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Microaggressions in the Workplace

Have you ever been asked where you’re from? Or perhaps, you have memories of being told that “your food smells weird.” As a child and well into my adult life, I have dealt with Microaggressions. Microaggressions are subtle or unintentional acts or comments that may be harmful and harm individuals from marginalized groups.

In the workplace, where individuals spend a considerable amount of time, these microaggressions can contribute to a hostile and unwelcoming environment for those targeted, affecting their mental health and productivity.

Microaggressions come in many forms, including comments, jokes, body language, and exclusionary behaviours. They can be overt or subtle and often reflect underlying biases and stereotypes. These include but are not limited to:

  1. Making comments about a person's accent or pronunciation: Remarks like "You speak English so well!" or questions such as "Where are you from?" as opposed to “What is your ethnic background?” are insensitive and perpetuate the stereotype that people with accents or non-native English speakers are not fully Canadian or competent.

  2. Excluding someone from a conversation or decision-making process because of their identity: This can occur even when equity-seeking employees and managers are nominally included, such as being invited to meetings or gatherings, but where their opinions are ignored in favour of others or dismissed altogether. This treatment can be incredibly isolating and have a chilling effect on further participation.

  3. More overt assumptions that someone may not be competent or qualified due, at least in part, to their race: This can include comments such as "I didn't expect you to be so good at this" or "You don't look like a typical nurse." These comments are often based on stereotypes and can be detrimental to individuals who are already struggling to break down barriers in their field.

Once you've identified a microaggression, it's essential to address it appropriately. Here are three things that I do when I encounter Microaggressions:

  1. Call out the behaviour: This involves confronting the person who made the microaggression and pointing out why it's inappropriate. For instance, "When you said that, it came across as racist." It's essential to be clear and direct so that the person and everyone else present understands that such behaviour is unacceptable and should not be reiterated. It is even more important to do this when you are not the subject of the action as targets, especially among those of Asian cultural backgrounds, may have difficulty with confrontation in formal settings.

  2. Call in the person: This involves engaging the person who made the microaggression more privately and discussing why their behaviour was inappropriate. For example, "What you said hurt my feelings. Can we talk about why that was offensive?" When delivered in a more objective tone rather than an overly critical one, this is more likely to bypass psychological resistance and lead to greater accountability.

  3. Explain the impact: This involves explaining to the person who made the microaggression why their behaviour is problematic. For example, "When you made that comment, it perpetuated a harmful stereotype, and it bothered me." Some people are genuinely ignorant and stand to gain from explaining the consequences of their words and actions on others. However, imparting this to them is no one’s explicit responsibility.

For more examples of sayings to avoid or address, visit an online resource cataloguing microaggressions

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