What is a microaggression? A microaggression is a subtle behavior that ostracizes or otherwise negatively affects the members of marginalized groups. Oftentimes these actions are deemed “harmless” because they are often small issues, but over time these issues can add up and cause larger problems down the line.
In the workplace microaggressions can be behavioral, environmental, or verbal. All of these types of microaggressions can be not overtly obvious, and because of this, be difficult to pinpoint and address.
Here, we will dive into some different types of microaggressions, how we can react to them, and ways of coping with these common workplace behaviors.
There are different categories of microaggressions — especially in the workplace. The three most common of these categories are microassaults, microinsults, and microinvalidations.
Each of these types of microaggressions can have lasting effects on your ability to feel like you belong and are accepted within your workspace or any other community.
A microassault is a form of criticism that is intentionally done to discredit a group of people (oftentimes a marginalized group of people). This may include belittling or bullying, indirect put-downs, slurs, posting offensive symbols, and other offensive language or actions.
Anything that signals to a group of people that they are undervalued, inferior, and/or deserving of mistreatment can be classified as a microassault.
A microinsult is a type of microaggression that sees the target as an exception to the stereotype of an unrespected group. These instances are usually seen as a compliment in the eyes of the person saying it, but it is, in reality, a direct insult to the target. Oftentimes the person who has said the microinsult does not recognize that they have insulted the target because they are unaware of their own unconscious biases or prejudices.
In other words, a microinsult is a misguided “complement” that uses stereotypes as a baseline that informs the prejudices of the person who is offering the “compliment.”
This last category of common microaggressions is microinvalidations. Basically, a microinvalidation is a statement or action that brushes off the experiences of members of historically marginalized groups. These dismissals are very common when a member of one of these groups is advocating for change or expressing their own challenges with being a member of a marginalized group in society.
Oftentimes people who did not experience similar situations will discredit and may even laugh at these individuals who are coming forward. One common example of microinvalidation is the phrase “I don’t see color.” While someone may be trying to use this in a way to say that they do not discriminate because of color, really what they are doing is denying the experiences and identity of the person they are talking to.
Reacting to Microaggressions
According to the Harvard Business Review, there are three main ways that we can react to microaggressions. These are letting it go, responding immediately, and responding later.
Let It Go
This approach, of simply ignoring the offensive comments or actions of coworkers (and employers), was the most commonly used response for a long time. Unfortunately, in the long run, this approach simply leads to many employees questioning if they are right to feel offended and wondering why these situations are happening to them.
This method of ignoring can also actually reinforce the beliefs of many majority groups that marginalized groups are not worthy of the same respect as they are in the workplace.
This approach is a great way to call out any inappropriate behavior or language when the situation is still fresh in the minds of everyone involved. However, have you ever noticed that when you are in the heat of the moment — in an argument or otherwise stressful situation — both you and those around you are more likely to get defensive and not listen? Essentially this is the risk of this approach.
When you call something out immediately, there is a much higher chance that the person, or people, who are instigating the issue and causing the offense will get defensive and turn the situation around into another stereotype or poor reflection on the person who was being targeted in the first place. So, it is important to approach this method with caution and ensure that you are working to solve the issue, not make it worse.
This final approach is waiting until a later time to address the person who delivered the microaggression in a more private manner. Basically, for this approach, you wait until the situation has subsided and pull the perpetrator aside to explain to them why what they did or said was offensive to you.
While this can be a much more gentle way of handling the situation — making it much less likely to result in defensiveness — because it is after the fact, you can run into the issue of being too late to properly fix the behavior. This method runs the risk of getting yourself labeled as “petty” or “holding on to things” rather than helping you to solve the problem.
Now, each of these approaches has its own benefits and drawbacks, and because of this, it is important to know that there is a time and place for each of these approaches. The hard part is knowing which one to use when.
How to Cope with Microaggressions
The unfortunate truth is microaggressions are a commonplace in many places of work. But, just because they happen to many of us, does not mean that we need to just sit back and take them. There are healthy ways to cope with and address these microaggressions so that you do not lose sight of your own value.
Oftentimes people who are delivering microaggressions may not even be aware that they are being offensive. This is no excuse for them to say or do what they are doing that is offensive, but, it can be extremely helpful to contact your trusted peers and loved ones for support when you have experienced an action that makes you feel alienated or uncomfortable.
Our loved ones can help us find solutions and more than anything they can help us continue to love ourselves and our beliefs — even if others do not.
Recognize Your Own Value
Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Even if you have worked with someone for the past decade, went to high school with them, and lived in the same neighborhood as kids, they will not be able to know you better than you know yourself.
No one else can tell you who you are and who you should be — especially not if they are basing that decision on stereotypes and prejudices.
Write Down Your Thoughts
Writing things down can be an extremely helpful tool in getting us to understand the feelings we are experiencing. In the case of microaggressions, writing down our thoughts can help us to understand how the situation has affected us and see how others may perceive this same issue.
Address the Situation Head-On
No one says that you need to just take it and smile anytime someone says or does something that makes you feel uncomfortable or alienated from your colleagues. Confronting the person who has delivered the microaggression to you can be a great way to address the situation. It is very possible that the person who offended you was not aware that what they were saying was not meant to be offensive.
It can be hard to tell, of course, whether people are intentionally being cruel or accidentally being cruel — especially when we do not know their life experiences. But, regardless of the intention, if what they said has made you feel uncomfortable, confronting them in a professional manner can help you to solve the situation before it can continue to pile on and create a much more complicated problem down the line.
Go to HR
You do not have to face the issue on your own. Many businesses want to help ensure that all of their employees feel safe and respected within their community. You can create an appointment with a HR representative to help you find a way to address the issue and resolve the situation in a way that benefits everyone.
Talk to a Therapist
If you are unsure of how to best handle a situation that is making you feel uncomfortable or you are simply getting tired of trying to deal with the feelings you are experiencing on your own, seeking help from a professional therapist can be an excellent option. Therapists are trained to help their patients address the problems they are having in life and they can be an excellent resource as well as a great person to talk to and confide in if you just want to get some feelings off of your chest.
So, if you are experiencing a lot of microaggressions at work and are unsure of how to address them or you’re simply looking for an outlet for your feelings, please do not hesitate to reach out to us at Love Heal Grow. We know that the workplace can be a difficult place to navigate but you do not have to navigate it alone.