Microaggressions: Check Yourself

This post is part of a four-part collaboration between authors Marjie and Bella.

In our previous two posts, we reviewed microaggressions in the workplace and why it’s difficult for the recipients of microaggressions to fight them on their own. In this post, we’re going to explore four actions to help identify if you are a perpetrator of microaggressions. We’ve also included ideas from Forbes, Harvard Business Review, and National Public Radio in this list below.

“A persistent daily low hum of racist abuse is not minor. I use the term ‘abuse’ because aggression is not as exacting a term. Abuse accurately describes the action and its effects on people: Distress, anger, worry, depression, anxiety, pain, fatigue, and suicide.” – Ibram X. Kendi

1. Introspect

Whether you are someone who frequently or infrequently is the subject of microaggressions, you should take a moment to review some of your own biases. One easy way to check your bias is to take the bias tests available at Project Implicit by Harvard University.

Another way to check your own bias is to question when you are feeling uncomfortable around a person. Is it perhaps because of your own bias? Do you have proof that your assumptions about their character are verified personality traits?

2. Learn

Even if you feel aware of the biases out there and the biases you have, it is always good to educate yourself on issues around stereotyping. This does not mean that you should assume your friends who are part of marginalized groups have the time or emotional energy to teach you about bias. Instead, there are many books, blogs, and essays you can read — as well as podcasts you can listen to — if you want to educate yourself.

If you are in a management or leadership role in your office, you can further support this by providing your staff with opportunities to learn more about microaggressions and bias. You could provide examples of various microaggressions and explain why they are harmful. You could also provide opportunities for bias training or book clubs.

3. Think before you speak

Consider the following before describing someone or asking them a personal question.

  • How much do I really know about this person?
  • What groups (e.g., gender, ethnicity, education, age, relationship status, parental status, immigrant status) do I assume they are in? What are my assumptions about those groups?
  • Could what I am about to say about/to this person be coming from my stereotypes about the groups I assume they part of? Am I perpetuating harmful stereotypes about this person?

4. How to react to being called out

Lastly, it’s important to know that many people, even people in marginalized groups, can fall into patterns of stereotypical thinking — even about people within their own marginalized group. This means there’s a chance you’ll get called out for perpetuating microaggressions in your office!

If this happens, here are some things you can do:

  1. Own your feelings
    Heck, it’s embarrassing to be called out for doing something wrong when discrimination isn’t involved. Your knee-jerk emotional response to being called out might include shame, anger, or sadness. Feel free to process these emotions, but don’t take them out on the person identifying your microaggression.
  2. Don’t get defensive
    The person identifying your microaggression isn’t the one who messed up; you are! Instead of being defensive, listen to what they are saying and try to understand their experience. Remember, it doesn’t matter what your intent was. What’s more important is the impact your words had.
  3. Apologize for what you said, once
    It’s important to apologize if you hurt someone’s feelings or said something untrue and hurtful about them. That said, you should only apologize once. It is not the job of the person identifying your microaggression to make you feel better or less ashamed. Do not resurface the incident to them again, as this is putting unfair emotional labor on them for your mistake.
  4. Commit to change
    Commit to understanding this bias and no longer perpetuating it. You may want to consider reviewing other biases you might have about this group of people, or doing additional self-education on this topic.

Think back on some times you were the perpetrator of a microaggression. What was your underlying bias? What would you do differently now?

Tune in to our next post to learn concrete tactics to fight microaggressions in your workplace.