The first time a coworker commented on my “unpronounceable” name, they insisted it was a compliment.
But I didn’t feel complimented. I felt uncomfortable.
This was before the term “microaggression” became widespread. When it did, I knew this term captured the essence of how I felt, describing the everyday putdowns, insults, or offensive “compliments” from well-meaning white peers.
It’s powerful to have a commonly understood term to articulate these issues and address the way they impact underestimated people.
These exclusionary, biased actions are anything but “micro.” The real issue is the cumulative effects of hearing something about your difference called out every day, in seemingly benign ways.
That’s why we must stop using the term “microaggressions” to describe them.
Why “Microaggressions” Doesn’t Work
The term “microaggression” doesn’t truly capture the biased action’s emotional and material effects or how they impact women and people of color’s career progressions.
It’s never about just one slight, just one “cut.” It’s death by a thousand cuts, in the form of slights you hear every day, multiple times a day.
The use of “micro” in the term minimizes the actions’ harmful effects. It also prioritizes the comfort of those in the majority by centering their intentions instead of their impacts.
Instead, I prefer the term “exclusionary or biased behaviors.”
Be Curious but Thoughtful
I’m not saying never ask questions about each other’s names or heritage or culture. But there’s a time and place for conversations about a person’s identity, especially in the workplace. Going up to someone on their first day of work to ask, “what are you?” is never the right approach.
It’s a dehumanizing way to express curiosity about someone’s background. But even if you ask more tactfully, a conversation about identity and background in the middle of a meeting has a very different tenor than at a casual networking event or over a work lunch.
The former relates, “I demand answers to my questions that don’t impact the work we’re going to do together.” The latter communicates, “I’m genuinely curious and interested in you and want to take some time to get to know you. I’m also inviting your questions about me.”
Recognizing this difference requires cultivating empathy, especially if your experience in the majority wouldn’t make anyone question your background, ability, or competence.
If someone tells you that something you said was biased or a microaggression, apologize sincerely, seek to understand why it may have been harmful (sometimes, they may tell you; other times, it’s up to you to do your own homework), and then refrain from doing it again.
When we brush off “microaggressions,” we minimize the huge impact they have on underrepresented and marginalized employees. To make change, we must first be able to name, recognize, and acknowledge the harm exclusionary behaviors cause.
What do you think of the term “microaggression”? What would be a more accurate alternative for you?
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