12.5 Understanding Microaggressions to Improve Organizational Climate

“Yea, but where are you really from?”

“I don’t see color. I treat everyone equally”

“Why would I hire a woman if she is just going to get pregnant?”

“You’re being too sensitive. Not everything is about race.”

Take a moment to read and consider these statements. Do any of these phrases sound familiar? Do any of them make the hair on the back of your neck stand up? Each of these comments demonstrates subtle forms of bias that demean groups such as immigrants, racial minorities, and women, who have a history of marginalization in the United States.

Some of you may be thinking some of these statements are obviously problematic. It is illegal to discriminate against women for their general capacity to become pregnant. But some statements, such as the statement, “I treat everyone equally,” may be more difficult to recognize as hiding forms of bias. So to understand why all of these statements, which can be classified as microaggressions, had the effect of embarrassing, frustrating, and flat-out insulting the parties they were directed to, let us take a closer look a what microaggressions are. This section will be focusing mostly on racial microaggressions but will also touch upon microaggressions levied to non-racially-based identities. We will discuss common microaggressions and how to recognize them; the effect they may have on people and workplace climate; and finally how perpetrators of microaggressions can attempt to change their behavior so as to better respond to the needs of increasingly diverse work environments.

Forms of Bias

The first thing we need to recognize is that no one is immune from social conditioning that tells us to value groups and ways of life differently. It is a process identifiable in any society but it does not mean that the outcomes of that social conditioning are unchangeable or what we are conditioned to believe is “natural.” What IS and ISN’T racism and discrimination is a significant social and political conversation in the United States but few of us have received specific training on how to have difficult conversations on these topics. As a consequence, many of us fear these conversations, think they are not allowed, assume they negatively affect relationships, attempt to avoid them, or dismiss them quickly when they occur. Furthermore, this aversion to talking about the “isms” such as racism and sexism, in a truly inclusive way with people who hold a variety of opinions, has led many to think if one just attempts to treat everyone the same way, they can avoid discriminating against others and being labeled, specifically, “a racist.”

Forms of overt racism, such as using racial stereotypes as evidence of racial inferiority are easy to spot. It is the subtle and contemporary forms of bias that occur in everyday conversation that are focused on in this section. We can refer to these actions as the outcomes of “aversive racism” (Sue, 2010). Aversive racism is difficult for people to recognize in themselves because aversive racists often sympathize with victims of past injustice, support principles of racial equality, and genuinely regard themselves as non-prejudiced, but at the same time they possess conflicting, often unconscious, negative feelings and that promote racial bias. They would never consciously discriminate and believe in an egalitarian way of life. Egalitarian values may seem contrary to racism but an overreliance on egalitarianism can deny groups’ unique experiences that have situated them as disadvantaged or marginalized in areas of society.

For example, a study that examined data from public schools in Boston and New York City found girls of color, and especially black girls, were subjected to harsher and more frequent discipline, and were six times more likely to be suspended than their white female peers (Bates, 2015). One can imagine how these conditions would make it so obtaining a high school diploma was more challenging for black girls than their white peers or more so yet, white students enrolled in private high schools in the suburbs of those same cities.

In addition, aversive racists may over-emphasize differences and attempt to project their acceptance of them (Sue, 2010). For example, one might be excited to have a foreign, person of color in their otherwise domestic white, employee pool. Always going to this person, however, to speak as a representative of their race and country focuses on how they are different than others, even an outsider, and can make them feel as if other elements of their personality and professional ability are not valued. In other words, they have been reduced to an exemplar of their race and nationality, rather than a unique person.

As previously mentioned, one may find it uncomfortable to confront the topic of racism at work (Sue, 2010). Some additional reasons why this may be the case for individuals in the white majority are because they may fear realizing their own bias and admitting to and confronting their racial privilege. They may fear being perceived as racist/sexist/etc. and/or think they do not have the right to talk about minority issues because they themselves are not a minority. All of these elements compound the fear of taking action against injustices.

