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Microaggressions: Taking the Onus off the Victim

Microaggressions: Taking the Onus off the Victim

What is a microaggression?

Microaggressions are commonplace verbal, behavioural, or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative slights and insults toward disadvantaged and oppressed groups*. Microaggressions are often delivered unintentionally in the form of overt snubs or dismissive looks, gestures, and tones. These exchanges are so common in everyday conversations and experiences that they are often ignored and glossed over as harmless and innocuous. However, microaggressions can also be deliberate and intentional attacks, representing the perpetrator's prejudices toward members of oppressed groups. The term "microaggression" refers to interpersonal interactions, whereas "macroaggression" refers to systemic and environmental discrimination based on social structures and institutions.

*It’s important to note that since the term was coined by Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe the specific microaggressions faced regularly by the African American community, it has since developed to include a myriad of marginalised groups.


Types of microaggressions

Derald Wing Sue et al classified microaggressions into three types: assaults, insults, and invalidations.


A microinsult is a type of rude and offensive communication that insults and diminishes a person's identity. Microinsults are subtle snubs that send an offensive message. For example, if a white employer tells a prospective employee of colour, "the best candidate deserves this job, regardless of race," this is a microinsult because it implies token hiring and that people of colour are looking for special treatment. Microinsults also take the form of attaching derogatory stereotypes to people of colour, people who identify as queer or someone with a disability, for example.


A microassault is an overt racial derogation defined primarily by a verbal or nonverbal attack intended to harm the victim by name-calling, avoidant acts, or deliberate discriminatory conduct. Examples include referring to others as "coloured" or "Oriental," using racial epithets or slurs, and holding anti-LGBT flags.

This can occur in the workplace when a co-worker deliberately and with awareness makes a racist joke while claiming that the joke is "harmless." Other examples include deliberate segregation and/or disregard for minority groups, making misogynistic comments, or attempting to trigger a person's OCD on purpose.


Microinvalidations are communications that exclude, contradict, or nullify an individual's thoughts, feelings, or experiential truth. When British East and South Asians, for example, are complimented on their English or repeatedly asked where they were born, the result is to negate and invalidate their British heritage, giving the impression that they are perpetual outsiders. Another microinvalidation is to tell someone that “our society isn’t racist” or “isn’t homophobic” when they have experienced it first-hand.

Adapted from Sue, Derald Wing, Microaggressions in Everyday Life: Race, Gender and Sexual Orientation, Wiley & Sons, 2010

Discrimination in the workplace is common, with the statistics to show for it. Discrimination, however, has evolved from overt bigotry (which does still exist) to implicit insults in the form of microaggressions, which is why we see its increasing prominence in dialogue around workplace diversity and inclusion. Statistics highlight the importance of addressing, restructuring and improving organisational culture in order to combat discrimination.


  • According to a survey conducted in 2018 by the trade magazine Construction News, 59 % of respondents had heard the word "gay" used as an insult in the workplace, and 28 % of LGBT+ respondents were victims of offensive or inappropriate remarks regarding their gender or sexuality at work.


  • 1/3rd of disabled people say there is a lot of prejudice against them. 1/3rd of able-bodied people believe disabled people are less active than them, and 32% of disabled people and 22% of non-disabled people thought there was a lot of prejudice against disabled people in 2017.


  • In 2018, one in every four Black, Asian or Minority Ethnic workers (25%) reported having witnessed or endured racial harassment or bullying from managers in the previous two years. It is important to note, however, that many people do not report racial harassment or bullying.


The ramifications of this include mental health problems and a toxic work environment. According to Mind, LGBTQI+ people are two to three times more likely than heterosexual people to report having a mental health problem. In any given week, 23% of Black and Black British people will experience a common mental health issue, compared to 17% of white British citizens. More than a quarter (26%) of young women aged 16–24 years old report having a common mental health problem in any given week, compared to 17% of adults. These numbers are higher among marginalised communities because of socioeconomic disparity and disadvantage, injustice and social exclusion, and traumatic experiences. There is a causal relationship between ethnic groups experiencing discrimination and their mental wellbeing, meaning that if not handled and combated correctly, this results in an atmosphere of unease, hostility, depression, and toxicity.


