The Hidden Threat of Microaggressions 

Mitigating their impact, organizations need first to recognize them

by Dr. Joel Martin 


Microaggressions are communications that are conscious and intentional, unconscious, and/or intended to be complimentary. Whether intentional or unintentional, conscious or unconscious, microaggressions are negatively inflicted upon a group of people due to their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or culture. Microaggressions are a form of discrimination. They are rooted in stereotypical thinking, prejudices and biases. 

The impact of these brief and commonplace daily verbal and behavioral indignities is to communicate hostile, derogatory or negative slights and insults to marginalized individuals and groups. The “micro” in “microaggression” refers to person-to-person interactions; “macro” refers to systemic racism, which includes social structure and institutions. In a pastoral letter “Open Wide Our Hearts” on its website usccb.org, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops makes the point this way: “Today’s continuing inequalities in education, housing, employment, wealth and representation in leadership positions are rooted in our country’s shameful history of slavery and systemic racism.”

Regardless of whether a workplace is a nonprofit, hospital, university, tech company or municipality, if there are people in that organization who engage in microaggressions, that puts at risk any effort to “do more and be better” and have an organization with the proven results of a strategic diversity, equity and inclusion commitment. 

Microaggressions take many forms. Often-reported microaggressions include:

  • White employees assuming that a black employee is of a lesser employment status; asking a Black co-worker to get them a cup of coffee; asking a Black woman if they can touch her hair; requesting a white supervisor because they think a Black supervisor “isn’t a good fit”; asking a Black employee how he or she got the job; giving poorer customer service to a Black person than they would to a white person; negating the intelligence of a person because of the person’s name, way of speaking or hair style. 
  • Saying, “You’re so articulate, you don’t sound Black” or, as happened to the youngest U.S. congresswoman in history, skilled orator Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being told, “I didn’t know you were that eloquent.”
  • Discounting the impact made on a person being targeted by telling him or her, “Don’t be so sensitive,” “I was just joking” or “You’re being uppity.” 
  • Expressing a belief that race doesn’t make a difference in success in life, that white privilege doesn’t exist, and that “I’m color blind.” Research tells us these statements don’t take into account that it is simply easier for people who are white or have a white-sounding name — regardless of their level of competence — to get hired. 

In the words of Pulitzer Prize winner Isabel Wilkerson, author of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, “Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.” 

How to Mitigate Microaggressions

Because microaggressions are a form of communication that we learn, we have the power and ability within ourselves to unlearn them. Those in leadership positions can be role models for their organization.

Rev. Carolyn Helsel of the Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary, notes, “Talking about microaggressions is important because words matter. If our words are destructive, even unknowingly, we need to be able to change and to learn how to speak new words that can build people up and help people feel strong, included and embraced.” 

Strategies to mitigate microaggressions include:

  • Slowing down and becoming more mindful. Inaccurate assumptions based on bias can pop into our heads as we are rushing through our day.
  • Organizations strengthening their teams by providing instruction on the kind of communication and accountability that unites diverse team members and keeps them focused on shared objectives. 
  • Battling microaggressions with micro-acknowledgements and positive reinforcement. Acknowledgment can go a long way toward countering any negative action and conveying respect.
  • Recognizing that microaggressions exist. Organizations’ leadership needs to become aware of the common microaggressions in their organization by asking, listening and learning from the people who experience them.

Leaders can support themselves and their organizations by committing to diversity, equity and inclusion actions and strategies. This begins with a needs assessment to learn where they are compared to where they want to be. From there, they should make DEI a long-term strategic commitment. 

Joel (JP) Martin, Ph.D., is president of Triad West, Inc. and founder of Positively Powerful™ Programs. Dr. Martin is a communications specialist who designs and implements diversity, equity and inclusion strategic solutions based upon researched needs analysis and best-practice programs of vision alignment and transformational leadership development.  


Read the other articles that are part of this “Diversity, Equity and Inclusion: The Time Is Now” cover story.

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