Microaggressions and How to Manage Them When They Occur
Microaggressions - a term that can send an electric shockwave of contention through any environment. As one of the top hot-button topics over the last few years, just the mere mention brings people to immediate attention, combat-ready. Though for this combat, both parties play a different defensiveness. One person is accusing another of committing a microaggression, though they wouldn’t be in an offensive attacking posture because they are essentially speaking up for themselves - defending themselves.
Then in the other corner, the person being accused becomes defensive of the accusation because, with microaggressions, they’re defined by them being unintentional or done unknowingly.
What typically results is an automatic fight with everyone pointing fingers at each other. But if we sincerely want to resolve workplace conflict and foster an environment of understanding, communication, and safety, we must develop a well-rounded understanding of what microaggressions are and how to handle them when they occur- whether you are the offending or defending sides it can be both a triggering experience.
This new wave of hot-button topics has shifted us in a place of being much more impact over intention oriented. More often than not, the intention behind a microaggression is not to demean, characterize or stereotype, but it is often the impact. Anyone- of all identities- is capable of upholding a microaggressions. The focus is how to move on from a place of learning and recognition when it happens.
Examples of common and usually well-intended microaggressions:
- Assuming someone of Asian or Latinx descent are immigrants - the sometimes well-meaning yet cringe-worthy question of “Where are you from?” It implies an "otherness" that they are not "really" American.
- Assuming a Black university student is there through some form of affirmative action. It implies they weren’t accepted based on their merits like everyone else and suggests intellectual inferiority.
- Asking to or, heaven forbid, attempting to touch a Black woman's hair. Treating someone the same way you would an animal at a petting zoo or a sideshow attraction is inhumane. For the life of me, I don’t understand how in 2022, we still have the incessant need to comment on someone’s appearance or touch them as we’ve never seen different people before.
- Remember, what makes microaggressions aggressive is that they are driven by assumptions based on stereotypes, good or bad, which reduces someone's humanity to a limited collection of stereotypical characteristics that traditionally come from popular media (a very biased media).
What are microaggressions?
Kevin Nada, professor of psychology and author of numerous books about microaggressions, defines microaggressions as:
"Microaggressions are defined as the everyday, subtle, intentional — and oftentimes unintentional — interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups. The difference between microaggressions and overt discrimination or macroaggressions, is that people who commit microagressions might not even be aware of them."
The first misstep is looking at the prefix micro and reducing it to something small, unimportant, and of no significant impact, which quickly dismisses those who experience them as "too sensitive" or "PC." Micro just signifies a smaller scale, person-to-person interaction, vs. something derogatory or discriminatory done on a larger scale, by a large entity, or systemic. Microaggressions, though seemingly smaller in nature, have the potential to have a tremendous impact.
What to do when they occur - three perspectives
It happened to me - First and foremost, breathe and move with a clear mind. Then Assess the situation, honestly reflect on what occurred, and proceed constructively and productively if you decide it’s worth it. You may decide there was no real infraction or choose to address the situation. Address the situation calmly and with good faith - meaning you aren’t initially accusing; you are addressing to clarify, understand, and discuss. Questions like “what did you mean by that?” Then, be assertive in finding a healthy constructive resolution - one that prevents further similar issues.
I witnessed it - If you decide to bring it to anyone's attention, make sure you can clearly state what occurred, your opinion on it, how you felt about the instance, and then what you think should happen next.
I committed the act - First, allow the person to express themselves openly, honestly, yet respectfully. Listen to them with the sincere intention of understanding their perspective and validating their feelings. Explain your intentions if needed, but don’t get defensive. Offer a sincere apology recognizing them and the impact of the microaggression.
The most critical concept to addressing microaggression is keeping a good faith attitude. This just means you aren’t automatically assuming malintent and addressing someone as an enemy. I’m sure we can all understand how this immediately prevents anything productive and may lead to more argument and conflict, less understanding, and a more tense and divided work environment.
Having good faith means that you recognize that we all have the potential to slip up, hurt someone unintentionally, and make a mistake. We are human. Although we may not always agree, we must strive to respect each other, work with each other, and, most importantly, understand each other.