• Mabel Osejindu

Words can make an impact: The nature of microaggressions in the workplace

What are they exactly?

"You are so articulate", “You are pretty for a black girl", "You're one of the good ones", "Can I touch your hair?" and “But where are you really from?” Sound familiar? Maybe you’ve had the “I don't see colour” one thrown at you. A microaggression is a subtle, denigrating comment, exchange or action that leaves certain individuals (from a minority group) feeling upset, offended or uncomfortable because of their group membership. It could be anything from a hostile, derogatory insult to a negative racial slur. Having been added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2015, racial microaggressions (also known as micro-incivilities/ micro-inequities) are frequently attributed to occurring in the workplace, largely because it’s an institution in which we spend a lot of our waking hours. A term coined by Harvard University psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals which he regularly saw was inflicted on African Americans, microaggressions are by their very nature steeped in prejudice, discrimination, biases and set stereotypes that an individual has of another.

The figures

A National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers (NASUWT) poll identified earlier this year that the majority of black and minority ethnic teachers in British schools have experienced “microinsults, microinvalidations and other forms of covert racism in the last year”. A 2018 study in the Journal of Multicultural Counseling and Development found that of counsellors who had clients reporting race-based trauma, 89% identified ‘covert acts of racism’ as a contributing factor.

An online search for the term microaggression has reached new heights in the UK following the tragic death of George Floyd at the hands of policemen and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. While the term ‘Microaggression may not be a legal term, The Equality Act 2010 states that a person harasses another if they engage in unwanted behaviour related to a relevant protected characteristic such as race, and the behaviour has the purpose or effect of violating the other person's dignity or creating an intimidating, hostile, degrading, humiliating or offensive environment for that person. That is, unwanted verbal behaviour can amount to racial harassment. If one feels offended by a passing comment made by an individual based on any aspect of their identity, they have the right to report such exchanges with the Human Resources department of their organisation or company to be addressed in whatever means necessary. It's crucial to speak up as such microaggressions can amount to feelings of anxiety, feelings of dread about work, potentially devastating effects on productivity and not to mention, staff or team relations. When an individual or person of colour experiences a micro-aggression from another, it is so easy to shrug it off the first couple of times in the view that they might not mean to be offensive or might be ignorant. We even blame our own sensitivity or potential self-esteem/confidence issues. We assume that we should be strong enough to let it slip over our shoulders or go in one ear and out the other in a matter of three seconds. Being ourselves almost becomes a challenge. Wearing our hair the way we’ve always done, speaking the way we've always done, eating the food we’ve always eaten, dressing the way we've always dressed almost becomes too easily susceptible to hurtful comments by colleagues. So what do we often do? We change. We shorten, abbreviate or anglicize our names, we copy the fashion senses of colleagues, we straight or bleach our hair, we alter our speech, we put on a pleasant and more ‘acceptable’ act, to try and appear less urban. Less working class. Less ghetto. Less different. We simply aren't made to be that strong all the time. Plus, it's a very hard act to preserve for a long time.

And that’s why change is needed.

We should have the expectation that in the workplace, every single individual, including ourselves, are spoken to with kindness, respect, tolerance and understanding. Work teams need to have a secure understanding that everyone is different; we all talk different, wear different clothes, have different life experiences and so there should never be a culture where anything or anyone that does not fit the mould of what’s perceived to be the ‘norm’ i.e. white, middle class and PR English versed, is set upon with unnecessary degrading comments or questions that serve to belittle and query their sense of belonging in the respective team. It starts from the top. Imagine if every single manager in every school, organisation, company or business was committed to eradicating prejudice and racial microaggressions/talk. What if any malicious racial comments were addressed straight away? What if microaggressions were a finable offence? What if such individuals were heavily disciplined? Forced to then educate themselves and apologise to their colleague of colour before re-admission into the workplace? In these hypothetical examples, I’m sure the situation at present would be very different. After all, bad behaviour of any sort persists when there are no consequences for such. If a child says something mean to another child at school, the teacher or parent would speak to the child and get him or her to understand what he or she had done wrong. But with adults, we expect that because they are older, wiser or have gone through schooling, we would be well versed in relating with people from different backgrounds. But why do we as a society have this expectation of the working adult population? What about adults who have grown up without any explicit teaching about differences in diversity, culture, religion and sexuality? Maybe they grew up in communities where they were only used to conversing with one type of person or group. These individuals surely enter the workplace unaware of how their comments or behaviour may harass a man or woman of a different ethnicity or background to theirs. That's why I advocate that just how a matter is addressed on its head as a child, an adult requires the same. Not in a childlike manner, but rather with the approach of breaking down prejudices and stereotypes that racial groups have of each other.

