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What Are Microaggressions?
The Basics

What Are Microaggressions?

The small words that can have a big negative impact.
10th Jul 2024

Imagine you’re in a team meeting when a leader provides feedback on a piece of work and says, ‘Sorry I can be so OCD sometimes.’

Another colleague congratulates you but adds, “Your English is great,” as if it’s unexpected.

Back at your desk, you notice someone being mistaken for another colleague with the same ethnicity.

These seemingly small incidents accumulate, revealing and reinforcing underlying biases that permeate the workplace and slowly erode the psychological safety of a hybrid environment. 

What are microaggressions?

Understanding where the term started is key to understanding what it is. 

Microaggression was coined in the early 1970s by a Havard psychiatrist studying the experience of African Americans. A few years later, the term evolved to encapsulate not only racially motivated bias but also age, gender, and sexuality. It entered the cultural lexicon in the last 10 years with widespread movements – such as #MeToo and Black Lives Matter – highlighting outdated attitudes to discrimination accountability and practices. Through this new wave of recognising contemporary systemic biases, the word microaggression was crowned the top word of the year in 2015

The word captures the nuanced nature of small (‘micro’) discriminatory behaviours. In particular, how their cumulative, lasting impact still bears a lot of weight (‘aggression’). It is a subtle comment, action or process that signals a not-so-subtle amount of harm to individuals based on disrespect of their group identity.  

Think of them as the tiny paper cuts of the workplace – minor but surprisingly painful.

How do they occur?

They arise from our deep-rooted unconscious biases against those who are different from us. These biases exist in every human brain because we are wired to discover patterns and figure out the rules behind them to tackle problems. We use our ability to recognise patterns and find rules for those patterns to understand our social hierarchies and successfully interact with other people.

Much like a machine that’s been wired to help you solve a problem until you hit a roadblock – individuals don’t realise they have these biases until they confront them in a conversation or conflict. 

At work, they can surface in conversation when interacting with a different identity where a broad assumption is held about them. Once it’s out of someone’s subconscious and into the world, it can fly under the overt discrimination radar without systems and policies to address it. As Elizabeth Leiba notes in her book, I’m Not Yelling: A Black Woman’s Guide to Navigating the Workplace, “microaggressions are just as much about what is unsaid as what is said”. 

“Microaggressions are just as much about what is unsaid as what is said”. 

Elizabeth Leiba

Who is affected by microaggressions?

To understand who is affected by microaggressions, first ask yourself: do you tend to feel more comfortable around people similar to you? Or can you think of a group of people you hold a broad assumption about? 

When you start to reflect on these questions, you get a sense of who might be affected by a microaggression from your perspective. Ultimately, it can affect all types of individuals to varying degrees. 

While microaggressions can affect anyone, certain groups feel them more acutely. People from marginalised groups – such as racial minorities, LGBTQ+ individuals, and those with disabilities – are especially affected. Those who belong to multiple groups are affected even more.  For example, a 2023 McKinsey report found that Asian and Black women will be more likely mistaken for someone of the same race and ethnicity – seven times more than that of White women. 

How should businesses respond to microaggressions?

Humans naturally possess cognitive mechanisms for making assumptions but these do not have to lead to prejudice and discrimination; those arise from social arrangements that justify exclusion. With most businesses now spanning six generations for the first time in history, how do you train a workforce that’s more diverse than ever to unlearn these limiting assumptions?

There is growing recognition that high diversity and inclusion standards are not only ethical imperatives but also business imperatives. Businesses can play a key role in breaking down the social agreements that create space for microaggressions. Unconscious bias training is only effective when employees can connect observed behaviours, such as microaggressions, to truly unlearn them. 

Leading organisations that prioritise the education of microaggressions include:

  • Deloitte 
  • IBM
  • Amazon
  • McKinsey
  • Google
  • Salesforce 

What if you’re on the receiving end of a microaggression?

Microaggressions can cause a lot of stress and emotional upheaval. The British Psychological Society (BPS) recommends tackling these incidents head-on (when it’s safe, of course) to help lessen their impact.

So, next time something feels off, try these strategies recommended by the American Psychological Association:

  • Respond to the microaggression if it feels safe to do so.
  • Discuss the incident briefly, and arrange to discuss it with the person again later. This gives them the chance to reflect and you the chance to consider, and possibly practise, what to say.
  • Let the person know how the microaggression made you feel and why it is significant.
  • Criticise the microaggression, not the person.

What if you’re accused of a microaggression?

When microaggressions get called out, people can get defensive, feeling accused or misunderstood. Some might see it as over-sensitivity or political correctness. But addressing these issues openly can turn into a teachable moment for the whole team. It sheds light on unconscious biases and the impact of seemingly small comments, promoting a culture of learning and growth. 

  • Be curious. Avoid relying on gut instinct and learn about you
  • Be courageous. Acknowledge your bias and practice openness
  • Be committed. Remember to take time to reflect

The first step in overcoming the negative consequences of unconscious biases is recognising that we all have them. If we don’t acknowledge this, we can’t fight it.

Further Reading

  • What are microaggressions? –  The Micropedia
  • We Need to Retire the Term “Microaggressions” – Havard business review
  • Microaggressions are a big deal: How to talk them out and when to walk away –  NPR