Small, but mighty: Combating microaggressions

How they affect everyday life

Dr. Abdul M. Omari | Footnote

Editor's note: Updated February 1, 2021

It was June 2020 in the height of unrest after George Floyd was killed. I was working 12-plus hour days trying to help organizations and individuals process the events, teaching about equity, inclusion and diversity. Upon returning from the grocery store (one of the only breaks from work I took during that time), I was bringing up groceries from the garage and, when I stepped off the elevator, a white woman asked, “Are you a delivery person?”

It suggested that a Black man could not simply be taking groceries to his downtown Minneapolis condo. I began asking myself questions. Does she ask everyone taking groceries to their unit this question? I highly doubt it. Did this come from a place of harm? I do not think so. Did she want to insult me? I doubt it.

In the midst of all of the emotions I had felt, the pure physical and mental exhaustion, this microaggression is what brought me to tears. I spent the next several days replaying the encounter in my head. The things I wanted to say in response. Calculating what could have happened if it turned into a verbal altercation. Who would be blamed if law enforcement got involved over a shouting match? Thankfully, I had enough poise in me not to get into a verbal back-and-forth with the woman and simply replied, “No. I live here just like you.”

These are the everyday verbal and nonverbal insults known as microaggressions.

Early 2020 marked a new time in the United States’ history. It’s a time that will be discussed by future generations in the same way we discuss the Great Depression, the Rodney King assaults, Pearl Harbor and 9/11. It subtly reignited a conversation about the haves and the have nots as the country moved to virtual work, school and gatherings with loved ones due to a global pandemic. While the conversations around equity and disparities remained subtle — almost a footnote when discussing our new normal — the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis put those same topics on full display. Even those who tried could not ignore the conversation.

This article is designed to help readers think critically about how small, often unintentional actions and words are hurtful and how, individually, we can make meaningful improvements.

Microaggressions

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership. Microaggressions are closely linked to the biases we carry.

While this article is not about bias, I encourage readers to explore the topic. It is important to note that microaggressions can happen to any marginalized group; however, they most often target Black, Indigenous, people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ and those with levels of physical and mental abilities deemed to be outside of the norm. Studies have shown that microaggressions can have significant negative impacts, including depression, physical health changes, anxiety, lower self-regard and lessen work satisfaction.

Because microaggressions are micro, people have a hard time understanding the collective impact of them. People use the metaphor, “Death by a thousand cuts,” because one small cut will not kill a person, but 1,000 cuts will. Others use the example of mosquito bites. We can brush off one mosquito bite, but getting bit enough times has a major impact. Those on the receiving end of microaggressions might brush off one mosquito bite as annoying, but being bitten 10 times in a short period of time will make us react differently. We might start swatting all the mosquitoes we see and become aggravated.

In the same way, when we are on the receiving end of multiple microaggressions, the most recent one could be the final straw. Make no mistake that it is not only about the accumulation of microaggressions that makes them harmful and may cause a reaction; the microaggressive act or behavior is micro due to the delivery style but aggressive due to the felt impact. In other words, one slight that allows a person to question communication, self-confidence, belonging or personal traits is one too many.

Let’s take a look at some examples of microaggressions in face-to-face situations, as well as common occurrences and considerations in a virtual setting.

Common examples of microaggressions

  • Referring to men by formal titles and women by first name.
  • Ignoring or glossing over some people’s ideas and doing the opposite for others.
    • Particularly ignoring younger people, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of color) and women.
  • Asking people where they are from and when they reply with Minnesota, you ask, “Where are you really from?”
  • When a woman has a ring on the designated wedding finger, one asks about her husband even though she is married to a woman.
  • Saying to someone, “You’re pretty in an exotic way.”
  • “You’re so articulate” (directed at BIPOC).
  • Mixing up the Black people’s names when there are only two in a group of 30.
    • One of the times this happened to me, the other Black man was 6 inches taller than me and weighed about 100 pounds more than me.
  • “You don’t look Native American; what percentage are you?”

Examples of microaggressions in a virtual environment

  • Commenting on someone’s “cute, little workspace.” Not everyone has a sunroom.
  • “I didn’t know you have gray hair.”
  • “Who is that talking in the background?”
  • Suggesting that everyone should have an office setup at home with no distractions.
  • Saying, “As you can see on the screen,” while not realizing someone on the meeting is blind.
  • “I didn’t expect you to look like that based on our phone call.”
  • “You sound different than I expected.”
  • “Everyone stand up and take a stretch.” Not everyone can stand.

The do’s

  • Call others out when witnessing microaggressions in the moment.
  • Own your mistakes.
  • Be thoughtful about words and actions.
  • Apologize if you have microaggressed someone.
  • Research and learn.
  • Let things sit for a while when called out before trying to “solve” the situation.
  • Dig deeper into what happened and what historical factors may be important.

The don’ts

  • Become defensive if called out.
  • Explain away.
  • Confuse intent with impact (accidentally hitting someone does not take away or lessen the pain).
  • Write it off as invalid or someone being too sensitive.
  • Fall into the “I didn’t mean it” trap.
  • Do not try to “solve” the situation.

Responses to microaggressions

Interrupt microaggressions

  • “What does that mean?”
  • “Can you elaborate and/or explain why you asked that?”
  • “I didn’t find that funny.”

Conversation starters

  • “When you said that, I heard it in this way …”
  • “Did you mean that to be hurtful?"

Other pointers

  • Separate the actual people from the statements/microaggressions (especially if people are on the defense).
  • Avoid “you” statements. Use “I” or “we.”
  • Avoid starting questions with “why.”
  • Remember, how we say things is crucial.

Do your part

As mentioned, microaggressions are often aimed at and negatively impact those who have continued to be on the receiving end of discrimination, racism, sexism, ableism and xenophobia.

The negative physical and mental health impacts contribute to larger social injustice in our workplaces, state and nation. While individuals may not be able to make sweeping changes to eliminate social injustices, individuals can make small, but mighty, changes in the ways we act, talk and engage with others that can collectively make large positive differences.

Dr. Abdul M. Omari is the founder and principal of AMO Enterprise, a consulting firm focused on leadership development and the inseparable ties to equity, inclusion, and diversity. You can find out more at www.abdulmomari.com. You may reach Abdul at abdul@amoenterprise.com.