Microaggressions In The Workplace

I came across the term microaggression. A term coined by Harvard Psychologist, Chester Pierce, in the 1970’s and it is still relevant today. It’s defined as, the indirect, subtle and unintentional discrimination against marginalized people.

I must have dealt with this the entire time I have lived in America. Why was it different now? What has changed? I came to realize being in a racially tense place, was playing a tremendous role in my reactions. It was an accumulation of microaggressions which led me to the point of an emotional break. The glass which I saw my world through was shattered and I was standing with blood stains on my face and in complete shock. For this is my reality and I was no longer shielded from it. Why it took me so long to get to this place, is a story for another day.

I started discussions with friends and the stories where never ending. The common factor for all of us was, the invalidation of the acts done against us. Our feelings were minimalized and I have come to see that the act of minimalisation is a form of microaggression. So here is a list based on incidents and conversions with friends and acquaintances about workplace microaggressions. I only spoke with other women so this list is biased to our truths.

1. When a group of minorities get together in the workplace, it is seen as a threat. Amber, Rachel and Tim can sit together but the minute Tunde, Jamela and Tyrone sit together. It is a scene from National Geographic in which the whole workplace is curious, asking questions and looking at us with uneasiness. God forbid there is a whole table of minorities sitting together, work will be canceled for the rest of the day so the office can regroup. The sad part is some of us have internalized this and we stay away from other black people in the workplace like they have Ebola.

2. Mistakes are exaggerated while covered up and swept under the rug for others. We already know we must be the best and give 150%, but we are still humans and we will make mistakes. But, that’s assuming we are seen as human beings. Some have been belittled in front of clients, scolded in front of a whole office or spoken to like an infantile.

3. For black women, we always have to be conscious of not coming across as angry. We have to put on fake smiles and if at one moment we slip and spot a frown, it’s over. We can’t show the vast array of emotions others are entitled to. I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I was hired as the office robot.

4. When others take initiative, they are praised for their leadership skills. When a black woman does it, she is labeled as mean, being bossy, stuck up, etc. The same qualities praised in others are always negative for us.

5. Inappropriate comments and actions almost become second nature. I heard a story of a nurse working at a prominent hospital. She had to deal with colleagues putting pens and pencils in her hair because they thought it was cool they stayed in place. How she managed to put up with such nonsense is beyond amazing and shows great self-control. Someone will get fired for that in my book.

6. You should be the voice of black people but only when it convenient and it’s not because they care but merely as a way to validate their biases. It is simply the easy way out, because real curiousity will seek knowledge instead they just want a mouthpiece.

7. The insensitivity to racial issues. Someone shared with me they spent hours at work explaining that police brutality is reality and interactions with law enforcement is different for black people. After those hours, her colleague was still adamant that those black people in the news must have done something wrong. I commend her for the patience, because such conversations will only last for five seconds in my world. “Amber, sometimes you get in trouble for just being black”. She replies, “No, those men on TV are criminals. We have to follow the law”.  “You are right Amber, ummm…I will see you tomorrow”. Hours?! Not I.

8. Invalidation of feelings. When someone tells you “Don’t make this a race thing”, the fact that they can comfortably say those words is why there is a “race thing”. To tell someone thy shouldn’t feel a certain way is the biggest injustice, taking away someone’s rights to their feelings and emotions. Furthermore, ignoring such feelings and emotions is just as prejudice as calling someone by a racial slur.

9. I have an accent, so deal with it. Assuming that I must struggle with English or I cannot read to understand is very disrespectful. Mind you I didn’t have this issue until I moved down south. Everywhere I go, “you have an accent, where are you from?” Someone onced asked, “Are you Jamaican?”. In my head, I replied “No, I’m from Mars by way of West Africa and Pluto. Jamaican? Really? Clearly, you don’t travel much”.

10. Assuming that all black people have the same experience. I was at a presentation once and the speaker said “you know, if I call all the black women in this room a rat, they will be offended”. Well, I had no clue what the hell this clown was talking about at first. Then I realized, he was referring to being called a hood rat. The fact that this person assumed every black woman grew up in a space where they were called hood rats, hence we carry emotions to that word, is problematic.

11. They use slang around us they don’t use for others. You know the person who says “girl” every time they are talking to black people. Or my favorite, “baby daddy”. No I have a husband, before that, a father and I grew up with uncles. I have respectable men in my life, so I have no clue who the hell a baby daddy is. If Amber’s father is not referred to as baby daddy, please don’t use that term when talking about Shanice’s father. If you use it for one, use it for all.

12. The diversity training is the same one each year since 1985. It’s just a matter of going through the motions. Talk about real issues that we face today? No! That’s rubbish! We are not prejudice, we have people on the VHS tape saying so. Now watch the video and sign this piece of paper.

At the end of the day, I realized microaggressions are not so micro. They are real aggressive behaviors just like physically inflicting pain on someone. For the micros add up to macros and the effects linger much longer than physical hurt. So here is to us, playing the game of chest in the workplace and coming out victorious. To exist in environments such as these and still stand firm is an achievement all on its own. May we one day create spaces where microaggressions are not tolerated and they carry real consequences.




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