Microaggressions - death by a thousand cuts
Updated: Jul 6
What are microaggressions?
The term was first defined by Harvard University professor Chester Pierce to describe behaviours he observed towards black people back in the 1970’s. Today’s leading researcher on the topic – Derald Wing Sue, a professor at Colombia University, has defined it as "brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of colour."
He has gone on to revise this definition to include all people who are different from the mainstream (women, LGBTQ, people with disabilities, etc. etc), as he acknowledges these behaviours often impact them as well.
Let’s consider this in a workplace setting. The unintended MA can sometimes begin as an intended complement, (other times not), but always serves to remind the recipient of their ‘otherness’, that they’re not part of the mainstream group and that essentially they do not belong.
Where MicroAggressions Come From
Going beyond the surface, perhaps you could consider: most microaggressions are not intended negatively, but are the inadvertent expressions of norms and assumptions internalised by most people, very early on in life. We all understand and accept that unconscious bias is a necessary part of the human condition. At a very basic level, it saves your life every day. We have learnt to recognise danger in an instant, and from short signals, we draw life saving conclusions. The sound of an oncoming car stops us from stepping into the street – we don’t need to think about it.
We also make judgements about people in an instant (by some reports, one tenth of a second) on all aspects of physical appearance, and very significantly here in the UK – on accents. The criteria for what is acceptable and/or aspirational are set early: from family norms and traditions, and the huge influence of celebrities, public figures and the mass media.
The point is that subliminal and very powerful attitudes and biases are struck early and laid deep, and if they remain unquestioned or unchallenged, they inform everything. We’re all socialised to accept the ‘normalness’ of the features of the mainstream group. That’s how cultures and societies work. As a result, if confronted, people can feel quite aggrieved as they do not recognise the hostile intention being attributed to them. If called out, the response can often be “Don’t be so sensitive! I didn’t mean any harm!”
In fact, Wing Sue and his research colleagues have documented the long term damage to health that is incurred by people who are on the receiving end of microaggressions over a long period of time. Psychological as well as physical damage, due to prolonged periods of being ‘othered’, of never experiencing the calm that comes with a sense of belonging and of always being ‘on the lookout’, alert to the next barb or attack, that chips away at psychological well being, ensures a chronic flow of cortisol and other hormones that damage the health of the individual.
Choosing our Responses
So where to next? You’ve made a remark with no malice intended and someone from an under-represented group feels hurt or marginalized and they let you know it. At the same time, you’re feeling aggrieved! How can you move forward?
Ideally, you both recognize that there’s a relationship between you that’s bigger than the incident which may have just played out. It’s an important assessment to make before launching a response. Judgement is useful – not every microaggression should or can be successfully followed up.
Ideally, the recipient of the MA, stays calm, and chooses the right feedback moment. It raises the awkward factor, if the feedback is offered in the middle of a meeting (especially with an ‘audience’). Finding the right time and space is important, and keeping emotions in check, they may convey why what was said or done created a problem. Often, inference is involved, and you may be tempted to think or say that the person is adding more to the meaning than was intended.
This is tricky, but it’s important to resist the temptation to dismiss the offence taken (“don’t be such a snowflake” and similarly unhelpful terms won’t work here). If you are keen on building the relationship, demonstrate your openness to listen and learn and invite the person to explain how the offence was caused. Done sincerely, this already starts to lay the groundwork for moving forward. At that stage, it’s important to stay calm and listen to the explanation and acknowledge the feelings being expressed. If the person explains why what you’ve said or done led to a feeling of marginalisation or ‘otherness’ and that they ‘do not belong’; accept that this has been painful and difficult and that it can undermine that person’s ability to do their their best work. At that point, you’re starting to build real empathy – a powerful commodity for the relationship you’re building.
Keep in mind that it’s your behaviour and not you that’s being called out and that by raising it at all, the person is signalling that the relationship you have going forward is important and they’re willing to invest in it. It may not feel like it – but this is more positive than nothing being said!
So how best to manage your own emotions through this phase? One piece of advice is: stay calm as you feel yourself getting defensive, even if at first you probably can’t recognise the offence being attributed to you. Keeping emotions in check, pay the person the courtesy of listening to their explanation, and be careful not to tell them how they should feel. Keep in mind that there is a bigger picture – of the two of you working together in future – and focus on building the relationship that you can have going forward. Avoid taking the feedback as a comment on you as a person, but see it as a conversation about a specific behaviour and the feeling it led to in your colleague. You may find it difficult to accept the claim of hurt feelings, as you may have said/done similar things in the past which were never brought up. Nevertheless, try to stay in the moment with your colleague, connect with their earnestness and acknowledge the risk they have taken in sharing this with you – it’s easy for them to be dismissed in addition to being hurt. Bear in mind also, that the real damage of microaggressions is in their cumulative nature. It’s usually not one act that devastates a person, but it’s the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ or the last straw that breaks the camel’s proverbial back!
We take participants through scenarios like this in our leadership development workshops. They walk through the theory, role play their responses and plan their support systems and specific actions to take back to the workplace.
How have you dealt with microaggressions in the past? Have you had similar encounters or never had to manage this type of thing? What worked for you? What would you advise?