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Microaggressions in the Workplace

Oct 4, 2022, 11:47 AM by Richard A. Prayson, MD, MEd, J. Jordi Rowe, MD, and Elizabeth E. O’Toole, MD

Laura is a white laboratory technician who works in a hospital. The person with whom she works most closely is James, a black male. Whenever Laura goes on break or for lunch, she locks up her paperwork in a drawer in the work area and logs off the computer. James notices her behavior and wonders if she does this because she is somehow distrustful of him. None of the other technicians in the laboratory do this. Is James being overly sensitive, or is Laura unnecessarily paranoid because James is a black male?

The term “microaggression” was coined in 1970 by Chester M. Pierce, a Harvard University professor and psychiatrist, to describe insults and dismissals which he noted non-black Americans used against blacks in contrast to “macroaggressions which referred to extreme forms of racism such as lynching and beating."1 Work by Dr. Claude Steele, a Stanford University professor showed that there was a vulnerability of minority women to the societal pressure of fulfilling the racial stereotype about intellectual ability, denoted as stereotype threat, which impacted the performance of minority women on academic tests.2 It has also been demonstrated that well-intentioned whites, who consciously believe in and profess equality, unconsciously may act in a racist manner.3

Uncertainties, similar to what James may have been feeling regarding the intentions of Laura’s behaviors, can be distressing to people. Such uncertainties can impact academic and job performance and can be associated with a host of consequences including anxiety, depression, a feeling of helplessness or inadequacy, loss of motivation, problems sleeping, intrusive thoughts and decreased ability to focus.4, 5

Microaggressions are not just limited to race or ethnicity but may involve issues of gender, sexual orientation or identity, religion, disability, social class, age, mental illness or intersectionality (involving people who may be members of overlapping marginalized groups, e.g., a gay black man). These microaggressions may be unintentional or intentional. They may occur in isolation or on a regular basis. They communicate bias, hostility, negative, or derogatory viewpoints and perpetuate a world view of discrimination.

In 2007, Sue et al defined three types of microaggression:6

  1. Microassaults represent conscious or intentional actions or slurs done to deliberately hurt, discriminate or oppress individuals, for example, refusing to provide services to someone who is gay;
  2. Microinsults represent usually nonintentional verbal or nonverbal communication that subtly expresses rudeness and insensitivity, for example, an employee asks a colleague of color how they got their job; and
  3. Microinvalidations represent usually unintentional communications that subtly negate, exclude or nullify the thoughts, feelings or expected reality of an individual, for example, a white person asking an Hispanic individual where they were born.

Richard A. Prayson, MD, MEd, J. Jordi Rowe, MD, and Elizabeth E. O’Toole, MD

Microaggressions come in a whole host of types and manifest in a myriad of ways. See page 33 for examples of microaggressions and their possible interpretations that highlight the scope of the issue.

So, what can be done to address these issues in the laboratory workplace? First, recognizing and acknowledging that such attitudes exist and are potentially harmful is important. Microaggressions have the potential to disrupt the workplace. Kevin Nadal outlines a three-pronged approach to helping individuals decide how to react to microaggressions:4

  • Assess whether or not the microaggression really did occur. Some are flagrantly obvious; others are more subtle. One should start by asking if one heard the comment correctly. If there are other people who witnessed the event, this can be helpful in validating the concern and make definitive labeling of the event much easier. Discussing with others can help reality check the situation and provide insights into what occurred.
  • Decide whether one should respond to the microaggression. This requires a weighing of the potential risk of responding versus not responding. Is there risk of physical harm if one responds? Will the individual, if confronted, become defensive and argumentative? If one responds, how will one’s working relationship with the individual be impacted, especially if the microaggressor is in a position of authority? If one does not respond, does that mean one is accepting the statement or action and will there be regret later if the issue is not addressed?
  • Strategize the best way to respond to a microaggression. Take a deep breath and assume that offense was not the intent (which will not always be true but it is worth initially giving the person the benefit of the doubt). Explain how the comment or action may be interpreted by others. Ask for clarification of what was meant by the comment. Identify supports if needed. The most effective responses are polite; confrontational or angry words run the risk of escalating and worsening the situation. Christy Byrd makes several suggestions on how to respond in a positive way: “you’re too smart to believe that”; “that hurt my feelings”; “what did you mean by that?”; “I know it is hard to deal with that”; “actually, that is not true (and then state the truth)”; “yes, I’ve been speaking English all my life” (use humor); involving others by saying “did you hear that?”; or using nonverbal cues like eye rolling.5

Leadership and the organization can offer training or opportunities to educate employees and leadership on the subject and the importance of continuously respecting diversity and inclusion. The work environment should be such that employees are comfortable and feel safe in bringing up concerns and discussing them with coworkers or supervisors of the laboratory. The goal is to avoid the microaggressions in the first place.

References

  1. Pierce C. Offensive mechanisms. In: In the Black Seventies. (Barbour F, editor). Porter Sargent. Boston, MA. 1970. pp. 265-282.
  2. Steele CM, Aronson J. Stereotype threat and the intellectual test performance of African Americans. J Personality Soc Psychol 1995; 69(5): 797-811.
  3. Dovidio JF, Gaertner SL. Affirmative action, unintentional racial biases, and intergroup relations. J Soc Issues 1996; 52: 51-75.
  4. Nadal KL. A guide to responding to microaggression. Cuny Forum 2014; 2(1): 71-76.
  5. Byrd CM. Microaggression self-defense: A role-playing workshop for responding to microaggressions. Soc Sci 2018; 7, 96; doi:10.3390/socsci7060096.
  6. Sue DW, Capodilup CM, Torino GC, Bucceri JM, Holder AMB, Nadal KL, Esquilin M. Racial microaggressions in everyday life. Implications for clinical practice. Am Psychol 2007; 62(4): 271-286.

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