Microaggressions and the Harm They Cause

Contributed by Charlene Sarmiento, Communications Manager, and Angela Lee, Manager of Advocacy Outreach and Engagement, Goodwill Industries International

Note: This is the first in a three-part series on microaggressions.

Communities across the world — and particularly in the United States — are discussing and working through long-lasting societal problems around systemic discrimination, racism, sexism, homophobia and more, which have an impact on every facet of our lives.

Education is key to understanding how systemic discrimination and racism impacts each of us, pervades our daily lives, and negatively impacts the lives and futures of people of color. As we all learn ways to become anti-racist, it’s important to learn about microaggressions and how to address them in the workplace.

What Are Microaggressions?

Microaggressions are thinly veiled, everyday instances of discrimination. They can range from insults to  comments or gestures. While they may not seem as damaging as more overt forms of oppression, they are harmful to our communities. Examples of microaggressions in the workplace could include:

  • A white colleague tells a colleague of color ‘you’re so articulate’ or ‘you speak so well.’ These comments, while they may have been said with good intentions, indicate a belief that the colleague of color would be less articulate, and the commenter is surprised that they are not.
  • Someone tells a colleague with a disability that they are ‘inspiring,’ indicating the commenter has lower expectations for the colleague because they have a disability.
  • A man interrupts a female colleague during a meeting, repeating the same idea she was communicating and either taking credit or not giving her credit for it. This implies that men’s contributions are more important than women’s or that men’s ideas should be taken more seriously than women’s in professional settings.
  • A cisgender person tells a transgender person that they ‘don’t look trans,’ implying that being transgender is not desirable or presumes a goal of looking binary cisgender.

There are many more types of microaggressions and examples of how people experience them. They are detrimental to our communities and our workplaces.

Microaggressions in the Workplace

People who are on the receiving end of microaggressions or bias may be accused of being overly sensitive, not taking a joke or not accepting a statement intended as a compliment. Receiving a microaggression can be a stressful and negative emotional experience that contributes to a nonproductive and toxic working environment.

In the second blog post in this series, we explore how to talk about experiencing microaggressions. In the third and final blog, we discuss how to address it if you have committed a microggression and provide tips on how to be an ally and advocate.