Combatting microaggressions

When microaggressions are used in the workplace, they can have a significant effect on a person's life, leading to the feeling that they do not belong or are not welcomed. However, the way this has been dealt with (or not) within corporate spaces has historically been to inadvertently blame the victim of the abuse for “taking it the wrong way” – and therefore gaslighting them – or telling them to “stand up” against it. A toxic work climate evolves as a result of people's ignorance of microaggressions and their planned or unintentional use. Speaking up can be difficult for many people, and it is not a luxury afforded to people of colour or people from currently marginalised demographics. To do so risks confrontation which often impairs their professional stability, and has led to lack of promotion, demotion, or unequal treatment following the incident. There is acute lack of protections in place to safeguard marginalised employees from further discrimination following incidents of discrimination, which is why so many go unreported. What is more, the onus should not be placed on the victim of a microaggression to deal with that form of harassment. Employers, HR departments and inclusion teams all have a responsibility to ensure a safe working environment free from discrimination for all employees. It is not the victim's duty to correct and inform others in the workplace any time they are the victim of a microaggression. Instead, we should be taking accountability and responsibility as employers, requiring managers and HR employees to be more active in EDI efforts. Worryingly, the proportion of managers who report having a performance goal to achieve equality at work has decreased from 41% in 2015 to 32% in 2018. According to the BITC Race Report, one in every three workers, or 33%, said their organisation has at least one senior leader or champion who consistently supports equity, diversity, and fairness. The behaviours, attitudes, and acts of senior members that embody the company's principles and DNA will be instilled in the rest of the staff, so we won't see any progress in these figures unless there is an example of active and thorough discourses about microaggressions taking place, accompanied by actions in practise to combat them.

Some examples of measures that employers can take that have been adapted and developed from the BITC Report:

  • Mandatory anti-racism and anti-discrimination training for all: This could involve hiring a professional EDI trainer or instead sourcing internal resources.


  • Continuous unconscious bias workshops for executives: Senior management teams, executive boards, and those involved in the recruiting process should go above and beyond by participating in more rigorous seminars that address bias and ensure their recruitment process includes individuals from different backgrounds to help eliminate bias. As a recent Guardian article has pointed out, we shouldn’t be seeing diversity and inclusion as a quick fix. In order to actually eradicate and counter systemic disparities and discriminatory systems, they must be tackled and classified as a multi-level initiative requiring multiple forms of intervention.


  • Sponsorship: Larger corporations should designate a board-level sponsor for all diversity concerns. This person should be kept accountable for the overall achievement of aspirational goals. To ensure this occurs, Chairs, CEOs, and CFOs can include what steps they are taking to boost diversity in their annual report statements.


  • Diversity as a Key Performance Indicator: Employers should have a consistent diversity goal in all leaders' annual evaluations to ensure that positive action is taken seriously.


  • Establishing networks and groups: Employers should create formal networks and enable employees to engage in them, integrating the networks' goals into the company's mission.


  • Surveying: Surveying every employee on their experiences at the company, both professionally or culturally. It is then incredibly important to have specialists who can interpret that data intersectionally, to see who is really being treated fairly and who are not.


  • Provision of Resources: Producing informative and educational resources which are emailed out company-wide. The only way to eradicate microaggressions is to inform and educate on a) what they are, and importantly b) why they are harmful.


  • Recruitment diversity from entry level: Employers should seek out opportunities to provide work experience to a more diverse group of individuals, looking beyond their standard social demographic (this includes stopping the practice of unpaid or unadvertised internships).


Written by Yazz Bhandari

Edited by Tzeitel Degiovanni