Racial microaggressions: definition, examples, and practical actions

Racial microaggressions

Jane Farrell is Co-Founder of EW Group. She is a specialist in inclusive leadership, unconscious bias, organizational change and cultural adaptability.

If you want your organization to be anti-racist, you need to understand what microaggressions are and ensure all staff know that they will not be tolerated within your workplace culture. By understanding and acting, you can ensure your workplace is an ethical and inclusive environment that champions diversity and leverages it to succeed.

What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions are defined as patterned behaviors by individuals in a majority group, typically white people, that undermine, belittle, stereotype, or insult those in minority groups – usually Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic (BAME) individuals.

Sue, Bucceri, Lin, Nadal, and Torino (2007) describe microaggressions as the ‘new face of racism’, and that they have become more common as overt shows of racism have become rarer. That’s not to say they are any less harmful, however, and it is important to acknowledge that the very word ‘microaggression’ is felt by many to minimize the impact of seriously discriminative behaviors.

What are examples of racial microaggressions?

There are many varied microaggressions. I spoke to a young Black engineer only a few weeks ago who described experiencing a litany of microaggressions that many people would think of as unthinkable in the 21st century.

She described people commenting on and touching her hair without permission, telling her she was “pretty for a Black girl” and “clever, considering where [she] came from”. Recently, right before a meeting where she was to be the only Black person in the room and about to give an important presentation, she experienced colleagues talking about how “All Lives Matter”.

Time and time again, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic staff from a wide range of organizations across all sectors talk to our consultants of hundreds of variations of these microaggressions – being made to feel unwelcome due to being talked over, left out of invitations to lunch, or receiving frequent comments about their clothes, hair, musical or culinary preferences.

These microaggressions are pervasive throughout society. Most supermarkets used to have shelves of food labelled ‘exotic’ (some still do) which begs the questions; exotic to who, and compared to what? Some Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic men and women are exoticized in terms of their sexuality or supposed behaviors. Today, they are still asked where they are ‘really’ from or are deemed to be too passive, aggressive, or any other quality, compared to the standards of the white majority.

When on the receiving end, these behaviors often do not feel ‘micro’. If someone is wronged or insulted, whatever the intention, they still feel hurt. If the microaggressions continue, even unintentionally, they can have a significantly negative effect on people, including harming a person’s outlook on their place in society, their drive to succeed, or their ability to grow professionally.

See Kiyun Kim’s brilliant photo series, Racial Microaggressions, taken at Fordham University at Lincoln Center in New York, as part of a final in Visual Thinking. (© Kiyun Kim)

How can leaders help end racial microaggressions?

People often don’t realize that they are behaving in ways that reinforce stereotypes and demean people of other races, but it is the responsibility of both individuals and leaders to educate themselves and their companies on what microaggressions are, what lies behind them, and what we can do to stop these behaviors. In my experience, there are some key steps to begin with:

Understand stereotypes

We all need to educate ourselves about how we stereotype others. It is particularly important for white people to do this as the stereotypes of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people seen in the media and in the criminal justice system, for example, are not positive ones.

As a white person, I have never been pulled over by the police or stopped and searched, and I don’t experience the media jumping to conclusions about my attitudes, behaviors or aspirations because of my ethnicity. White people need to listen to the experiences of black people, and educate ourselves, reading books such as the powerful ‘Brit-ish’ by Afua Hirsch and learning with other anti-racism resources.

Always respect boundaries

I note this specific example because it is alarming how often I hear of it happening, but it is a demonstration of power to touch someone’s hair at work. If you are white and touch the hair of a Black person, it is underpinned by the idea that the other person’s hair is different to yours and that you somehow have the right to touch it.

It should go without saying that you should never touch anyone’s hair at work – whether that’s white people touching Black hair, men touching women’s hair, or non-disabled individuals touching the hair of a disabled person. We always need to respect the personal boundaries of others.

Microaggressions exist – it is time to put a stop to them

Microaggressions can be tougher to tackle than much more obvious aggressive behaviors because taken on their own, they can seem too insignificant to act against. This is not helped by individuals in the majority getting exasperated with the very idea of microaggressions, thinking the problem is simply down to victims being too sensitive, or seeing sleights where they do not exist.

People need time and space to think through the many ways in which advantage and disadvantage play out in their organizations and society. This means inclusive organizations must help their leaders, staff and stakeholders understand microaggressions and give them tools to eliminate them.

I worked with a very senior male leader recently who had had a complaint taken out against him for, as he described it, “simply noticing x’s various hairstyles and unusual and very attractive dress sense”.

The Black woman who was on the receiving end of these microaggressions put it this way: “What gives him the right to comment on my hair, my looks, time after time? He expects me to be flattered – I am not. He does not make any comments about the white women’s hair or their clothes. I freeze when he comes into the office, waiting for his comments, his condescension, and judgement. He has no idea that it sickens me and is an abuse of his power. I want it to stop and for him to understand why, and for everyone else to understand why this is racism.”

Microaggressions are patterned. They are repeated and underpinned by racist tropes and stereotyping, and the cumulative effect can be devastating to confidence, job prospects, wellbeing, and life chances. It’s time to tackle microaggressions in your organization. Contact our experts, or learn more about our equality, diversity, and inclusion training, and executive coaching, today.

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