Let’s set the scene.
It’s Monday and though the line at the coffee shop landed you in the office 10 minutes late, you weren’t stressed because you got to listen to the last two ad-free songs on your morning commute playlist. You made it through the first two hours of work without a hitch and just wrapped up a surprisingly productive meeting for a new project. You grab your notebook and just as you begin to think to yourself, I’m glad they were open to hearing everyone’s thoughts. I actually might like working with this team, your new teammate comes over and says,
“Great meeting. This was my first time hearing your thoughts. You’re so articulate.”
I hate it here. Really??
Smiles awkwardly, “Thanks.”
Perhaps, instead of you’re so articulate, it was:
an incorrect assumption that your spouse was of the opposite sex,
an acrobatic effort to casually drop that they have a Black/Latinx/Asian/Gay/Trans friend,
an offhand comment that you wouldn’t have knowledge about a particular thing because of your age, or
a suggestion that you should consider wearing your hair differently.
In whatever shape they take, microaggressions have a way of leaving you feeling blindsided even when you anticipate their arrival. In the moment, we are faced with an instantaneous decision of whether to and how to respond in a way that minimizes the risk of collateral damage to the relationship and/or our reputation.
To help prepare you for your next run-in when you least (or most) expect it, here are 10 types of microaggressions you may experience in the workplace and professionally-savvy responses you can offer to address them:
The Backhanded Compliment. Ex. "You are so... articulate," said to a person of color. Response: I know you are intending to pay me a compliment, but it actually has the opposite effect. What I’ve done is quite typical and is generally the expectation of the average professional in this setting/role. Depending on how friendly I am with the person, I might follow this up with “These heels, however, are not; so feel free to compliment me on these.”
The Preferred Appearance Commentary. Ex. "Your hair looks so good! I prefer this (straightened) look on you." Response: Instead of telling them you knew they would because this society holds heteronormative euro-centric beauty and fashion in superior light to that of other cultures, tell them this (first): I enjoy the range of styles I exhibit in the workplace, including the ones you don’t seem to prefer. It excites me that what’s deemed professional has expanded over the years to reflect the expressions of our various cultures and styles. I quite enjoy wearing my hair/clothes in an array of styles that are authentically me. *Smiles and shrugs in Ashley Banks*
The Unsolicited (and Offensive) Opinion. (see also #2) Note: One cannot share their opinions without revealing their biases. When those preferences are aligned to attributes of their own community/background, it immediately tells the person they are speaking to that they would prefer them to conform to their background. Response: I can appreciate that you feel comfortable enough with me to share your opinion, however, what you said was quite offensive. Here’s why… [insert why the remark is offensive or state that you are comfortable in your choice and prefer they not offer their opinions on whatever non-work related issue they are addressing]. You can use this response as an alternative quip to "The Backhanded Compliment" or "The Preferred Appearance Commentary." It can be used for any occasion where others just can’t help but share their unsolicited opinions on your… anything.
The Biased Language (or Treatment). Ex. "You can be a little bossy." Response: “[repeat term back to them as a question (e.g. bossy? aggressive? soft?] I’m not used to hearing that. Is that a term/action you would typically use in reference to a person of the opposite/majority demographic [read: cis-gender heterosexual white man]?" This is a relatively direct way to highlight bias in language or action that can tend to creep up in feedback. Tone will matter a lot here to mitigate the risk of a defensive shutdown. The opening question and genuine shock in your response will help convey more curiosity (disarming), rather than interrogation (condemnation), while also pointing out the biased language and perhaps, judgment.
The Racially Colorblind. Ex. "I don't see color." Response: I understand that you intend to treat all people fairly. That is exactly why I want you to see/acknowledge my race. It is a valued part of my identity and it informs my lived experience, including how I’m treated by others and the perspective I bring to the team. Listen, it’s 2021, we have 4K TVs, endless social media filters and if we’re lucky, not one but two full-color monitors at work, yet there are still people insisting that when they look at other people, they don’t see color. I completely get the sentiment, however flawed the logic. The strategy here is to acknowledge their well-meaning intention while highlighting that your identity cannot be erased for their comfort and their refusal to acknowledge it actually perpetuates the unfair results they are trying to avoid.
