“Where are you from?," my driver asked during my recent Uber ride.
“From Jersey City,” I replied.
“Where are you from?," he asked again. This time with intensity.
“Well, I am from Boston originally,” I said with conviction, my voice shaking.
“Seriously, I asked, where are you really from?”
“Where are you from” is one of many microaggressions that have plagued me all my life.
Along with people assuming I speak Spanish, the repeated mispronunciation of my name by former work colleagues, or people creating an entirely new name for me. Mohammed, because they couldn’t pronounce Madhumita. There's the compliment of “your English is really very good.” Or the compliment of how “my vacation was” after I returned to work from maternity leave. Or being repeatedly mistaken at work for the other brown girl who remains a close friend (and no, we look nothing alike. She’s tall with short hair and glasses.)
When Michelle Obama was on her “Becoming” book tour, she talked about the challenges she faced growing up as a Black woman in the United States. She described micro-aggressions “as the cuts you endure every single day.” And over a lifetime, these cuts can be chip away at your confidence and sense of self-worth.
Microaggressions can set the scene for workplace bullying and can have devastating consequences. We all need to be agents of change and protect the culture in our work communities we are working so hard to build. When you see a microaggression take place, don’t be the person who says nothing or does nothing. Or worse, the one who shrugs and laughs it off as no big deal. Don’t have the default be to call HR. Real leadership is about standing up in the moments that matter, and not having someone stand in for you.
So, what can you do when a microaggression takes place?
1. Intervene in the moment.
Over time, I have become better about using my voice in the moment. This strategy can be useful in smaller settings, such as standing up for a colleague when his or her name is repeatedly mispronounced. Or reminding people that she was on maternity leave, not vacation.
2. Intervene afterwards.
Connecting one-on-one may be easier, especially if you are in a larger setting. This should be done as quickly as possible following what was said or what was done. Your opening can look like this: “Hi, I wanted to check in on that happened this morning. I don’t believe you intended to do this, and this was the impact that was felt.”
3. Check-in with the person impacted.
Check-in as soon as possible. Your opening can look like this: “Hi, I was there in the meeting this morning, and heard what was said. I wanted to check-in to see how you are feeling. What can I do to help support you?”
4. Encourage the apology.
Coach the person to apologize in the most sincere, authentic way possible. The apology is best done in person, not over text or email. The apology can pave the way for an honest conversation — to understand the intent versus the impact that was felt.
5. Work to educate.
Apologies are a waste if the individual isn’t going to continue to seek education. To show that he or she will do better and be better. Education comes in all forms — attending Business Resource Group events, external conferences or panels, reading and reading — and having human conversations with each other.
Now, back to that morning Uber ride. Here's how I handled it.
“Where are you from?” I retorted back.
“Teaneck, NJ,” he said proudly.
“Then, why can’t I be from Jersey City?”
That was met with silence. I didn’t say much more. Just in case he dropped me off in the wrong location. If I followed my own advice, it would have been a moment for me to intervene; to have a real dialogue. Instead, I slammed the door.
I should have said: "next time you want to get to know someone better and make a human connection, trying asking them how they identify. How do you identify?" My answer would have been: A brown woman. Originally from Boston. Who lives in Jersey City.