Grant-Ford & Kahanov (2021) describe microagressions as ‘a form of discrimination in which verbal, nonverbal, intentional, unintentional, or environmental insults are made to or about marginalised societal groups.’ They go on to divide them into three categories:
Microinsults: insensitive or rude remarks that convey contempt for the target. The transgressor is often unaware of the offensive nature of their comments and may believe they are paying the person a compliment.
Example: ‘I love your accent, but is there any way you could tone it down a bit when you’re talking to clients? It doesn’t sound very professional.’
Microassaults: these behaviours are most closely aligned with isms like sexism or racism. They can be verbal, nonverbal, implicit or explicit (i.e. intentional). Avoidance behaviour is also a microassault.
Example: Someone pushes a person in a wheelchair without asking for permission first.
Microinvalidations: These comments are dismissive of the feelings or experiences of the person being addressed or denying one’s own (possibly unconscious) biases towards a social group.
Example: I don’t believe John was being sexist or racist with his comments. You’re blowing this out of proportion.
As you discovered in Week 2, microinvalidations might also be referred to as gaslighting – leading the individual experiencing the discrimination to question themselves.
As suggested here, a key reason why microaggressions can present a barrier to diversity and inclusion is that people with privilege are often oblivious to them. Taylor (2020) describes them as ‘implicit biases coming to life in everyday interactions’.
A common interpretation of microaggressions is that the people making the comments or actions are doing so unknowingly and that those on the receiving end are being oversensitive, but this underestimates the regularity of these comments and actions, which can have a very significant effect on an individual.
Watch this short video from Imperial College London for a useful insight.
Transcript: Video 4: Microaggressions – what you need to know
Activity 2 Examples of microaggressions
Spend a few minutes reflecting on microaggressions that you have observed or experienced. They might be things that other people have done or said or perhaps comments or actions that you have made yourself that you now see could have been perceived negatively by the person receiving them.
Even if you have been on the receiving end of microaggressions yourself, you might realise that you have made assumptions about others that you now view differently.
Examples of microaggressions in the workplace include:
- being ignored or interrupted in meetings
- having your name mispronounced
- people making assumptions about your skills, abilities, and temperament
- people making stereotypical judgements.
Many microaggressions are unintentional, but the key learning here is to try to recognise them and either call them out or avoid them in the first place.
Although microaggressions are an uncomfortable concept, Golden (no date) explains that they have an inverse, known as microaffirmations, which can be just as powerful, building on each other and creating a positivity loop. She suggests various examples for us to look for and push, or follow:
- Open doors to opportunity – invite someone to a business networking event, include them on an important committee or project
- Show inclusion and caring – stop by someone’s office for a chat, socialise with them, get to know about their life outside of work
- Listen – invite someone to speak, pay attention to their words, ask thoughtful questions
- Give credit – make sure people’s contributions are known and acknowledged
- Offer support – stand up for people when they’re being discredited or demeaned
- Provide feedback – help everyone to recognise and build on their strengths and overcome their weaknesses.
Golden suggests that affirming other people’s work is an effective way to motivate them, and if everyone in your department adopts this behaviour, it will contribute to the creation of a more supportive and inclusive culture.
In the next section you’ll explore some of the fear that can be associated with talking about diversity.