Unpacking Microaggressions | Kamau Consulting Group

Unpacking Microaggressions | Kamau Consulting Group

“Hey Kevin, so what size of pants do you wear?” said a former colleague who was my senior where everyone burst out in laughter with the exception of one woman who was in the room. I nervously laughed it off as this was all so confusing as I was not sure how I ended up being part of this conversation and most importantly, did not really know how to react. I very well knew what the loud laugh meant being the only Black guy in the room and chose not to respond. This was after a heated discussion between 2 senior leaders in the board room where they happened to be comparing `pant sizes’ after one of them suggested that the other wore `small pants’. I chose not to respond or engage however this gentleman pressed on. “Common Kevin, lighten up! You know the women like big pant sizes, right?” as he stared dead straight in the eye of the only woman in the room. I still remember the look on her face as she forced a smile and looked right back at me in the eye and in that moment, I could see as she sent signals of great discomfort from this while at the same time sending signals of acknowledgement from the harm that had been imposed on me. When that meeting ended that day, we both stayed back, and I personally apologized to her for the others’ behaviour. She was also kind enough to apologize for what I had also faced in that room.

What are microaggressions?

Dr. Kevin Nadal, a Psychology Professor termed “microaggressions as the everyday subtle, intentional and often-times unintentional interactions or behaviours that communicate some sort of bias towards historically marginalized groups”.  Microaggressions are simply everywhere in our lives and a common occurrence for anyone from a marginalized group be it gender, race, nationality, age, ability etc. People engaging in microaggressions may not be aware of them and for those receiving them, sometimes may not necessarily notice the microaggression at the onset. They may be funny and appear innocent that at times it could take the receiver a while before they finally realize the impact and by then, often at times it’s too late as the damage is already done. Microaggressions appear in many shapes or forms and could be verbal, non-verbal, gestures or setting where they convey to the receiver unfriendly, derogatory, or unwelcoming attitudes. The term microaggressions was first coined in the 70’s by Dr. Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard University Psychiatrist after he regularly witnessed insults and dismissals inflicted towards African-Americans from Non-Black Americans.

Dr. Derald Wing Sue, a psychologist from Columbia University went further to refine the concept of racial microaggressions in his 2007 published article, Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life, where he classified them into three racial transgressions which I have summarized below:

Microassaults: Conscious, explicit, intentional actions such as displaying a noose or swastikas.

Microinsults: Verbal or non-verbal communications that convey/ demean someone based on heritage like asking a Black person how they got their job or got into a school and if I may add, pant size.

Microinvalidations: Communications that dismiss someone’s lived reality such as questioning a woman’s report on unwelcome lewd behaviour by a male colleague or questioning a Black person’s actual racial experience.

Why do they exist?

Microaggressions are rooted in biases which largely form stereotypes. Stereotypes harbour racism. In a previous article that I wrote, Bias-Aware Leadership, I discuss biases at length by exploring the SEEDS Model ™. Biases come in all shapes and forms and is an inevitable part of the human brain. The mind works incredibly by categorizing things together and making connections to make it easier for us to choose between different options, then takes short cuts in order for us to make quick decisions. When faced with unfamiliar settings, the human mind will use these short cuts from widely applicable or misinformed associations such as stereotypes to inform decisions. 

This notion however only addresses the unconscious aspect of microaggressions. Some may argue that since we all have biases, then it’s not racism. The fact of the matter is that if marginalized groups were to hold biases against the dominant group, they would suffer great consequences and as such, there would be no incentive to engage in self-destruction. It would be foolish of me as a Black person to actively engage in bias against my white colleagues as the systemic power dynamics are different in my environment and as such, racially marginalized groups have little to no incentive to engage in racial microaggressions against the people advantaged by power dynamics. This notion would apply in all other settings. 

Racial stereotypes are pervasive and drive microaggressions. Being marginalized does not stop anyone from engaging in other microaggressions. I recently had an Indigenous woman say to me that I spoke such good English. I must say this was disappointing and corrected her. This was not the first time that I had received a microaggression from a person within the marginalized community. I have had quite a few scenarios from many marginalized communities and will discuss that in another article where I will highlight Anti-Black Racism.

Impact on the Individual

Microaggressions take a toll on the person receiving them and here are a few to reflect on:

Exclusion: Microaggressions result in the feeling of non-belonging. When someone hangs a noose, well, we all know what that means and it’s certainly not welcoming me with open arms. I recall a conversation where a White colleague had insisted on asking where this other gentleman was from during a work conference. He was convinced that the gentleman in question had an Asian ancestry and repeatedly made this suggestion. The gentleman in question was in fact Indigenous where he returned the favour by sharing his affiliation with his community where he was born and asking the White colleague where he really was from.

Mentally & psychologically draining: Marginalized communities face microaggressions on a constant basis and have to persistently prepare themselves mentally for what they are about to receive, and it does not end there, they also have to deal with it. I have had to endure the `looks’ when you walk into a room or environment where no one looks like you and at times, there is not much of a choice as it has been related to my work and on top of that when you get to share with others, they question or validate your experience.

