead to their confidence eroding over time.

Types of microaggressions

There are three different types of microaggressions: microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations. These names may seem similar at first glance, but the underlying intent of the microaggression differs.

1. Microassaults

Microassaults occur when a coworker intentionally behaves in a discriminatory way, whether or not they intend to be offensive. Forbes used the example of making a racist joke to a coworker and saying you are just joking or denying vacation for Black employees while approving it for their white co-workers.

Other examples include:

  • signing up minority-presenting employees (e.g., POC, openly LGBTQIA+) for a diversity & inclusion initiative without first asking them if they have a passion for office activism or if they want to be the face of inclusion for your company.
  • a direct and vocal woman in the office being told that she’s “intimidating” or “makes others uncomfortable,” while men with the same traits are seen as “confident” and “natural leaders.”
  • assuming mothers with children shouldn’t be considered for projects that require travel because they must want to be at home.

Microassaults can have a direct impact on an employee’s success at work. If you are in a workplace where you are being signed up for initiatives in addition to day-to-day work, or are being denied vacations or the opportunity to pursue the same projects as your peers, you will likely be less successful than your coworkers who aren’t subject to these microassaults. An employee that is labeled as intimidating and uncomfortable might have their opinions dismissed outright or be marked simply as a troublesome employee, where someone who is seen as a confident leader often receives promotions.

2. Microinsults

Microinsults differ from microassaults in that the comment or action is unintentionally demeaning and discriminatory. An example of a microinsult is asking a minority coworker how they got their job, implying they didn’t get the job on their own merits.

Microinsults can also be disguised as a compliment. People may say something like, “you aren’t good at computers like most Asians,” which implies that those of Jewish or Asian descent have an innate ability to cook or understand computer science. Women may also face this in the office when coworkers assume that they will naturally excel at and take on the emotional labor of an office (known as glue work). Even though these microinsults may take on the form of a compliment, they discredit the effort and merit of people in these marginalized groups.

In many companies, decisions about raises and promotions are up to one’s manager and can be based on work performance, subjective feedback provided by one’s managers, and/or subjective feedback provided by one’s colleagues. If you work in a company where your merit is continually undervalued, it is not hard to imagine that your raises and promotions would reflect that.

3. Microinvalidations

Microinvalidations are unique in that they negate the existence and experiences of those within a marginalized group. They imply that those experiencing discrimination are either “not part of us” or that their experiences didn’t happen at all (on the grounds that the in-group hasn’t experienced them). Vice gives the example of telling a Black coworker that “racism doesn’t exist in today’s society,” which implies that their experiences of racism aren’t valid.

This type of microaggression can also be seen in the workplace by invalidating a trained professional’s opinion. For example, I’ve heard clients ask male members on a project team to confirm statements made by the female product manager.

Microinvalidations are frustrating as they not only “other” and invalidate those in a marginalized group, they often also serve as a way to gaslight coworkers and deny that comments were marginalizing at all.

Microinvalidations can include labeling a person from a marginalized community as too sensitive, a troublemaker, or as being able to handle it because they have a thick skin. The reality is that the perpetrators of microaggressions are often (intentionally or unintentionally) unaware of the effect that their words have on their coworkers’ ability to succeed in the workplace.

“Despite the evidence, there are nonbelievers who contend that the notion of microaggressions is simply out-of-control political correctness. This argument itself is a microinvalidation” – Ruth Terry

Have you experienced any of these microaggressions in the workplace? Tune into our next post to learn more about microaggressions.