Taking a more contextualized approach to microaggression in the workplace, in addition to the fears mentioned previously, managers and supervisors may fear taking action against microaggressions in their workplaces because they fear an inability to recognize microaggressions or deal with intense emotions (their own and subordinates) (Sue, 2010). They may also fear losing control of the workspace, personal failure, or feeling incompetent in managing discussions or relationships.

Conceptualizing Microaggressions

So what is a microaggression? Microaggressions are verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights, often automatic and unintentional, which occur in brief instances on a daily basis (Sue, 2010). They communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative viewpoints but as mentioned before, the perpetrator is probably unaware that they are offending. You’ll be presented with common microaggressions in a moment to help you recognize if you have been hearing them or are in the habit of using them.

If we are going to try to disrupt the use of macroaggressions in the workplace, and anywhere else in our lives, we need to be aware of how these communication interactions typically go. First, when a microaggression occurs there is a clash of realities between the perpetrator of the microaggression and the target or targets. The perpetrator is often unaware they have done anything wrong or even when it becomes evident the other party has been disturbed by what is said the perpetrator sees the macroaggression as a minor slight so “no big deal.”

The target may think they lose if they say something as well as lose if they do not say something (Sue, 2010). If they do confront the perpetrator, this may result in negative consequences such as being berated that they are being too sensitive, or more aggressive forms of discrimination or punishment. Sometimes, there is even just the concern that if something is said the target will be labeled a “complainer” or others may limit interaction with them so as to avoid future confrontations. Conversely, if the target does nothing about the macroaggressions, they will continue, and have to endure the frequent diminishment of their identities. Not a pleasant situation either way.

Perpetrators of microaggressions might think their comments are not “a big deal” and that people are too sensitive. The “drops in a bucket” metaphor will help you see microaggressions in a different way if that thought is going through your mind at this point. One microaggression alone probably will not have devastating effects, but there are varying degrees of microaggressions, which we will consider in a moment. What is more important to keep in mind, however, is that targets will never experience just one microaggression. They experience them throughout their lives. One drop in the bucket may not have a significant effect but people may be carrying buckets filled to the brim with drops from well-meaning but uninformed individuals, or worse, drops from those who have intentionally attempted to hurt, insult and oppress them.

In a more visceral description of what it is like to be the target of microaggressions, Gurnham Singh, a lecturer in social work in the UK, explained microaggressions are “like death by a thousand cuts. When you experience them all the time, those microaggressions have a cumulative effect.”

Microassults, Microinsults, and Microinvalidations

The most injurious microaggression is the microassult (Sue, 2010). These are easier to spot because they are overt, deliberate, conscious, and explicit. The intention is to hurt, oppress, or discriminate against others.

Some examples of these on college campuses might be an unspoken policy to refuse students of color admission into certain fraternities or sororities. Or, when someone says “That’s so gay!” to connote that something is weird or disagreeable. In this example, the person is aware of the words that they choose; however, they may not think that using such language is considered homophobic and offensive because the exclamation is, unfortunately, so common.

The other two lesser categories are microinsults and microinvalidations (Sue, 2010). They are, again, often unintentional and typically occur due to underlying biases and prejudices outside of awareness.

Microinsults convey insensitivity, are rude, or demean an individual’s identity or heritage (Sue, 2010). For example,  in 2015, The University of Louisville apologized after President James Ramsey was criticized for a photo in which he and other university staffers were depicted at a Halloween party wearing stereotypical “Mexican” costumes with sombreros and large false mustaches and beards (Kenning, 2015). This act was criticized as treating Mexicans are costumes instead of people. A children’s costume from the Disney film Moana brought on similar criticism (Stevens, 2016). A brown, tattooed bodysuit turned skin into a costume. This culturally insensitive costume was pulled from sale, demonstrating the financial cost of this type of insensitivity.

Another example is when a person might tell an Asian American that she or he “speaks good English” as a compliment. However, in reality, such a statement can be offensive, implying that Asian persons, as a group, do not speak clearly. Instances like these can be especially upsetting to Asian Americans who do not speak any other language besides English, or whose families have been in the US for generations.

