What is a microaggression? The definitive guide

Sharon Cooper, our Senior Inclusion & Diversity Consultant, explores what microaggressions are, the various types of microaggressions, why they matter and how to prevent them.

Microaggression is a term that we are hearing more and more, but what does it really mean? How can we identify microaggressions? And how can we create a workplace culture where microaggressions are challenged in a constructive and educational way?

We all have many interactions with our colleagues; face to face, video call, telephone, e-mail, MS Teams chat and WhatsApp… the list goes on.

Many of these interactions are positive, constructive and help us form meaningful relationships with our colleagues, but the reality is that some of these interactions have the opposite impact.

They can make us feel different, that we’re on the outside, like we’re not in on the joke and that we don’t belong.  If a colleague is feeling like this it is likely they are or have been on the receiving end of microaggressions. What impact is this having on your organisational culture?

What is a microaggression?

Dr Derald Wing Sue a professor of counselling psychology in the US coined the term for the first time and gave it a specific definition:

“Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Let’s break this definition down, firstly the term itself:

  • Micro – things so small you can’t see them, or reduced to a very small scale
  • Aggression – forceful or hostile behaviour towards another person which can result in emotional or physical harm

With microaggressions we are not talking about big acts of discrimination which often can be easily identified and appropriately responded to, we are talking about smaller, more subtle, often harder to pinpoint interactions.

Microaggressions in everyday life are sometimes hard to recognise. They might be presented as backhanded compliments which make them even harder to unpick and rationalise.

Are there different types of microaggressions?

Take a look at the various types of microaggressions that we should all be aware of. Each section will have some microaggression examples to aid your understanding.

Verbal and nonverbal

This isn’t just about what we are saying, it is also the how; what is our body language communicating? This isn’t just in a physical workplace but also in the virtual environment, which at times can feel harder to navigate. 

It might be worth reconsidering your meeting etiquette to ensure these microaggressions aren’t having the opportunity to become the norm. 

Have a think, have you ever experienced or witnessed these nonverbal microaggressions?

  • That eye roll when a certain colleague contributes to a conversation.
  • Always picking up the phone when a particular colleague presents in a meeting.
  • Shaking hands with the White manager first, assuming they are the most senior person in the room, instead of the Black or younger colleague.
  • Continually speaking over a colleague in a virtual meeting.

Intentional or unintentional

This is a really interesting discussion when talking about microaggressions. I truly like to approach this believing most people don’t intentionally try and offend, exclude, or discriminate but this intention doesn’t mitigate the impact on the individual or groups of people on the receiving end of the interaction. 

I think it’s important to use kindness to support the individual on the receiving end and educate, in a supportive and appropriate way, the person who exhibited the microaggression.

Intent doesn’t reduce impact; we need to help people understand the impact of their words and actions and without doubt, this can be challenging as language is always evolving. We all have a role to support our colleagues, raise awareness and educate each other so we can continue to grow.

Let’s reflect on the impact of microaggressions. I’ve had it described to me as “Death by a thousand paper-cuts”.  If you are continually having to justify your role/position, explain your sexuality, your pronouns, talk about your heritage – how exhausting would that be? 

To be continually on the receiving end of microaggressions can be demotivating. Your confidence can lower, you might not put yourself forward in meetings/for promotion and/or feel you can’t be your true self in the workplace. Ultimately this could result in an employee leaving the organisation. 

How might you feel if you were on the receiving end of these verbal microaggressions in the workplace?

  • “You’ve done well for someone your age”
  • “You are gay? Oh, I didn’t know, sorry. What a waste!”
  • Saying “You don’t look disabled!” to someone who has a disability

Racial microaggressions

Now let’s shine a light on some racial microaggressions:

  • “Your English sounds so good” / “you sound so articulate”
  • “Where are you really from?!”
  • “I love your hair… can I touch it?”
  • “Why do you have to be so loud / animated?”

A racial microaggression can also be defined as verbal microinsults and invalidations.

Microinvalidations are comments or behaviours that exclude, negate, or nullify the psychological thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of colour.

Microinsults are verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.

There is nothing wrong with genuine curiosity, it’s important to form meaningful relationships, but maybe we all need to think about our motivation and personal biases before making assumptions or asking the question in the first place.

Preventing microaggressions in the workplace

It all starts with awareness, so all colleagues understand what microaggressions are and what impact they can have.  This awareness creates space for colleagues to reflect on their experiences, biases and behaviour.

It’s also important organisations have clear expectations around behaviour, what is acceptable and what isn’t. Does your organisation have these expectations? Are they clearly communicated to all colleagues and are colleagues challenged if they don’t display them, or celebrated if they do?

We all have a role in being allies. If we witness microaggressions we need to build confidence in our abilities so that we can disrupt the behaviour, support our colleagues and give constructive feedback which explains impact, increases understanding and empathy. 

Feedback isn’t just a one-way street, we all have personal bias formed from our experiences, family, friends, background, the media etc and we can all get it wrong at times.  As an ally, we need to be open and ready to receive feedback about our own interactions and really role model inclusive behaviour.

It’s vital for organisations to create inclusive cultures which encourage genuine curiosity, truly supportive conversations, education and awareness, challenge and celebration, and a place where everyone feels welcome.

Inclusive Employers have lots of experience of working with organisations to raise awareness, support conversations and action around microaggressions.  If you’re a member, take a look at our resources. If you’re not yet a member, get in touch today to see how we can help.