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Compliment or Microaggression?

Behaviors that were once “accepted” or ignored are being brought into the spotlight. It is time we learn the difference.

Racial microaggressions are often covert and unintentional, making them harder to notice if you aren’t the one experiencing them.

Cringeworthy examples include:

1- Telling your Black colleague who is wearing a straight hairstyle, “Wow, your hair looks so professional.” This assumes that natural Black hair does not look professional.

2- Telling a Person of Color who reports racial discrimination or racial microaggressions, “Why do you always have to make it about race?” This is racial gaslighting. Gaslighting occurs when someone shares their experience of racism and is met with a response that makes them feel ashamed, or as though they’re fabricating or exaggerating their experience.

3 - Telling a Black colleague, "You’re so articulate.” This assumes that Black people are less articulate or educated than white people and/or that it is unusual for someone who is Black to be intelligent or well-spoken. This is an ascription of intelligence, the assumption of literacy, or intellectual ability on the basis of race.

4 - Asking a Black colleague to touch their hair. This sends the message that Black hair texture is unconventional or abnormal. This can be very othering to the person experiencing the microaggression. Also, taking into consideration personal physical boundaries, it can feel highly intrusive.

5- Calling a person you presume is Asian, “Chinese.” This assumes that all Asian people are a homogenous group and ignores the many diverse ethnicities of Pan-Asian communities. The term Oriental is acceptable to use when describing objects or things—such as oriental rugs or oriental medicine—but is derogatory when used to refer to Asian people.

6 -“Colorblindness” or refusing to acknowledge the implications of anti-Black racism. This can be from the personal to the systemic level, such as the phrase, “I don’t see color.” It also includes the idea that racism affects all people of color in the same way, and views their experiences as homogenous.

An unprecedented number of companies and organizations of all kinds around the world are now actively practicing anti-racism in the workplace. Once we better understand how racial microaggressions look, few people will be able to say they’ve never witnessed, experienced, or even committed one. This is one of the reasons why we differentiate racist actions from being a racist.

For BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) people, taking the time and energy to respond to daily microaggressions can add even more stress. In fact, over time, compounded racial microaggressions can lead to health issues, including racial trauma which mirrors the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress-disorder. Working on changing harmful habits and forming apologies when we make mistakes is key to contributing to positive change in any organization.

Can you give us examples of other microaggressions that you have witnessed?

As bystanders, how can we speak up and interrupt microaggressions when they occur?

Leave your comments. We’d love to hear from you.


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