Suppose you have attended a workplace training related to diversity, inclusion, and equity. In that case, you may have heard the term “microaggression” used as an example of implicit bias that can have a destructive impact on morale, teamwork, and productivity. However, this term has become so common that it is often misunderstood and poorly defined. The name was originally coined in the 1970s by Harvard professor Chester M. Pierce and was used to refer to the daily insults and slights that many black people in America are forced to endure. Pierce was mainly concerned about this black-white dynamic and felt that these put-downs were a way of keeping the black population “in their place” and reinforcing the prevalent systemic racism in modern American society. Professor Derald W. Sue revived the term in 2007; Sue defined the term as follows: “The everyday slights, indignities, put-downs and insults that people of color, women, LGBT populations or those who are marginalized experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.” This expanded meaning has come to characterize much of the thinking around microaggressions today.
A microaggression is distinct from general rude, jerky, or offensive behavior in that it makes an issue of a person’s membership in a historically disadvantaged or marginalized group. Microaggressions are often disguised as “jokes” or backhanded compliments; for example, “you’re too pretty to be gay!” Indicating that only very masculine looking/acting individuals could be lesbian. A white woman who clutches her purse and reacts with fear when a black man gets on the bus is also guilty of a microaggression, showing fear simply because of his race. Another example is the teacher who compliments a third-generation Japanese American on his English language skills, even though he was born in the U.S., and English is his native language.
One crucial fact to consider is that many, if not most, of the individuals engaging in microaggressions, are unaware of their behavior as it is implicit and often subconscious bias. People in this category usually think of themselves as good, decent, well-meaning persons and are unaware of the impact their actions are having on others. Typically, we aren’t referring to skinheads and Klansman but rather ordinary people in ordinary everyday situations. Nevertheless, microaggression can have a negative impact on the psychological and emotional well-being of the recipient; in a workplace setting, this sort of conduct results in tension, productivity declines, lack of teamwork, and potential legal liabilities.
A coordinated program of training around topics of diversity and inclusion can help make people aware of their own implicit bias and take steps to correct their speech and behavior. Unfortunately, this topic has also become tied up in issues of “political correctness,” with many thinking that people protesting this conduct are “snowflakes” who are too sensitive and should just “get over it.” However, research shows there are real negative consequences to allowing micro aggressive behavior to continue unchecked and unchallenged. As the leader of your organization, it is up to you to set the tone and demonstrate this sort of conduct won’t be tolerated while also providing staff the tools to recognize and root out their own bias. The problem of microaggression is real, and solving it may require some hard conversations, but the end result will be a happier and more harmonious workplace and a stronger staff team.
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