Where are you from? You are so articulate! You speak English so well. The most qualified person should get the job. Why do your people do this? You should smile more. This is a new technology that you probably have not heard of.
To some, this may look like a mishmash of unrelated sentences. Others reading this may already feel their heart rates speeding up and annoyance setting in.
Have you ever just been hanging out, minding your own business and had someone, who may or may not know you, come up to you and touch your hair (and even when they ask, they don’t wait for an answer before acting)? Perhaps you are at work and someone calls you Susan, but your name is Whitney and Susan is the other (insert underrepresented group here) on the team. Maybe you are the only woman on an all male team and, despite your seniority, you are constantly asked to take notes or organize lunch.
Several years ago I ran the NYC Half marathon. My favorite part of this race is when I get to run through an empty Times Square and imagine myself in a movie, fleeing zombies in a post-apocalyptic world. That year, the weather was dismal, cold, and rainy. I also happened to be wearing a long-sleeved, zippered running shirt. Even in the horrid weather, it was still a blast to get into Walking Dead mode on the traffic-free streets. Luckily for me, my husband met me at the finish line with a dry jacket and a ride back home to Brooklyn. It was only when I got home and was unzipping my running shirt that my husband yelled, “Oh my god, what happened to your chest?”
I ran to the bathroom mirror (and by ran, I probably mean, limped) and, upon seeing my chest, I too yelled out, “Oh my god, what happened to my chest?”
It turns out that the combination of wet skin, numbing cold, and the tiny movements of a zip during a 13.1 mile run can result in a significant loss of skin from ones chest. It was enough that the pain of hot water on my exposed flesh made me a little faint, and it was enough that I still have a scar near my collarbone. It was enough that I never wear new clothing on a long run and I try to avoid zippered running shirts. But this? This is how microaggressions work. A microaggression does not exist because someone said or did something to you just that one time, and just you, and it never happened again. Microaggressions are those little thing that are said and done, over and over and over again, until they break your skin, until they cause damage and, if left unchecked, that damage can be significant.
A while ago, I shared, with the Journal of Accountancy, an experience I had working on a project a few years ago. On this team of about twenty people, two of us were Black women and we looked nothing alike. When I say nothing alike I mean, we were not the same height, our hair was not the same color, we had different hairstyles, and we didn’t even dress alike. Also, I was in a supervisory role, and she was not. I say all of this because I was bemused when a couple of my colleagues would confuse me for her and vice versa. A colleague would ask me the status of work he had given her to do and call me by her name while he was doing it. And, no, our names were nothing alike either. This was happening two months into the project and happened more than once. If this was the first and only time this had ever happened to me, I may have explained it away by assuming I worked with people who were really bad with faces and names. But it happens often, especially as I regularly find myself in spaces where I am the only Black woman or one of a very small number.
When a non-white American is complimented (on a regular basis) on how well they speak English, it begs the question, why wouldn’t they speak English well? Things don’t get much better when those same people are asked where they are from. Saying Brooklyn, Billings, or LA, is often followed by, “no, I mean, where are you really from?” If you ever find yourself wanting to ask that question and it is not in response to them saying “when I first moved to this country”, don’t ask. Instead ask yourself why you are about to ask that question? What makes you think that person is from anywhere but here? Do you perhaps need to rethink what an American is?
If you are at work and you are about tell your female colleague that they need to smile more or when you assume that any new technology will confuse your coworker because they are older than you, pause and think. Do you advise your male colleagues to smile more? Why are you asking your female colleague to smile – is it relevant to her job? What makes you assume your older colleague is any less tech-literate than anyone else? Did they just tell you that this was the first computer they have ever used?
All too often, the harm of microaggressions is not with intent. The unfortunate thing is that harm can still be done even when it is not meant. Microaggressions generally occur because of unconscious biases and/or a lack of knowledge. We all have unconscious biases and by all, I really mean each and every one of us. None of us is all knowing, not even Ken Jennings. If we accept these two facts, we can take steps to keep from making the mistakes that result in a microaggression. An excellent start is just slowing down. Life is not trying to buzz in first, so take a moment, take a breath, and think about what you are about to say or do.
As hard as we may try, we may still say or do something wrong. Growing from those moments requires being open to improvement. If someone points something out to you, take that feedback as a gift and ask questions. Ask about the impact of your words and actions, lean in and be vulnerable, tune into your empathy and try to understand what it is like on the other side of the moment. Don’t withdraw into a defensive space but, instead, move into the moment and work to separate the difference between your intent and the impact. It is said often, and we really need to do it – get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
If you witness a microaggression, take steps to interrupt the bias. People are generally more open to listening to a third party, a bystander, than to the injured party. When you have this conversation, remember to speak only for yourself, and not for the person who has experienced the microaggression. Also, do not be accusatory – you must speak about the impact and not assume the intent. Use your “I” words and talk about how this moment has made you feel. If you are the person who has experienced a microaggression, in the same manner, speak about how you have been impacted and do not presume the intentions of the person who has committed the microaggression.
Most of us want to be good people but it is not enough to be good. We must continue to be aware that good people make mistakes and what makes us better is by being, not only open but actively seeking to learn. We must expose ourselves to spaces outside our comfort zones and enter those spaces with curiosity and a willingness to do be vulnerable and do the work. So let’s be courageous, go forward with compassion, and approach our situations conscious of many learning moments our lives bring us.