“Say What Now?”: Microaggressions in the Office
They’re not as small as you think…
Mindy Kaling, one of Hollywood’s esteemed Comedy Queens, did it again. Did what, exactly? Hilariously addressed major social issues in her hit comedy, “The Mindy Project.” In an episode titled “Mindy Lahiri is a White Man,” Mindy is unfairly passed over a promotion solely based on her race and gender. So what happens next? Naturally, she becomes a white man for a day and experiences privilege she’s never even dreamed of.
The episode tackles many social issues, but one stood out the most to me as a working woman of color: microaggressions in the workplace.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines a microaggression as, “a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a member of a marginalized group.” Basically, they’re just subtly offensive comments rooted in prejudice which people don’t even realize are offensive.
Why are microaggressions an issue? Because they’re subtly offensive comments rooted in prejudice which people don’t even realize are offensive. People will just keep saying them. Microaggressions can be so subtle, you might not initially realize what was said was problematic.
One of the first times I ever experienced a microaggression in an academic setting was when someone told me, “Wow, your English is really good.” Initially I laughed it off, but after a few moments I realized how offensive that comment was. It was assumed that because I’m of Iraqi heritage, English wouldn’t be a first language let alone a language I spoke fluently.
Microaggressions affect people of color, women, members of the LGTBQ+ community, etc. They include, but are not limited to:
Wow, you’re so articulate! Assuming people of color aren’t articulate or that the way people of color talk is uneducated, improper, or indicates a low socioeconomic status.
Isami McCowan says it best in Affinity Magazine. “‘Articulate’ is a double-edged sword, because while it back-handedly compliments Black individuals whose voices are deemed eloquent, it disparages those who speak with African American Vernacular English, or Ebonics. Though Ebonics is frequently regarded as ‘lazy’ and ‘broken’ English, it has a rich, complex history and has historically been a powerful tool in the literary arts… A Black person not meeting your benchmark to qualify as ‘articulate’ does not mean they are not well-spoken, knowledgeable people.”
Where are you from? No, no… Where are you really from? Assuming all people of color or people with “foreign” sounding names are immigrants.
Tanzina Vega tackles this issue in a CNN opinion piece published today. “‘The impact to the person receiving that persistent questioning is that you are not a true American, you are a perpetual foreigner in your own country,’ Columbia Professor Derald Sue told me. The people asking those questions generally don’t have bad intentions, said Sue, but ‘they are not in contact with their unconscious world view that only true Americans look a certain way: blond hair, blue eyes.’”
She continues, “If a person of color challenges the question or refuses to answer will they be seen as difficult? I am sure many people reading this column will say, ‘Sheesh, it was just an innocent question.’ Except it isn’t always.”
Wow, you’re really pretty for an Arab girl! Assuming all people of color are not beautiful and that eurocentric beauty standards are the gold standard of beauty, which leads to internalized racism.
The Clark Doll Test (1939) is the perfect example of how eurocentric beauty standards internalize racism. Children were presented with two dolls, a white doll and a black doll, and asked a series of questions about the dolls. The overwhelming consensus was the white doll was “better.” Why does this matter?
Because internalized racism is dangerous. It leads people of color to believe they’re not beautiful, worthy, or capable when they are. As someone whose self-esteem was severely affected and is still negatively influenced by eurocentric beauty standards, I can assure you that it took me years to finally feel somewhat beautiful. Even then, I still find myself unattractive in comparison to my white classmates and coworkers, and microaggressions, like the one stated above, serve as a constant reminder of this insecurity.
More importantly, microaggressions add up and can cause an employee to feel unwelcome, uncomfortable, and isolated in the workplace. Such negative experiences lead to less than satisfactory views of coworkers, and holistically, company culture.
Company culture is a large concept, but can be best understood as the environment which impacts and influences the employee experience. There’s no question that microaggressions impact company culture, but how do they?
Forbes found that one of the major reasons people quit their jobs is due to company culture, or lack thereof. According to a TINYpulse report on new employee retention rate, “employees who give their work culture low marks are nearly 15% more likely to think about a new job than their counterparts.”
What’s scary is that microaggressions aren’t limited to when you’re working at a company. They happen beforehand too.
Dr. John Fitzgerald Gates writes in the Huffington Post, “Even more insidious, however, is…when hiring managers make judgments about a person’s qualifications and fit for a given job prior to giving fair consideration to the person’s candidacy.” Looking back at Mindy’s interview for the highly coveted promotion, she was asked questions about her emotional stability and her ability to be a working mom and in response she asked, “are you asking everyone these questions?” Compare Mindy interviewing as a woman of color versus Mindy interviewing as a white man and the answer is crystal clear.
A friend of mine from Boston University was interviewing for an on campus job, and one of the questions her interviewer asked was, “What is your least favorite thing about BU?” She responded, “Financial aid.” In response, he made a comment about how it’s cheaper to live and attend school elsewhere, insinuating someone from the lower 5%, like herself, should’ve been smart enough to realize that.
Recently, another friend of mine, who’s Black, was preparing for her weekend trip to Cape Cod with some friends and her friend’s family. Her friend told her to not wear her hair in an afro, and instead wear it in afro puffs because she was already bringing enough diversity to the Cape.
Even though these are more personal examples, these situations are easily applicable to the workplace. Although we separate our work lives from our personal lives, conversations happen in the office, and sometimes these conversations include microaggressions.
How can companies tackle microaggressions? By constantly improving company culture. As industries become more diverse and progressive, work environments must accommodate to these changes now more than ever.
If an employee makes a complaint about microaggressions, listen to the complaint. They add up and create a hostile working environment. Host events discussing privilege and the importance of diversity in the workplace. Overall, the objective should be to constantly improve the employee experience for everyone.
What was once socially acceptable in the workplace isn’t anymore. If you ever hear a microaggression, speak out. Your coworker probably didn’t mean to be offensive, so explain to them why his or her comment was offensive to make sure it won’t happen again. If you’re someone who’s guilty of saying microaggressions (believe me, I’ve said them before too), know that being told your comment was offensive is not an attack, but to help you understand why you shouldn’t say it again.
Next time you consider making a comment on a coworker’s work ethic or capabilities, stop and think. Evaluate whether or not the comment is solely rooted in their skill-set or as a result of subliminal prejudices.