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Racial Microaggressions in the Workplace

What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions can be defined as statements, actions, or incidents -- whether indirect, subtle or intentional -- that is discriminatory against a marginalised group. They may be seen as relatively harmless alone, however it is often the frequency and/or constancy of these microaggressions as well as the underlying intention behind one’s words that becomes the issue. In fact, research suggests that subtle forms of interpersonal discrimination like microaggressions are at least as harmful as more-overt expressions of discrimination.

It’s important to be cognizant of microaggressions and how our words can be interpreted so that we can ensure we create a space that is inviting, and safe for all. While the forms in which a microaggression can take place can vary, the focus here will be on racial microaggressions in the workplace.

Common phrases that are used that are seen as microaggressions can include things like “your name is so hard to pronounce!”. Trust me, if you learnt how to pronounce Thucydides in Year 12 Ancient History, I’m sure you can sound out the name Mohammad. Phrases such as “why do you wear that”, “I don’t even see colour”, “is that your natural hair?” or “you’re so pretty for a [insert race] person!” are similarly problematic. In fact that last one is just straight up racist and downright offensive. It is important to note that while microaggressions are often not outwardly racist actions, over time they can depict an idea that you are different. It’s incredibly ‘othering’ to be known as “that person” with a specific feature, as opposed to someone who is talented, hard-working and ultimately good at their jobs. Furthermore, while microaggressions should be avoided where possible - again, to ensure the working environment is as safe and inviting to everyone - more often than not, it is the tone and intention behind someone’s words that is the telling factor behind whether someone interprets your comments negatively.

As people of colour, we often have our guards up and can very quickly distinguish between people who are genuinely interested and perhaps ignorant about something, as opposed to someone who is harbouring ill-will. This is not to suggest having good intentions is a cop-out, because impact and intention are two separate things that don’t always align with each other.

It is therefore everyone’s jobs to be aware and understanding of other cultures, and be willing to educate ourselves without necessarily always expecting others (who have probably heard that same question three times that week) to educate us. Google is free and is an incredibly useful tool in navigating conversations like this.

For people of colour struggling with this, sometimes it can feel burdensome (and understandably scary, particularly if they’re a superior) to try and correct others on these things. A brilliant framework developed by Ella F. Washington, Alison Hall Birch and Laura Morgan Roberts outlines how to manage instances of microaggressions, and it involves 4 Ds: discern, disarm, defy, decide. A more thorough explanation of these steps can be found in the link below.

Finally, what can we be doing to better support others in the workplace? Aside from educating ourselves and being more aware of these microaggressions in the first place, if someone does approach you about something you’ve said, it is critical that you:

1. Listen to their concerns.

2. Verbally acknowledge their feelings. Remember, intention and impact are two entirely different concepts. Whether something was your intention or not is often besides the point.

3. Apologise, but do so sincerely and without any catches or any “ifs” or “buts”. You might not fully understand it today, or tomorrow, but that’s okay. Educating ourselves and being committed to doing better is key.

4. Try to let it go and not repeat your mistakes.

In summation, treat your co-workers and employees how you’d like to be treated if you yourself felt like you’d been wronged, and then try to understand how it might feel like this at every new space you occupy.

You might mess up from time to time, but empathy and a willingness to do better goes a long way.


Article by Yousef Hakimi

Vice President (Darlinghurst) NDSJS 2020

Contact Yousef:

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