How to Spot a Microaggression

For a large proportion of the population the term microaggressions may well be something that you have not heard of or have heard banded around but are not sure what it means. I would expect however that especially for many people of colour, people with a disability and people from the LGBTQ+ community the word is far more prevalent. Interestingly though many of us will have all experienced a microaggression in our lives but may not even realise it. Microaggressions can be verbal, behavioural, or environmental and cover race, gender, age, sexual orientation, Socioeconomic class, disability, and religion.

A lot of the time the perpetrator of the microaggression has no intention of causing offence or hurt. People are often unaware of how their words or actions, impact the recipient, whose experiences will differ so much from their own. This does not mean that being unaware is an excuse or free card to perpetrate these beliefs or behaviours, it is about educating yourself and your workforce. There are three categories of microaggression most being subtle such as microinsults and microinvalidations, with the third being microassults which are not subtle in their delivery and cannot be seen to be done unconsciously

The term microaggressions was originally penned by a Harvard Professor, Chester M Pierce to refer to black people and the daily prejudice, insults, and slights that they faced in the 1970’s. In 2007 a professor of psychology revived it to cover all different minority groups. Recently it has been highlighted and spoken about both by academics, the press and various HR experts following the death of George Floyd which sparked the campaign ‘Black Lives Matter’ in 2020.

Psychologist Sue W Derald, author of “Microaggressions in Everyday Life”, defines microaggressions as, “The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of colour, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalised, experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.”

When I look back on my career with one employer, I can indeed as a women relate to being a victim of all three types of microaggressions by both my fellow peers and customers.  I found myself in a senior management position in a sector that was predominantly white males, selling a product that back then was targeted at men and to a degree even now is still a very male orientated sector. When I first joined, I thought I had walked into some ‘old boys club’ and was not only subjected to sexist comments but the behaviour and interactions or so called ‘banter’ were just simply inappropriate and unacceptable. I will always remember one year at the works Christmas party being told by a male colleague “well I know you are good at your job, but I can’t help think it’s because the directors all want to ****, that you got your promotion”. Shocking I know but this was the everyday culture at the time. I was seen as the little women that was only getting somewhere within the business because of how I looked rather than my actual capability to do my job effectively!

The other week I popped into a retail store as a customer and heard a couple of colleagues joking about a customer surname and commenting on about how they didn’t know how to pronounce the name so they could let them know their product was mended and ready to collect. I just thought why they didn’t ask the customer when they dropped off their item how to pronounce their name or google how to pronounce it, thus showing a willingness to want to understand and educate themselves to make that customer feel included.

We spend such a large part of our time at work that for people who are subjected to these microaggressions daily, it can over time, not only affect their mental health and well-being but also their physical health too. Microaggressions usually emerge from our deeply rooted biases against those who are different from us and often stem back to our up-bringing. Often people do not even realise they have these biases until they come face-to-face with them in a conversation or confrontation. We are all human and so are not perfect and often make mistakes, but it is about understanding how we choose to respond once we’re made aware of our biases and the ways they manifest themselves as microaggressions.

Microaggressions happen everywhere, including at work and I have written a training session to help highlight and educate people on what they are, some specific examples and recommendations to help tackle them within the workplace as part of an equality, diversity, and inclusion initiative. If you are interested in joining me for one of my sessions register your interest on CPD on-line. The first virtual training session will be kickstarting on the 15th of June, book your place today. 

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