What exactly is a microaggression?
The term microaggression describes an experience of verbal or behavioural humiliation to communicate hostile, derogatory or negative attitudes towards stigmatised or culturally marginalised groups.
Microaggressions are often discussed in relation to race, yet anyone in a marginalised group can be a victim of a microaggression, as a result of someone’s gender, sexual orientation, disability or religion.
Incidents can include everyday comments, put downs and hidden jokes occurring both intentionally and unintentionally.
Recognising microaggressions is key to creating an inclusive environment where people from all backgrounds feel comfortable at work and a sense of belonging.
Understanding what microaggressions are and how people communicate them helps others recognise and correct their behaviour.
The impact of microaggressions on racial trauma
Don’t let the terminology fool you, no matter how “micro” the aggression or subtle the form of discrimination, it can still have large consequences and trigger incidents of trauma.
For many, microaggressions are so commonplace, it can seem as if tackling them will not solve anything, especially facing other more direct forms of discrimination, it can be tempting to ignore microaggressions.
Yet the build-up of these everyday slights can have serious consequences on someone’s mental health that should not be overlooked, and may lead to increased anxiety, depression or stress, particularly in the workplace.
Race based stress just like post traumatic stress may not be one big traumatic event. But, a build-up of lots of smaller events from discrimination or microaggressions.
The accumulation of racially motivated stressful incidents or feelings of invalidation can result in people refraining from talking about their pain and leave them feeling that they just need to live with it.
These microaggressions can lead to the individual from the marginalised community feeling as if they are ‘the other’ which can be a painful and very lonely experience.
Therefore, we need to make a conscious effort to acknowledge microaggressions and deal with them in our social circles or workplaces.
When & how to respond to microaggressions in the workplace?
The first step in addressing a microaggression is identifying that one has occurred.
For the person who committed the microaggression, it can be hard to be self-reflective or consider the negative parts of yourself.
When these occurrences do occur, it is essential to consider who may have felt left out or offended by a comment you made.
The recipient may have already been in a vulnerable place or hurting from the accumulation of microaggressions, strengthening the consequences of your actions.
Often what should follow the recognition of a microaggression is education of how these comments can affect those impacted and the learning of how to be more mindful of future comments and actions.
A step that is often easier said than done, because the person who committed the microaggression may not even be aware that it occurred.
Examples of microaggressions include;
Someone commenting on how a British Asian speaks such good English
A colleague touching or commenting on a black female colleague’s hair without invitation
Someone commenting on a person of colour’s cultural values
Dealing with racially motivated microaggressions in the workplace is likely to involve having difficult conversations around race and white privilege, but it is important for these conversations to occur.
In the event of a microaggression, leaders should consider how inclusive their work environment is, to assess whether more of an effort needs to be done to make employees from marginalised communities feel comfortable.
Inclusion, like privilege, is invisible, you cannot physically see inclusion or belonging to a workplace. Nevertheless, fostering a sense of belonging in the workplace is key to creating an inclusive and diverse environment where employees feel safe to open up about microaggressions.
Resolving microaggressions is not the victim’s responsibility
It is important for those affected to remember that the role of educating others in the workplace is not their responsibility.
The burden of responding to microaggressions unfortunately often falls on the victims.
Responding to a microaggression takes courage, because it often involves challenging the behaviours of others.
Therefore, it should only be questioned if the person affected by the microaggression feels comfortable with going over what was done and the wider implications.
Individuals from marginalised communities should put their mental health first and focus on self-care.
Drawing boundaries and finding support amongst allies in your workplace can be useful to deal with the impact of microaggressions.
Talking is key to help facilitate the coping process.
Look after yourself after an incident open up by talking with a few close friends, a mental health professional or someone you feel comfortable with to help you to cope with your experiences.
If you would like to support your employees to increase awareness of Race & Mental Health download our Race & Mental Health Toolkit