How to Respond to Your Ignorant Coworker’s Microaggressions

Unintentional biases wear away at your self esteem. Here are some strategies for curtailing unwelcome and discriminatory comments from coworkers—whether they are directed at you or someone else.

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Oct 30 2018, 5:00pm

Photos courtesy of Kiyun Kim.

It all starts with a seemingly innocuous question like “where are you really from?” or “you don’t speak Spanish”? But dig a little deeper and you’ll realize that these kinds of questions are subtle forms of discrimination, hostility, and disrespect. And when you get them at work, it can be especially tricky to know how to respond without coming across as hostile or overly sensitive.

“I've had so many variations of ‘you speak incredibly well’ or ‘you're so articulate’ that I've lost count,” says advertising professional Alvin Sierra, who adds that he is almost always the only black creative in his department.

Saying nothing can be perceived as condonation, but calling someone out on inappropriate comments can backfire too. Things get even more complicated when the incident takes place at work. Can you spare the political capital by correcting a colleague—or worse yet, a superior!—however gently? In all of these situations it’s best to react authentically and directly—but with kindness and emotional objectivity.

“No one likes being slighted,” says Farah Harris, a licensed clinical professional counselor and workplace mental health advocate. “However, knowing how to respond in a healthy way when these indignities happen is key.“

What is a microaggression?

As the new book Microaggression Theory explains, “Microaggressions are brief, everyday exchanges that send denigrating messages to certain individuals because of their group membership.” They are different from blatant harassment or discrimination, which are generally stronger in tone and intensity and should be reported to your human resources department.

Here’s an example of the difference as it relates to ageism:

Microaggression: When an older employee enters a conversation, people speak more loudly or distinctly because they assume the older person is hard of hearing.

Harassment or discrimination: The older person gets called “grandma/grandpa” as a nickname or gets excluded from certain tasks because of their age.

(For more examples, check out this collection on LGBT issues, this one on trans people, and this one on race.)

This contemporary form of racism is many times over more problematic, damaging, and injurious to persons of color than overt racist acts,” — Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University professor of psychology and economics

While these moments may not seem like a big deal when they happen, the effects add up over time and can have a devastating psychological impact. “This contemporary form of racism is many times over more problematic, damaging, and injurious to persons of color than overt racist acts,” Derald Wing Sue, a Columbia University professor of psychology and economics, wrote in a 2007 article for American Psychologist.

That’s why it’s in the interest of you and everyone on your team to speak up. Here are few ideas on how to do that in a way that will result in positive change.

When the microaggression is directed at you

Dr. Shah calls a fellow doctor to discuss a patient’s medications. The other doctor repeatedly calls her “ma’am” during their conversation, while inaccurately describing the situation. After taking a deep breath, she tells him, “stop calling me ma’am, I’m a doctor just like you,” then corrects his mistakes.

Artist Cheryl R. Riley has become so accustomed to people trying to touch her natural hair that she has a strategy: she mirrors their action, reaching for their hair. She describes her co-worker’s reaction: “Her face was at first shocked, then outraged but then, it diverged to embarrassment as she became aware that what she did was disrespectful.”

Pretty much everyone has made a language mistake or overgeneralization, so an effective strategy for responding to questionable comments is to use compassion. When you receive a microaggression, try pausing for a moment, then asking for clarity, Harris recommends. The pause gives you time to separate your emotional reflex and rational response. Asking for clarity is a gentle way to call attention to the comment, while giving the microaggressor time to correct their mistake. Finally, Harris recommends saying something soon afterwards about it, rather than letting yourself slip into passive, or worse yet, passive aggressive behavior.

You don't sound like a normal black person.
Photo courtesy of Kiyun Kim.

Yulia Laricheva, workplace positivity thought leader and creator of the Dream Nation podcast, takes this practice of compassion one step further: she proposes that coming from a place of love is the best response. “If you catch yourself being aggressive, simply stop and find empathy for the other person. If someone is being aggressive towards you, meet them with kindness (and a smile if you can).”

While reacting with love is challenging in this context, and possibly counterintuitive, the direct move towards connection makes a potentially relationship-damaging moment into one that builds trust. At the same time, it’s important to remain authentic to yourself as well—make sure that they know what they said is unacceptable by saying so clearly. Eye contact, a smile, and an honest response form a strong combination.

Deciding to be a bystander or an ally

If things seem fraught when you are the target of a problematic conversation, dynamics get even more complicated when you’re the witness. Being an ally to women, people of color, trans people, and those who identify as non-binary takes even more self-awareness and ability to read a room. Additionally, the ally strategy is different regarding timing than when you’re the subject of a microaggression.

There’s a fine line between allyship and appropriation, so it’s important to leverage your privilege while still leaving space for the actual issue. This isn’t about you having a sister or a disabled friend that makes sexism or ableism unacceptable—speaking inclusively is important for work culture, period.

Can you read this? He showed me a Japanese character on his phone.
Photo courtesy of Kiyun Kim.

If you aren’t sure what to do in the moment due to concern of speaking for someone or appropriating the slight, the aftermath is the time to build alliances. Try asking the person how they’re doing, acknowledging what was said and that it didn’t feel great, Kevin Nadal, a psychologist and editor of Microaggression Theory, recommends. Then, take the opportunity to ask them how you can be there for them in the future.

While each situation is unique, in the case when someone makes a transphobic or homophobic comment, a trans or queer person might not call attention to the comment and out themself. Instead, Nadal recommends, you can help create a safe space by making it clear to the person who made the comment (or their boss) that you don’t want that kind of language to be the norm in your workplace environment.

Changing the conversation

“I would have to agree with responding clearly and with compassion but I also tend to be very directpoint the ‘thing’ out and lets talk about it. This is new for me within the last few years; for me ignoring it or bringing laughter/humor into the equation can minimize the emotional damage caused by microaggressions,” says Char Lee, a writer for theater and film. She often finds herself responding to problematic language: “I would be curious to know if what you really mean is [...] because that is what I hear?"

When it comes to responses, giving the benefit of the doubt is key, because if someone is treated as if they meant well, they are more likely to respond without defensiveness. They experience less shame and gain the freedom to improve their behavior while saving face.

“I” statements are key in both cases—it can prevent much of that potential defensiveness. Nadal recommends saying things like “I don’t feel that is a constructive way to talk about that issue,” or “I don’t identify with that group but I don’t want to normalize that type of language.” This gives the microaggressor a chance to reassess what they just said, and start a dialogue that could be an eye opener for everyone involved.

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