Then, again there's the flip side. Some individuals, it's clear, have experienced microaggressions from individuals who aren't blind to cultural differences but actually say such offensive comments with the intent to harm and degrade the person of colour to alienate them from the group or even sow a seed of doubt about their worthiness in the organisation. Just like more open expressions of racism, comments like “You’re Asian, how come you’re not good at Maths?”, “You are intimidating/aggressive” “You’re very exotic” or “Your name is so hard to pronounce”, leave recipients of microaggressions angry and deeply wronged. Because of their somewhat ambiguous nature, microaggressions come with an added layer of emotions. They can be confusing due to the layer of uncertainty attached to the remark. Long-term exposure to microaggressions has been associated with symptoms of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), possibly due to the impact that they have on self-esteem and/or the way in which one may feel powerless to challenge them, especially in the workplace where an employee is largely judged by conduct and performance. Former EastEnders actor, Nitin Ganatra, even revealed that racist comments toward him led to overeating and eating disorders growing up in the UK in the 70s and 80s.

In addition, Misha Bryan, who appeared on The X Factor in 2011, candidly shared her own experience with microaggressions in the music industry. The singer told fans how inaccurate descriptions of her being “feisty”, “overconfident” and a “bully” chipped away at her confidence and made her early performing experience a hurtful and resentful one. In a similar vein, Alexandra Burke remembered the time she was told she was "too dark to be in the industry." She was told "You need to bleach your skin because you won't sell any records.", as she confessed in the documentary ‘Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop and Power’. Not to mention the time she was hounded upon for being ‘too sensitive or emotional’ on her Strictly Come Dancing bid to glory. Also, actor Sanjeev Bhaskar himself explained certain mean comments towards him which have led him to believe that racism is very ‘corporate’ now and more about ‘phraseology’. But even the Commission on Race and Ethnic Disparities: The Report acknowledges that “It is certainly true that the concept of racism has become much more fluid, extending from overt hostility and exclusion to unconscious bias and microaggressions”. Although microaggressions are not overtly aggressive like a macro-aggression of physically hurting someone would be, the internal wounds from these remarks are present and bubble under the surface of the "got to get through today at work" face and persona.


Yes, often, the person who’s delivered the insult might be unaware that they have caused offence. But then the perpetrators argue that they are intended as compliments but somehow don't go through the same mental filter we would expect in society. Nonetheless, change is coming. The Microaggressions Project, launched in 2010, is a blog that seeks to provide a visual representation of the every day of “microaggressions” to develop an awareness of its prevalence in modern society now. There are countless self-help guides on how to respond to a microaggression too which involve taking a deep breath to consider both the intent and impact and whether when and how it's best safe to speak up. If you're unsure about how to proceed, talk to someone.

What I've come to love most is the inspiring work of Equaliteach. EqualiTeach is a not-for-profit provider of equality and diversity training and consultancy services for businesses, local authorities, schools and education settings. Based in St Neots, Cambridgeshire, they travel throughout the UK to provide on-site training, workshops, online training, e-learning and consultancy services on diversity and inclusion. Established in 2013, they use an accessible, non-judgemental and engaging approach amongst teams of employees. Having had the pleasure to take part in one of their online courses, I know just how usually comforting it was for someone at the end of the screen to not only validate my experience and the experiences of so many of my Black and Asian friends but also explicitly address and give examples of insensitive conversation scenarios and how we may better account for our words and our tone. Jaluch is also doing just that. They deliver diversity and inclusion training and unconscious bias training in a range of workplaces that seek to raise as much understanding as possible. I strongly believe that diversifying workplaces is another good place to start in addressing this. So many organisations and offices have 1 individual only of a minority ethnic group and they are more likely to feel isolated and unheard. If it becomes commonplace to see more diversity in work teams, such comments aren't justified simply by the novelty of having a person of colour on the team. We need to have more Black and Asian managers who control the narrative of promoting equality and inclusion. Holding people accountable for their comments must become the consistent norm and colleagues need to be monitored closely to ensure no employee feels marginalised for being who they are.

A final word

It is clear that the nature of microaggressions in the workplace is a multi-faceted issue with some simple and complex short term and potentially long term solutions. Microaggressions aren't just said by White British individuals towards Asian British or Black British individuals but rather any ethnic group can say a hurtful comment without fully considering the life experience and mindset of another person. It just happens to be that microaggressions again Black and Minority ethnic individuals are significantly more prevalent and one cannot help but stop and question why. Microaggressions aren't just excluded to the workplace once the person is in the role but can also be experienced in educational institutions and colleges and even in the recruitment process of interviews and assessments with comments like “Are you sure you want to apply for a marketing grad job, not finance?” and "Wow, you’ve got a master’s degree" (as if people of an ethnic minority shouldn't be able to access higher education!).

Let us all think about the impact of our words and before we try to make a funny comment or compare one person to another, think about if it could potentially be offensive and hurtful. By thinking before we speak in the workplace, we demonstrate kindness, thoughtfulness and choose that inclusivity is in fact the way forward.

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