Microaggressions: Take Back Your Power at Work
When a coworker’s comment or behavior minimizes our value, we don’t have to suffer their foolishness. Experts discuss how to respond and get the respect we deserve.
Too many of us Black women have been there — holding it down in the workplace, representing as one of the few or the only and doing our best to excel. Then we’re hit with a comment, question or behavior from a colleague that minimizes who we are and the value we bring. Suddenly, we’re trying to figure out what just happened and what to do next. Gabrielle Union’s recent firing from America’s Got Talenthas been an infuriating reminder. After she alleged that, among other problematic incidents, she was told her hairstyles were “too Black,” the social media outcry led to a five-hour meeting with NBC. Union said of the discussion that she “led with transparency.”
In its Women in the Workplace 2019 report, management consulting firm McKinsey & Company revealed that nearly three-quarters of women deal with microaggressions, with Black women experiencing them more — and with greater variety — than anyone else. The term “microaggression” was first coined by Harvard psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce back in the 1970s. He defined it as race-based “mini disasters” done in automatic, preconscious, or unconscious fashion. In a 2007 American Psychologist article, Columbia psychologist Derald Wing Sue, identified three types of microaggressions:
Microinsult (often unconscious): Behavioral/verbal remarks or comments that convey rudeness, insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.
Microassault (often conscious): Explicit racial derogations characterized primarily by a violent verbal or nonverbal attack meant to hurt the intended victim through name-calling, avoidant behavior or purposeful discriminatory actions.
Microinvalidation (often unconscious): Verbal comments or behaviors that exclude, negate or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.
Karlyn Percil, 42, a certified emotional intelligence and neuro-life coach with expertise in organizational behavior, helps organizations and Black women identify, manage and deal with microaggressions. According to Percil, if you feel insulted or discriminated against, chances are you have been. How can you cope, heal and persevere in the face of this toxic energy?
Validate your feelings. Bethany Gray,* a 59-year old nurse, has had patients mistake her for housekeeping staff and colleagues challenge her competence. “I’ve had coworkers make comments about me being a ‘diversity hire,’ I’ve been ignored and talked over in meetings and I’ve been called aggressive and intimidating when I’ve defended myself or when I’ve taken on a leadership role. Through my career, I've leaned on other Black women in and outside of work to remind myself that no, I'm not crazy — these things are happening, and not just to me.” Sometimes, a check-in with a trusted friend via email or text can lend perspective, especially if no ally witnessed the incident, according to experts.
Consider the impact on your emotional well-being and productivity. Gray notes that the incidents have brought a lot of stress to a 30-year-plus career she otherwise loves. Workplace expert Percil, who was born in St. Lucia, says she herself experienced microaggressions during her time working in finance. “When someone accused me of not being articulate enough and asking, ‘You just moved here right?,’ this led to increased anxiety and paranoia around what I say, how I say it and when I say it.” Realize you are under pressure and make self-care a priority, including during the workday.
Seek allies. Tereneh Idia, 50, is the founder of Idia’Dega, a global eco-design apparel company. One of Idia’s first jobs was at a nonprofit. She recalls that during an employee evaluation, her much older white male supervisor observed, “Tereneh, your problem is that you act like you have white male privilege.” She was stunned. She opted to leave that job and realized that finding an ally in upper management would be key to her success in future roles. Later, “… [when] I taught at a college, the dean ended up being a quiet ally but loud when he needed to be. I never put him on center stage or made him have to go all white-savior mode,” shared Idia. “I just developed a strong professional relationship with him so when I went to him with concerns, I had already established my credibility.” While internal allies may advocate for you, others in and out of work can provide advice. “My circle helps me to decide what to do next,” explains Gray. “Do I say something to the person who offended me, or how do I word things so that my boss takes me seriously?”
Look at your options. Targets, as well as bystanders, have many ways of responding. In a 2019 American Psychologistarticle, Sue and a team of researchers discussed a variety of responses and interventions. Some were to remain passive, retreat or give up, which they believed to be ineffective, while others were to strike back. Responders may stop, diminish, deflect or put an end to the harmful act; educate the perpetrator; validate and support the targets; act as an ally; seek social support; enlist outside authority or institutional intervention; or achieve any combination of the above objectives. Percil notes that there’s no one right way to address a microaggression. “Trust that whatever action you choose is the right one. Some choose to speak up and some might need to prioritize self-care, not speaking with the person immediately.” So, consider the context, including your relationship to the offender, when deciding whether or not to expose the microaggression for what it is, push back with activism, educate him or her about their actions or complain and seek support or resolution.
If you speak up, open a constructive dialog, as Union did. Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology at both John Jay College of Criminal Justice and Graduate Center at the City University of New York (CUNY), discussed various responses to microaggressions in a 2014 CUNY Forum article. Among those choices is an assertive response: “This may consist of educating the perpetrators, describing what was offensive …. Oftentimes the perpetrator will become defensive.” He also notes, “It may be important to use ‘I’ statements (for example, I felt hurt when you said that), instead of attacking statements (such as, you’re a racist!).” Consider ways to address the behavior and not the perpetrator. Prioritize what matters to you and ask for it.
Pushing back is part of the extra labor Black women have to contend with in the workplace, but we can and will continue to succeed in spite of it all.
*Name has been changed.