Updated: Sep 30, 2022
In light of May being Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) heritage month, we want to focus on an issue that commonly effects members of minority communities within organizations and our society at large- microaggressions. Microaggressions have become a hot topic of discussion in recent years due to the increase in hates crimes targeting the Asian American community and the resurgence of the BLM movement. Across America, employees, departments, and organizations are making steps towards better understanding how to address them and more importantly, how to eliminate their existence.
Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional behaviors, or statements that send an underlying message to minorities, typically to undermine or belittle their identity. Some examples include asking racial minorities "where they are really from" or telling them that “they speak good English”. The research to date, has noted that microaggressions often lead to negative outcomes for the person on the receiving end. They tend to be more stressed, less satisfied with their job, less committed to their job, and have increased depression and anxiety.
The difficulty with microaggressions is that they are often unintentional by the bystander, and so addressing microaggressions is harder when individuals do not realize when they commit microaggressions in general. As easily as we can learn how to navigate the use of Teams and online workspaces to adapt to the changing work environment, I believe that we can also begin to learn about microaggressions, how to identify them, how to address them, and how to phase them out from the workplace.
Arguably the hardest part is becoming in tune with microaggressions so that they aren’t just a part of conversations that we nod along with or are complacent in allowing them to pass. Being able to identify microaggressions requires an understanding of microaggressions and their underlying message that accompanies them. Identifying microaggressions is easier when individuals and organizations make the consistent effort to understand microaggressions, to be more present in conversations, and asking clarifying questions.
Microaggressions become more easily recognized the more we open up dialogues and increase awareness surrounding these situations. Often times, it doesn’t feel like a discriminatory comment to tell a Black woman to "calm down" or to ask an Asian colleague to bring fried rice to the company potluck, but by increasing awareness, we can begin to see that there is nothing wrong with others cultural communication styles, and that not all Asians eat, cook, and enjoy fried rice. The key here is to ensure that these statements do not passively float by us as they occur. To begin to identify microaggressions in the workplace, we have to take an active stance towards hearing these statements, rather than pretending they didn’t mean it, or didn’t say what we think they said.
Recently, Dr. Derald Wing Sue and colleagues developed a framework for interventions, specifically for microaggressions, termed microinterventions. Microinterventions are daily and informal statements, words, or behaviors that are designed to communicate to targets of microaggressions their value as a person, validate their experiences, support, and encourage them, and reassure them that they are not alone. Microinterventions are like a toolkit the employees can use to help show others the stereotype that they might be communicating, disarming the microaggression by expressing disagreement, educating others, or places to go to seek external interventions.
Arming employees with this toolkit can help them have words to use and say to express their disagreement with the microaggression in the moment. Many times, individuals aren’t sure what to do or what to say when they witness a microaggression. By giving employees the toolkit and explaining how it can be used can better prepare employees to be active allies in the workplace.
For organizations, it is important to create spaces where employees can feel safe in sharing their microaggression experiences. Giving employees a space to share their true thoughts and experiences will help employees feel less alone in their experiences and isolated. But organizations should take a step farther than creating safe spaces for employees to share microaggression experiences, but also reward individuals for their courage to share their experiences and follow through without defensiveness. Creating theses safe dialogues, being open to difficult conversations, and hearing employees allows for organizations to being to create a culture of safety. There should be avenues that organizations create for employees who experience microaggressions to be able to take in reporting the microaggression and places to seek support. Organizations need to be an active participant in identifying these experiences, resolving the conflict through learning, and setting metrics to decrease their future occurrence.
Phasing Out Microaggressions
As employees gain more comfort in using their toolbox in responding to microaggressions and organizations develop the systems to support individuals experience microaggressions, we can hope for a growing culture of safety and understanding in the workplace. When organizations begin to view microaggressions and training around unconscious biases as more than a one off diversity metric that can be checked off, and begin to treat microaggressions and unconscious biases as an ongoing unlearning and relearning process, we will hopefully, begin to see a phasing out of microaggressions in the workplace, the same way that overt discrimination and prejudice is no longer as prevalent, so too, can we hope that microaggressions and unconscious biases will one day also be a thing of the past.
Maybe reading this post makes you feel like it is a long uphill battle, but don’t panic! Big change takes time, and if you aren’t in a position to enact organizational-level change, know that you can make an impact as an ally by standing up for your coworkers. You can refuse to laugh at sexist and racist jokes as they come up in the workplace. You can ask Joe Smith why he asked Amy, the only Asian woman at the team lunch to split the bill and do the math. You can start creating change not only in your life, but also in those who work and live around you.
Julie Chen, M.A. is an IO & DEI consulting assistant at Mattingly Solutions and also a PhD candidate at the University of Akron. Learn more about and connect with her here.