The Environmental Microagression. Ex. You haven't seen Friends? Seriously?! Response: I’ve never seen/heard of that TV show/movie/song/person/place, but I am very familiar with (insert TV show/movie/person/song/place of similar status/premise). Have you heard of it/them? People belonging to the majority demographic often assume that others are familiar with what’s considered popular in their culture. This may conjure feelings of being an outsider. Responding with another option or a diverse countersubject that they may not be familiar with will combat your exclusion and highlight the assumptions they’ve made about what they deemed as popular. Come on, who hasn't seen Living Single, Girlfriends, or Insecure? :)
The Mistaken Identity. Ex. Hi ma'am, could you grab us some coffees? Response: I could grab you a coffee, but I’m sure there’s a server/assistant that can help us out with that. I don’t want to be hurried for our meeting. Hi, I’m [insert name—and title ;) ].Service roles are important to any business. While there may be more diverse representation in service roles compared to more senior/management roles, this is no excuse for assuming that a person of color must be in a service role. The strategy for responding to this slight is to acknowledge that service is not beneath you but there is someone serving that role and IT AIN’T YOU.
The Joke. Ex. --Did you really think I would repeat an offensive joke here? Response: Though made in jest, that statement/imitation is very problematic. It reinforces negative stereotypes that aren’t true. I intentionally used “problematic” in favor of “inappropriate” or “offensive” to convey that this is an issue even if we weren’t at work. This term also helps in centering the problem (their statement) rather than my feelings. Instead of merely responding with “that’s racist/sexist/ableist/homophobic/transphobic," consider highlighting the impact of such statements. While both communicate that the "joke" is offensive and inappropriate, the former usually incites a visceral react to being labeled, while the latter more immediately prompts reflection on the nature of the phrase (and others like it). In the best case scenario, they’ll go on to share what they’ve learned.
Any. There isn't enough time to think through every microaggression, but this general technique that can help diffuse the situation and works for a wide array of microaggressions. Response: Interesting. What makes you say that? Displaying genuine curiosity allows the offender to reveal the source of their ignorance. Note: The results may surprise you. This approach works well because it’s disarming, it inspires revelation for both parties, and you can have a much more productive conversation once you get a handle on their perspective and misinformation.
Messages That Get No Reply. You'll know it when you feel it. Response: Don’t. Not responding at all is always an option. It may not seem like a valid or "responsible" response to a microaggression, but it actually can be the most responsible action to take when you feel a response would become volatile or result in added trauma. Let’s face it, responding to ignorant or offensive comments can be emotionally and mentally exhausting and experiencing microagressions, bias, and inequities repeatedly throughout the day can conjure feelings of intense frustration, anger, and sadness, which can make it virtually impossible to maintain composure in confronting these issues. This may not be the hill you want to die on. Consider revisiting the issue later when, and if, you can. If you are dealing with persistent microaggressions or otherwise working in a toxic environment, consider reporting through the appropriate channels and planning your exit strategy, if necessary. As a general rule of thumb:
When enraged, disengage.
Confronting microagressions directly and with grace is achievable. Remember that in most instances, the person making the remark is not intending to insult you. In fact, they may even be attempting to compliment you. To ensure the conversation goes as smoothly as possible, set the intention to inform and to be kind (not nice), speaking truth in a collegial tone.
While it’s tempting to ride out on our high horses, we must realize that we all possess a heightened level of cultural awareness when it comes to issues affecting our own communities but we will occasionally fall short when it comes to communities to which we do not belong. Let’s see each other as opposite sides of the same coin and treat each other with the same care we’d expect when we err. Plus, fighting will get you fired.
If you're in need of someone to have this or similar Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion conversation at your company/organization, please connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, be safe, be savvy but don't be silent (when it matters).