Invalidation: Microaggressions nullify lived experiences leading to feelings of doubt and invalidation. Consider a situation where a woman is asked to validate a sexual assault occurrence or a colleague from the LGBTQ+ community being challenged to validate their experience.

Internalization: Microaggressions have the power to create feelings of doubt to a level where the recipient loses a sense of well-being in themselves and internalizes the message. I recall watching a documentary on BBC where this Biracial little girl who lived in a small town in the U.K had been bullied by her classmates about the colour of her skin. She lived with her grandmother who had growing concerns about the time she spent in the bathroom. One day, her grandmother came home only to find the door to the bathroom open and saw her granddaughter scrubbing herself so hard and noticed some visible marks and scars. When she asked her what she was doing, the little girl said that she was trying to scrub the black off her skin.

Impact on the Organization

Loss of productivity: As a result of some of the things that we have discussed on an individual level, you are bound to see some loss in productivity as a result of constant microaggressions as they inevitably create distrust among co-workers. If I have to constantly navigate psychological barriers & battles, then I cannot be as productive which simply affects the bottom line.

Lost sense of belonging: Microaggressions can be confusing and frustrating on the victim. We all want to be part of the team and in the moment of a light-hearted joke rooted on misinformed stereotypes, you will find the victims at times laughing along the aggressors just to fit in. This creates a lost sense of belonging to the victim as they’re torn between wanting to be part of the team (sometimes with no option as they really need that promotion or raise) and having to take the indignation in the chin. The result is someone who is fractured; yes, a part of the team but has zero trust for the rest of the team for things they have no liberty to share; a complete, lost, sense of belonging.

Toxic workplace: Microaggressions leveled against colleagues no matter how innocent they may appear result in toxic workplaces. Microaggressions slowly turn into verbal abuse, terrible attitudes and poor moods, lack of communication, rumor mills and the list goes on. With the growing distrust, everything turns into a political statement & everyone rolls their sleeves, and all hell breaks loose.

Loss of talent: We all thrive on positive reinforcement & hence why we all need psychologically safe environments to thrive. I cannot win if your actions/inactions/gestures all tell me that I have lost. Unfortunately, many Organizations continue to sit on untapped talent and goldmines as their actions, inactions, or gestures force those victimized by microaggressions to recluse into the background or simply exit the organization.

Breeding ground for all isms: Stereotypes are not accurate depictions of what the realities are. In fact, they are fallacies. When we allow people to engage in microaggressions, we are in fact allowing them to turn these fallacies into realities and let’s not be fooled, the victims often see the euphemism. Racism is racism and we cannot conveniently pick the good in the bad. Let’s consider a statue of a slave owner who is also considered a ‘founding father’. The very fact that an environment chooses to ignore what that symbol may represent to a Black or Indigenous person is in itself racism. This would be same for the workplace, when we choose to ignore or not take action, we create a breeding ground for all isms; racism, sexism, heterosexism, ageism, ableism, classism, and all other prejudices & forms of oppression that are damaging to all of us.

Confronting Microaggressions

Call them out: Microaggressions should be called out right away and unpacked. This provides the aggressor the chance to explain themselves while providing them a chance to reflect on their actions.

Seek to understand & not respond: When caught in the act, one should not be defensive. Pause and seek to listen and understand why someone may not necessarily appreciate your joke or statement. Fight the temptation to respond which is the natural remedy when many are called out.

Check your bias: Take time to identify the biases that you may harbour as a result of your upbringing and environment. We all have them. The fact that we are different means we will always have something new to learn. Do not allow your misinformed ideas to play out in your thoughts. Instead, try and replace them with a dedication to understanding `that’ you may be unfamiliar with.

Consider lived experiences: Walk a mile in someone’s shoes before you question their lived realities. It is offensive and marginalized groups have nothing to gain by their lived realities being misconstrued. It takes a lot of energy to speak up for any microaggression victim both emotionally & mentally.

Establish Accountability Measures: Organizations should establish sound accountability to discourage bad behaviour while encouraging good behaviour. Some may argue that it is unfair to penalize one for unintended behaviour. I argue that agreeing that bad behaviour is as it’s called out without repercussions will always yield the same result. I can guarantee we would see swift results if an Organization decided that for each microaggression leveled against an employee would be followed with a 1% raise for the victim & 1% salary reduction for the aggressor. That ought to change many minds. The bottom line is, we cannot just show levels of supporting the idea of a healthy workplace with no accountability measures in place.

Be an ally: We should all seek to rid ourselves of toxic people around us. Besides calling out microaggressions as they occur, be an ally and let’s support each other whenever we see it, hear it or observe it. Let’s engage in helping each other through continuous education and support to rid our societies of all types of microaggressions, and for the record, there is nothing `micro’ about them.

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