Microinvalidations exclude, negate, or nullify an individual’s thoughts or feelings (Sue, 2010). For example, some contend that everyone in the United States is given the equal opportunity to succeed and be anything they want to be–this is the “American Dream.” These comments paint people’s experiences with discrimination as untrue and insignificant. Similarly, when someone tells a woman that she is “being too sensitive” when she asks not to be called a “girl” in the workplace, or that an LGBT person should “stop complaining” when state education or health forms refuse to change language to accept families with same-gender parents, they invalidate the reality of discrimination in these people’s lives.

For a closer look at common types of microaggressions and the messages they send, access the following tool from the University of California Santa Cruz: Recognizing Microaggressions and the Messages They Send

Effects of Microaggressions

So what are the realized consequences of drops in the bucket, what does a death by a thousand cuts look like? Studies have demonstrated that microaggressions can cause individuals to have high levels of anxiety, depression, diminished confidence, feelings of helplessness and a loss of drive (Sue, 2010). These consequences are very real and very rotten. It is unsurprising then that a person feeling this way, having put up with or confront microaggressors, may choose to exit the situation. In a workplace, this could mean disengaging with coworkers and duties, taking additional leave or even quitting a job.

When people experience the previously mentioned psychological consequences, their workplaces are impacted (Sue, 2010). You may see disengagement, and turnover, as previously mentioned as well as low productivity, and poor leader-member relationships, all of which cultivate a poor and unwelcoming workplace culture and climate. Reputations form and spread and applicants from minority groups may be difficult to recruit.

Now that you have an understanding of what a microaggression is and why they are harmful, click this link to review common categories of microaggressions and their examples. You will likely have heard statements that fit multiple categories.

When You Are The Perpetrator

Now that you have a vocabulary to describe and identify microaggressions, here are some ways you can try to prevent microaggressions in the workplace as well as in other areas of your life (Nadal, 2014).

  1. Recognize that dismissive attitudes are harmful but often unintentional.
  2. Engage in self-reflection. Admit to yourself when you did something that could offend and commit to bettering your interactions.
  3. Identify those you feel comfortable discussing issues with (e.g., family members, coworkers, mentors) to check in on your communication and behavior.
  4. As you interact with others, avoid making assumptions and labeling individuals.
  5. Participate in continuing educational activities such as taking college courses on diversity and inclusion or ask your human resources offices about upcoming workshops.

If you detect that you may have committed a microaggression, perhaps an individual winced or clearly reacted negatively–take responsibility. It is important to admit when we commit microaggressions, learn from the wrongdoing, apologize, and do better.

If someone confronts you, listen to what they are trying to tell you and try not to be defensive. Do not deny that another is hurt or offended otherwise you invalidate their experience, which would be considered an additional microaggression. We cannot change how others feel but we can understand how we have influenced their feelings. In a workplace situation, you have little to lose by modifying your communication to avoid offense. You may be familiar with the “Golden Rule” of “treat others as you would like to be treated” but in a business situation, the rule is often modified to “treat others as they want to be treated.”

When You Are The Target Or An Ally

We may try to prevent microaggressions but since they are often unconscious slights, we need to prepare ourselves to respond when we recognize a microaggression has been perpetrated against us or others (Nadal, 2014). Some individuals may respond passive aggressively as a way to communicate they are upset or annoyed, or actively by perhaps venting anger. Individuals can also react in an assertive way and address how the microaggression made them feel with the perpetrator.

  1. Remember that offense was probably not the intent and if we are upset we can take a moment to re-center ourselves.
  2. Choose to speak to the microaggressor privately and maybe enlist the help of a supervisor or human resources representative. Depending on the relationship with the perpetrator, it might also be appropriate to discuss what was said immediately and in front of others to correct the behavior immediately.
  3. Describe the incident objectively and state your feelings to avoid blaming or judging.
  4. Be direct in your communication so that the offense is unambiguous.
  5. If the perpetrator denies having been offensive, determine if further conversation will be beneficial and productive. If this happens, human resources or third-party intervention may help.
  6. Be open to their expression of feelings to engage in a two-way conversation.


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Introduction to Professional Development Copyright © 2022 by Rachel Dolechek & Rose Helens-Hart is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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