Things to be careful of in creating an inclusive workplace: Microaggressions Part 1: Microaggressions hidden in everyday life

Have you ever felt uncomfortable with someone’s choice of words, but not to the degree that you mentioned it to them?

Although such words or phrases can be overlooked once, when heard repeatedly in daily life, they can accumulate and have a damaging effect. In order for people with different backgrounds and values to respect one another, it is important not to overlook such actions. The technical term for this behavior in the field of diversity and inclusion is “microaggression.”

In this column, the first part of a two-part series, we spoke with Dr. Vanessa Barros, CEO of LeadershipCQ and author of Don’t Mess with My Professionalism!, published in 2020, about what microaggressions are and how to deal with them.

This is Part 1: Microaggressions hidden in everyday life.

What are microaggressions?

Microaggression is a term coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester Pierce in the 1970s to describe the subtle insults or discrimination that he witnessed by whites against African Americans (1). Since then, the definition has been expanded and is applied more broadly to refer to any casual act of degradation.

For example, foreigners living in Japan upon meeting a Japanese person for the first time are often told, “Oh, you speak such good Japanese!” It’s a comment that could be interpreted as a compliment if heard just once. But they inevitably hear the same thing over and over from other Japanese as well. As such, they may no longer be able to view the comment in a positive light and think, “What? Again? So, just because I’m not Japanese, you don’t expect me to be able to speak Japanese?”

It is this type of comment, one that can be ignored if encountered just once but is perceived as aggression when encountered repeatedly, that can be referred to as a microaggression.

Columbia University psychologist and professor Derald Wing Sue defines microaggressions today as “brief, everyday exchanges that intentionally and often non-intentionally send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership. (2)”

Why do microaggressions occur?

The above definition of microaggressions includes two important perspectives that take into consideration the context in which microaggressions occur.

One is that, regardless of whether they are intentional or non-intentional, such acts could be considered microaggressions. If you were to commit such an act unconsciously, without the intent to harm the other person, then you may not even be aware of what you’ve done. This is because the human brain has been programmed since ancient times to survive in wild environments. The human brain is able to instantly determine what is dangerous and what is not. As such, we categorize the person in front of us into one of our own stereotype categories. We recognize the people and events we encounter most often as things that are in our “norm.” When we experience something “out of the norm,” the brain judges it as something that is unfamiliar to us.

For example, if you were to see a man and a woman sitting next to each other in a conference room, you may subconsciously conclude that, based on your experience, men are often the boss in such situations and, as such, treat the man as the boss and the woman as his secretary. But if, in fact, the woman was the boss and man the secretary, she would frequently be mistaken for the man’s secretary and feel irked. This is simply an example, but it illustrates how microaggressions come about.

Another important perspective is that microaggressions can be directed at any individual or group. Microaggressions are often directed at people who belong to a minority group, but at different instances in our lives, we can all find ourselves in the majority or the minority. Accordingly, anyone could potentially cause microaggressions or be on the receiving end of them. Microaggressions could, for example, be attacks directed at LGBTQ people, or at “foreigners” in a particular country, or at people with a different family background. As such, we face many risks in our daily lives of causing harm to others by saying something directed at people from groups that differ from our own.

This isn’t to imply, however, that people who act this way are simply bad. It is important to understand the fact that there are certain mechanisms in the human brain and circumstances that give rise to microaggressions, and to think about how we can address them. This will lead to mutually respectful and compassionate relationships.

Three types of microaggressions

Microaggressions come in three types.

The first type is “microinsults.” Microinsult refers to the act of associating someone’s abilities or characteristics with something inferior that is completely unrelated. For example, by associating whether someone is a woman with the separate issue of whether they are a good driver creates the idea that because someone is a woman they would not be good at driving. This leads to such microaggressions as, “She’s a good driver for a woman.”

Such comments are often made unconsciously, the product of one’s personal thoughts or beliefs, and are not intended to hurt the other person. Additionally, if they firmly believe what they are saying, they may attempt to force it on the other person even though it may not be true.

The second type is “macro-invalidations.” This refers to underestimating differences with the other person and assuming that nothing is wrong. These are often the result of unconsciously optimistic thinking or assumptions.

Take, for example, a situation in which someone perceives a serious problem but has their view trivialized, being told, “We’re all the same; nothing’s different,” or “Since there aren’t issues because we come from different places, the fact is that there is no discrimination,” or “Race has absolutely nothing to do with it.”

If the person realizes that differences do, in fact, exist, being told that they don’t would bring about a feeling of discomfort. What is important here is not interpreting the fact that there are differences as a negative, but rather to accept it, recognize diversity, and find meaning in weaving relationships.

Characterizing the behavior at the source of the above two microaggressions is the fact that it’s done unconsciously, with good intentions, and the impact of the microaggressions may go unnoticed.

The third type is microassaults. These are expressions that are intentionally and repeatedly stated with the knowledge that they will hurt the person at whom they are directed, and are intended as a display of contempt. Microassaults are different from the two previously mentioned types in that they are consciously motivated by anger or aversion toward the group to which the person belongs.

For example, a language may have an extremely insulting expression for a particular race. It’s an expression that, as soon as you hear it, makes clear that the person who used it does not think favorably of that race and feels it necessary to demean them and drive them into a corner.

Because the way to deal with each of these types of microaggressions can vary, it is important to understand these classifications when addressing them in practice.

In the next column, we will discuss how to act in the event you actually encounter a microaggression.

The seeds of microaggressions lurk in our everyday lives. If, by paying closer attention to our behavior, we can prevent situations in which our words hurt or exclude others, we will be able to realize more fruitful relationships.

But care needs to be taken not to adopt an overly cautious approach, which could cause you to become so tentative that you find it difficult to speak to other people. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, we are all at different stages. What is important is not thinking about what is the “perfect” way to deal with it, but rather enjoying the process of gradually accepting one another as you are, and work toward fostering a tolerant environment in which you can think together while making mistakes.

Although microassaults, which are intentional, are an exception, it is difficult to deem microaggressions that occur unconsciously with good intentions as inherently evil. We must understand that the human brain finds it easy to behave in this manner and should consider how we can recognize one another amid such conditions.

Note: This is an original article based on an interview with Dr. Vanessa Barros.

Reference materials
(1) Pierce, C. M. (1974). In S. Arieti (Ed.), Psychiatric Problems of the Black Minority. American handbook of psychiatry. Basic Books.
(2) Sue, D. W., Christina, C. M., Torino, G. C., Bucceri, J. M., Holder, A. M. B., Nadal, K. L., & Esquilin, M. (2007). Racial Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Implications for Clinical Practice. American Psychologist 62 (4), 271-286

Reference links
About Dr. Vanessa Barros
Book: Don’t Mess With My Professionalism!