A micro-aggression is a statement, action or incident regarded as an indirect, subtle or unintentional discrimination against people of a marginalized group. Micro-aggressions are dog whistles; they are coded language that appears to mean one thing but has a different, specific and usually negative resonance for the target marginalized group.
In our workplaces, we do a lot of training and reminding of people surrounding bullying, discrimination and harassment. We provide long, detailed lists of behaviors to refrain from in order to not bully, discriminate or harass anyone. We provide even longer and more detailed lists for managers of these behaviors.
But we never talk about micro-aggression. We don’t talk about what it is. We don’t talk about how or why it shows up. We don’t talk about the best way to address it when it does.
In our workplaces, we are slow to act on complaint issues that are not overt. We immediately know what to do when someone uses a racial slur or touches someone inappropriately. We don’t know as quickly what to do with someone who regularly describes Black men as “aggressive” or asks Black women if their hair is real or volunteers the women in the meeting to take meeting minutes.
We should. But we don’t.
We’ve been conditioned to ignore micro-aggression. We’ve been conditioned to ignore the dog whistles. We tell ourselves that we didn’t hear what we heard. We tell ourselves that the aggressor “didn’t mean it like that” or that the target is “being too sensitive”. When we do address it, we often approach the aggressor apologetically and downplay the severity of the issue. “What used to be acceptable back in the day will get you fired now”
Newsflash: It was never acceptable. TimesUp!
When micro-aggression goes ignored and under-addressed , a few things happen:
Think I’m going too far? Do a google search on recent workplace shootings. Read some negative Glassdoor ratings. I promise you’ll find ignored and under-addressed occurrences of micro-aggression at the heart. The same can be said for many if not most occurrences of bullying, discrimination and harassment.
Micro-aggression is the seed. Failing to address it allows it to grow. Eventually, it will choke out all the diversity and inclusion you’ve worked to achieve in your workplace.
So what do you do about it?
Micro-aggression is bias. Conscious or unconscious. Intentional or unintentional. It doesn’t matter. Bias is bias. And it has no place in your workplace if inclusion is one of your goals.
Micro-aggression is the seed that, if allowed to grow unchecked, will become bullying, discrimination, harassment, disengagement, turnover, liability and violence. Stop it before it does irrevocable damage.