Some organizations may find that actually generating justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion (JEDI) behaviors in their workplaces is very difficult because of the presence of microaggressions used knowingly or unwittingly by employees and management. Subtle or overt anger toward employees who are different can result in disrespectful language and behaviors that continue to oppress these employees. Glassdoor did a survey in 2019 of 1100 American workers revealing that 61% of them had either experienced or witnessed workplace microaggressions. In reality, some JEDI policies can reinforce the very indignities and biases that they are trying to eradicate.
What Are Microaggressions?
Simply, microaggressions are assaults to the personal dignity of an individual or individuals. Dignity recognizes the inherent value of every human, regardless of position or power. Dignity acknowledges the inviolable and sacred personhood of every person and provides the means for actionable affirmation of recognized personhood. Identities of individuals are seen and protected from bias, allowing people to grow and flourish; thus, feeling comfortable in the workplace.
Microaggressions violate that dignity and allow those in the majority, who are in control, to thrive and never feel repercussions. In other words, microaggressions allow dominant persons to preserve their comfort.
When employees object to something that is said or done and labels that a microaggression, the person who perpetrates that action tells the victim that he or she is too sensitive or is an angry person or is using the race card to complain. This is a ploy by dignity violators to redirect or reframe the focus of their assaults to either minimize their actions or to dismiss them all together. Violators ultimately receive no consequences for their microaggressions.
Dignity violations are passive-aggressive behaviors. Microaggressions can result in racial gaslighting and the denial of experiences. Racial gaslighting is when the perpetrator minimizes people’s unique experiences and then tells them they are too sensitive.
Microaggressions, usually perpetrated by the dominant culture (White people) not only are offending and hurtful but show just how much the victims are under constant scrutiny. They wonder when the next uncomfortable thing will be said or when the next undignified action will occur. Violated persons must not only deal with the emotional and professional assaults to their dignity, but they must also find a solution for making their work-life tolerable.
“When considering concepts like Dr. Kimberle Crenshaw’s Intersectionality and Dr. William Smith’s Racial Battle Fatigue, it’s important to understand how the immediate and residual impacts of microaggressions can vary and be exacerbated when a person has layers of oppressed identities,” says Yale School of Nursing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Director, Maurice Nelson.
Examples of Microaggressions
Some people in the workplace are truly unaware of what they are saying or doing to marginalized people. Offenders’ perspectives are limited and they think their experiences are generalizable to all people, but they are not. Microaggressions mount up as day-to-day slights whittle away at a person’s dignity, identity, and experience. They affect a person emotionally, spiritually, and sometimes physically.
Microaggressions target race, gender, age, sexual orientation, sexual identity, socioeconomic class, citizenship status, disability, and religion. They can also be intersectional, meaning that a person can be affected through more than one bias. For example, a poor, wheelchair-bound Black woman who is also a Buddhist and a lesbian may face microaggressions based on her gender, race, sexual identity, religion, disability, and socioeconomic class.
Microaggressions most often are verbal, but they can also be behavioral and environmental.
Verbal microaggressions can be direct slurs or other offensive statements, as well as direct mocking of names, language, or dress. These are usually considered microassaults. Most often however the microaggressions are more subtle. Even compliments can be perceived as setting the person apart from the general bias about a whole group (Re: “You are so articulate” meaning every other person in your group is not.)
Here are some examples of verbal microaggressions:
- Mispronouncing someone’s name or giving someone a simple nickname because the person says the name is too difficult to pronounce.
- Asking to touch someone’s hair, especially if it is an African American person with a natural style or an indigenous person’s braids.
- Asking a person who is gay or lesbian who is the “man” in the relationship or how they behave when intimate.
- Using personal statements in professional interactions with a woman, such as “You should smile more.”
Microinvalidations is another form of verbal microaggressions when a White person says, “I don’t see color” or “I totally know what you are going through” when you obviously do see a variety of races and ethnicities in the workplace or you think your experience as a White person is the same as that of someone of color. This means you dismiss that person’s identity or experience. You don’t know what someone else has had to deal with, regardless of race or identity.
Behavior microaggressions are actions that marginalize people. Most often these microaggressions manifest as assuming someone, because of gender or race, is in a low-ranking position other than the one that person has. For example, you mistake a Latinx or immigrant person for a service worker or you point a woman to a meeting on design instead of financial statistics that she has signed up for.
Here are more examples of behavior microaggressions:
- Not inviting a person with a disability to an event because you assume they can’t participate or be seated in the bleachers.
- Making assumptions about an older person’s ability to handle new technology.
- Excluding specific groups from advancement or executive privileges.
- Having no means in place for employees to share preferred pronouns.
- Naming buildings, rooms, labs, etc. after White men, even though the company has employed women and people of other ethnicities for a long time.
Environmental microaggressions deal with workplace design and facilities.
Some examples of environmental microaggressions are:
- Not having a proper ramp or an elevator for a worker in a wheelchair.
- Not having separate showers for men and women in a factory or lab where showers are provided. Not having braille numbers on the elevator up and down and floor buttons.
Dealing with Microaggressions in the Workplace
Instead of having a superficial JEDI policy in place, employers and employees need to work toward dignity affirmation through actionable policies and consequences and by creating workspaces that value all people who work there and their contributions.
- Update company JEDI policies.
- Report dignity violations to HR.
- Recognize your own bias.
- Educate yourself and your workforce about microaggressions and unintentional bias.
- Become an ally and advocate for dignity and JEDI in the workplace.
Links here in Atlanta:
Emory University offers several courses on JEDI practices:
Georgia State has On-Demand JEDI courses dealing with being an ally, confronting bias in the workplace, and dealing with microaggressions.
Georgia Tech has videos, articles, charts about microaggressions.
Dr. Smith is a globally-recognized educator, author, career strategist, and contributor in the higher education field. Dr. Smith currently serves as the Associate Director of Graduate Education and the Co-Director of Career Services at Morehouse School of Medicine. As an educator, he employs an integrated mix of educational and practical approaches to his work, using a variety of modalities, while encouraging critical thinking, personal growth, teamwork, and cultural diversity. Whether in the classroom or as an industry executive, he strives to inspire students and employees to become dynamic leaders.
As a servant leader, his commitment to collaboration, dedication to inclusion, data-informed decision making, creativity, and ability to unmask hidden potential within individuals allows him to provide motivation to the current and emerging leaders entering the workforce.