How You Could Be Perpetuating Microaggressions at Work Without Realizing It

Even well-meaning colleagues could be guilty of these derogatory slights and insults on the job.

Diversifying the workplace is a long-overdue but continual goal for nearly every company. By 2032, people of color will account for the majority of America’s working class. But, in the progressive push to dismantle race and cultural barriers across industries from tech to politics, employers and employees can find themselves at a crossroads. As offices look to expand their workforce, we as workers must confront cultural and racial biases we may hold against others. Even when we’re well-meaning, as employees and employers we might at times make assumptions about our BIPOC colleagues.

As a Latina working in media, I’ve been confused with the only other Latina in the room, asked “Is this racist?” by a coworker when working on a writing project, and even asked if I was born in the United States while making get-to-know-you small talk with a new employee. I like to think that those I work with don’t mean to lump me in with my BIPOC colleagues and that asking if something sounds racist is a bid at learning allyship. But, while none of those instances sound or seem overtly racist, they highlight the unaddressed biases many of us have when it comes to race and culture. It also prompts a question that successful diversity and inclusion initiatives at work have often failed to answer:

  • Now that we have the “diversity” in our office, what do we do with it?
  • When you don’t know the answer, those assumptions can perpetuate into what’s called a “microaggression.”

What is a microaggression?

A microaggression is a derogatory slight or insult that’s directed at persons who are typically part of a historically marginalized group, explains Aisha Holder, PhD, clinical psychologist at Columbia Health. Her work centers on racial microaggressions and experiences of senior-level Black women in corporate America. Microaggressions are a way that you communicate bias, “and it can manifest in implicit ways or explicit ways,” she explains. There are different types of microaggressions a person can encounter—among them gender, sexual orientation, and microaggressions relating to religion. “Racial microaggressions would be derogatory slights or insults directed towards people of color,” she explains. “It is an experience that has existed for a very long time, but the idea of having language and being able to name it is more recent.”

As a scholar, she approaches the topic from a unique perspective: before pursuing a career in counseling, she was a vice president at JPMorgan Chase in the corporate training group as a facilitator and project manager. “Microaggressions occur below the level of awareness of really well-intentioned people,” she explains, “but that doesn’t mean that a person who is well-intentioned can’t engage in discriminatory behavior.”

How can a person “accidentally” perpetuate a microaggression?

In the wake of the George Floyd protests, 25-year-old Astrid Rhodes*, who identifies as Indian-American, found herself in an uncomfortable position while working at a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit. Her colleagues would ask her, “What should we be doing differently? What charities should we be donating to?” She wondered why they were asking her when Google is free. “Are you asking me because I’m a person of color, or are you asking me because I’m an employee and you actually care what I have to say?” asks Rhodes.

While co-workers may have seen the moment as a wake-up call to racism and been genuine in their intentions to support the Black community and BIPOC, it adds unwanted pressure on employees of color.

Holder describes moments like these as a “tension of invisibility and hyper-visibility,” where women like Rhodes are “very invisible in these workspaces, but then there’s a hyper-visibility where there’s a spotlight on them that often asks them to represent everyone that’s part of their group and be the spokesperson with the assumption that they represent a monolith group. “

“It’s subtle and implicit,” says Dr. Holder. “It’s disorienting and it’s confusing, and the recipient is left wondering ‘What’s happening here? Did that really happen? Is it me'”?

How racial microaggressions impact mental health and workplace performance

Painful, disappointing, frustrating, draining—these are all words that describe what it’s like to be on the receiving end of a microaggression. It has a cumulative effect on people’s mental health, says Holder, leading to elevated levels of depression and trauma among individuals. “When people are encountering microaggressions in multiple domains of their lives, that assault on the psyche and spirit, all of that over time carnally have a detrimental effect,” she adds.

The internationalization of negative stereotypes can also lead to feeling unworthy or powerless and lower self-esteem. “In the workplace, it has derailed careers that would have been otherwise successful,” she says. It stops employees from taking risks for fear of making mistakes and stops them from reaching out to colleagues, too. “We know that your relationships with your colleagues are critical to career advancement,” Holder reminds.

“After George Floyd was killed, a lot of think tanks and NGOs released or re-released statements talking about their commitment to diversifying the workplace,” explains Rhodes, “but when you look at the majority of think tanks in D.C., the only place that they’re only looking to diversify is the intern pool, and most of them don’t even pay their interns.” This is an example of an “environmental microaggression,” a lack of representation in the workplace which conveys a message for BIPOC of “you don’t belong, there isn’t a place for you,” says Holder.

Dispelling the “myth of meritocracy”

The idea that all groups have equal opportunity to succeed and that there’s an even playing field does not speak to the reality of all people, says Holder. “Think about when we are talking about someone’s performance. Could we be attributing success to that person based on unconscious biases we have about marginalized populations?” she asks.

It’s something that management and leadership training experts Johnathan and Melissa Nightingale, founders of Raw Signal Group, work to address when coaching professionals on how to become more effective leaders. “Too often, bosses give feedback to racialized employees that they would not give anyone else on the team,” they explain. “It’s vital for any boss to give their team feedback about how they’re doing against the expectations of their role, but feedback about grooming, attitude, and dress code tends not to be equally enforced. It’s the responsibility of every modern leader to get curious about how to do better.”

“Playing into that notion does not acknowledge that there’s systemic racism, there’s sexism that has existed, that impacts whether people excel in the workplace,” adds Holder. “If we’re blind to that, then we’re not really addressing some of those systemic issues that impact people’s lives.”

Who should be held accountable?

After the encounter with her colleagues, Rhodes felt unsettled but didn’t discuss the issue with her manager or a human resources representative. “I don’t know how they would have even taken it. I would feel uncomfortable bringing it up,” she explains. “I wouldn’t necessarily want to put my job in jeopardy, which I shouldn’t be worried about but I was, so I kind of just let it happen.”

“Every company wants to build a culture where their employees can thrive, but few have put in the work to make that a reality,” say the Nightingales. “Culture isn’t a vision statement or a motivational poster, it’s a sum of the last 10,000 interactions I’ve had at work and how they’ve made me feel,” they explain.

“Many leaders pretend that microaggressions don’t happen, or that they aren’t a big deal when they do. Those leaders often contribute to their staff feeling disrespected, by not intervening in the moment, and by not taking the complaint seriously,” the Nightingales have observed.

“But we work with thousands of leaders and many of them do see microaggressions happen. They know it’s not OK. But they freeze up, and wait to see if anyone else noticed or if the marginalized person in the room is going to address it.”

The Nightingales say that in these moments, all eyes are on the boss as everyone else in the room waits for a signal from leadership as to whether this behavior is acceptable in the workplace. “A leader saying something sends a message,” they remind, “and a leader saying nothing sends a message, too.”

What it takes to bring change

A lot of it begins with education, says Holder. “We have a responsibility to enhance our awareness of biases that we hold,” and understanding how those biases impact our interactions in the workplace is a life-long process. “Each of us has identities that can be privileged and marginalized at the same time—no one is immune to those kinds of things.”

“Every leader needs to get educated about microaggressions, instead of leaving marginalized employees to shoulder that burden,” the Nightingales add. “Look at whose voices are present in your life and whose are missing.”

The other key component is representation. What would it take for Rhodes to feel comfortable bringing this experience up to HR? “I would need to work in a workplace with more than a couple of people of color,” she says simply.

Next, learn how to respond when someone makes a racist comment.

*Some names and titles have been changed to protect privacy.


For more on this important issue, see our guide to the Fight Against Racism.

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