By - October 04, 2022
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
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
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.