Ever walked into a room and felt like everyone was talking about you? While that particular feeling is often the product of overthinking, experiencing microaggressions can make you feel a similar nervousness or anxiety.
What is a microaggression?
According to Merriam-Webster, a microaggression is “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group (such as a racial minority).” And even if you are new to the term “microaggression,” chances are that if you are a woman or a member of any marginalized group, you’ve definitely been on the receiving end of a few.
How do microaggressions manifest?
According to Professor of Psychology at Columbia University, Derald W. Sue, Ph.D., microaggressions rear their ugly head in three ways: micro-assaults, microinsults, and micro-invalidation. Microaggressions can be explicit or conscious derogatory verbal or nonverbal communication that dehumanizes or invalidates the experiences of women, people of color, members of the LGBTQA+ community etc.
For example, as one of two Black women on the staff of the financial aid department at a university, I often overheard or was the direct target of microaggressions; like when a white colleague complimented my braids, while at the same time stating that she would invite me to her home for dinner because her “kids would love my hair.”
Another incident occurred where the same colleague uncomfortably asked “Do you want to be white?” after I borrowed her work ID card in order to get into an office in our building. But every time one of these verbal slights happened, I never knew whether or not it warranted me filing a complaint or going to a supervisor, and if I did I felt that management, which consisted of mostly white men, wouldn’t understand. What I did know, was that I didn’t feel safe in that work environment.
How to deal with microaggressions
The effects of microaggressions aren't just anecdotal: According to research published in the Journal of Counseling Psychology, microaggressions can lead to traumatic stress symptoms and depression in some populations.
Ahead, are five proven ways to deal with microaggressions at work, and hopefully, protect your peace of mind:
1. Calmly confront.
It seems silly that in 2018, any marginalized person still has to deal with ignorant or snide comments in the workplace. But gone are the days where women, people of color, and any other minority group has to keep silent and keep their head down.
If you have to deal with a case of microaggression in the workplace, remain calm and assess the situation, be it intentional or simply misplaces, address the offender directly and ask “What did you mean by that?” Don’t respond with anger, but instead try to relay why a particular microaggressive comment or action was hurtful/inappropriate.
2. Build a support team.
It’s important to have at least one colleague that you can trust. And while that option isn’t always available in the workplace, if you can find a confidant at work, lean on that person for moral support when microaggressions happen, or when you need someone who will defend you if it ever becomes necessary.
3. Report the incident.
I never reported any of the microaggressions that I experienced, for fear of being deemed as too sensitive and having my complaint dismissed as a minority employee; but in hindsight, I wish that I had reached out to management. Everyone has a right to work in an environment that is free from unnecessary emotional and mental distress.
And if you don’t trust that a direct supervisor or upper management will hear you out, find out who is the head of diversity initiatives within your organization. Reach out to him or her, and let them know about any incident that makes you feel invalidated or targeted, no matter how minor it seems; especially if the incidents become frequent.
Tiffany Curtis is a Philly-based freelance writer, podcaster, and sex positivist whose work focuses on empowerment for women of color, race and culture, and sex positivity. She has written for sites like Blavity, Refinery29, and Hello Giggles.