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Workplace Microaggressions and Ways to Respond

Recent studies have shown that diversity, inclusion, and equity in the workplace are key factors in many workers’ employment decisions. However, microaggressions—especially those targeted towards BIPOC employees—are detrimental to this progress. Let’s look at some common types of workplace microaggressions and how to respond to ensure anti-racism and inclusion.

Common microaggressions in the workplace:

Proclaiming colorblindness. Making comments such as “I don’t see color” and “We are all one human race” are considered microaggressions. While your intent may not have been racist, these “colorblind” comments erase systemic and societal racism that BIPOC people face every day.

Back-handed compliments. Another frequent microaggression is unknowingly back-handed compliments. Even if you meant to praise someone for their knowledge or skills, comments to BIPOC colleagues such as “You are so professional!” perpetuate negative stereotypes about intelligence and professionalism among non-white people.

Questions about nationality. Asking a non-white coworker where they’re “really from” insinuates that non-white people must have immigrated from somewhere else and is a common microaggression.

How to respond when you witness a microaggression:

Respond promptly. Since many people don’t realize their actions count as a microaggression, it is important to respond quickly to make sure the perpetrator recognizes the hurt their comments may have caused.

Respond privately. You don’t want to make a BIPOC colleague feel even more uncomfortable than the microaggression already caused, so make sure to discuss the issue with the perpetrator one-on-one. This will also decrease any embarrassment the perpetrator may feel, lowering the chance of a defensive response.

Share your own experience. Making sure the aggressor doesn’t feel attacked is key to changing behavior, so start the conversation by explaining your experience with microaggressions. Starting with, “I used to do/say that as well, but then I learned…” will let the perpetrator know that you understand where their mindset is.

Recommend alternatives. Some microaggressions stem from good intentions, so discuss alternative ways to get a point across without perpetuating negative stereotypes. And for microaggressions that stem from inherent racism, talk to the aggressor about techniques and teachings to move towards anti-racism and inclusion.

Though they may seem small to non-minorities, microaggressions—especially in the workplace—can be harmful and detrimental to diversity and inclusivity. However, as we learn more and have more conversations about anti-racism and microaggressions, we will work towards equity for all!

Karine Bah Tahé, Blue Level Founder and CEO


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