Microaggressions Are Killing Our Work Culture

Blatant discrimination and harassment are not eroding our positive work culture.

The microaggressions are doing the damage.

I was sexually assaulted when I was 15 years old. It was a friend’s father who decided I wasn’t worth protecting when I got sick on our trip and instead, would make a better victim. Three years later, it was a young man at college who decided my self respect wasn’t worth more than his desire to humiliate and hurt me. I can tell you with 100% certainty that I didn’t see these two things coming. Both incidents were frightening surprises, and God they did some damage, but they didn’t break me.

Years later, I inherited a boss who clearly thought I was worthless and later, let me know my career and professional growth were dependent upon my sexual talents. The tragic thing was, I saw it coming. I had observed this man’s microaggressions for years. And then I was victim to it, and remained a victim for years. The under-the-radar insults and injuries led to empowered discrimination and harassment, and they eventually broke me. It’s taken years, but here I am.

I’m hopeful I have your attention.

What is a microaggression?

I like Dr. Derald Wing Sue‘s definition. He is a Professor of Psychology and Education for Columbia University. He defines it as:

“Everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. In many cases, these hidden messages may invalidate the group identify or experiential reality of target persons, demean them on a personal or group level, communicate they are lesser human beings, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, threaten and intimidate, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.”

Reading Dr. Wing Sue’s definition, you may think,”This is egregious behavior!” or “These are firing offenses!

But alas, you’d be wrong.

The trouble with microaggressions is that they are often subtle, and rarely noticed in the workplace. If they are challenged, whether it be by the victim or a bystander, the microaggressions are often discounted and the victim is labeled as “too sensitive” or “exaggerating.” Worse, sometimes the complaints are ignored because those higher up in the organization have similar microaggressions, making it impossible for them to admit the behavior is wrong. Complicating matters is my belief that most of us like to think of ourselves as decent human beings, and so we can’t accept the reality that we are less than that. This means, of course, that we deny, diminish or avoid looking honestly in the mirror, even when our peers, our employees, or our boss hold it right in front of our face.

While my crappy circumstance was clearly about gender/sex, any marginalized group may become targets, which means many individuals in our workplaces are vulnerable to this type of harassment. And while my ass of a boss was intentional about his aggression, many individuals’ microaggressions are unintentional. Well mannered people all around us often engage in everyday occurrences that, on the surface, appear quite harmless or trivial. Their behavior, looked at individually, are typically described as “small slights.” Consider these conversations overheard in the break room:

  • “Did you Jew him down to a better price?”
  • Seeing two people of the same gender walking by holding hands, “I don’t know why they have to flaunt it.”
  • “Don’t be a whiny bitch.” or
  • “I don’t want to work with him – he smells weird.”

Now consider these:

  • “Jews aren’t welcome here.”
  • “Gays are disgusting.”
  • “Females are less valuable.” or
  • “You’re different, and therefore, I don’t like you.”

You may think that the comments in blue are a helluva lot better than the comments in green.

But again, you’d be wrong.

The impact is the same! At least the comments in green are clear, and we have laws and regulations that guide us in dealing with the assholes who spout stuff like that. The subtle slights in blue, however, are harder to pin down, and relief eludes the victim.

Are we just too sensitive?

This question is problematic, for sure. But why should we get to determine the standard for sensitivity? Are we not supposed to trust someone who is sensitive? Should a person’s perception be dismissed simply because he/she is sensitive?

I think not.

The fact is, microaggressions against marginalized groups are ubiquitous in America. Please trust me when I say that the weight of these microaggressions wears you down, and that the burden of hearing these types of things over and over again adversely impacts the well-being of the victim and/or marginalized groups. It’s not sensitivity that is the problem, folks, supremacy and inhumanity are the problem.

Dr. Wing Sue writes, in his article titled “Microaggressions: More Than Just Race” found in Psychology Today, that microaggressions are reflections of our worldviews. Whether it be inclusion/exclusion, superiority/inferiority, normality/abnormality, and desirability/undesirability, they reflect the active manifestation of oppressive worldviews.

American culture has been a strong force over the last few decades, for sure, but it’s not perfect and it still has has a long way to go. Many of us have been socialized into bigoted, sexist and supremacist attitudes, beliefs and behaviors. Thankfully, most of this is not conscious awareness, but nonetheless, it is clearly present. Because it’s there, and not challenged or corrected, we engage in behaviors that unintentionally oppress and discriminate against others.

It is all quite depressing to me, but I remain hopeful that we can do better.

It’s going to take some work, however, and it’s going to take a lot of us!

  • We, as individuals, need to treat each other better.
  • We, as colleagues, neighbors and friends, need to start paying attention so we can notice when people aren’t being treated well.
  • We, as educators and influencers, need to set the right example.
  • We, as supervisors, need to call out bigotry, racism, chauvinistic or otherwise offensive behavior when it occurs.
  • We, as managers, need to start listening – really listening – to the victims of such behavior.
  • We, as leaders, need to ensure that fair and just expectations and policies are clear.
  • We, as a society, need to hold perpetrators accountable when they fail to demonstrate professional, courteous respect to others.

What say you…can you join me?