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Death by a Thousand Cuts: Microaggression and Bias

"I wish I could put an electric fence around you and zap anyone that tries to talk to you without going through me.

Imagine working in a place that valued you as a member of the team because your work was exemplary enough to be recognized at the top of the organization. And since you enjoyed a good reputation, the head of the organization entrusted you with special projects to manage and execute, separate and apart from your regularly assigned responsibilities. Now imagine your immediate supervisor feeling slighted that these special assignments were given to you without their “permission”, even though they too are subordinate to the same head of the organization. Imagine further that your supervisor decides to express these feelings to others outside of the organization in your presence while sandwiching the comments beneath compliments of how good you are with your job.

The above is a true story and was made by a White supervisor to a Black subordinate during a public event to a very noteworthy outside official.

So what’s wrong with this statement? Is it obvious? Can you articulate the microaggression and why it may be offensive?

If you were in the shoes of the Black subordinate, what might your feelings have been? Would you have felt comfortable with the reference of being put behind a fence? Would you have felt disrespected in some way? Slighted? Angered? Or would you simply have ignored it? Chalked it up to nothing? And would you have said anything about it?

Our company, TESO Consulting Group, receives weekly inquiries about ways we can help schools and organizations promote racial equity and belonging by addressing bias and microaggressions in order to create workspaces that are inclusive.

This month, we’re even conducting a free webinar on disrupting bias in the workplace. Addressing bias in the form of microaggressions takes intentional, sustained work within the organization.

Microaggressions are subtle, almost indistinguishable statements or actions, that are direct enough for the intended listener or receiver of that microaggression to interpret its offensive meaning. I’ve heard it said before that microaggressions are akin to the torture of a 1,000 tiny paper cuts – they’re slight yet can be quite painful. Racial microaggressions are the seemingly benign statements often directed toward people of color or other marginalized groups. It can often be so subtle that the perpetrator may get away with denying, dismissing, and/or defending against it and declaring that it is nothing.

In the example, what is racially microaggressive about the statement is its reference to fencing in a human. It’s also inhumane. I’m sure some would agree that though some animals should be fenced or caged, humans should not. This example harkens back to a time when Black people were often referred to and treated as animals - people who needed to be tamed and civilized by those who were in power. Indeed, the opening statement is insensitive at best and racist at worst. No one can really know the motivation behind the statement.

It should be explicitly stated that not all microaggressions are intentional. However, intentionality is largely irrelevant when the impact can be so damaging. When directed towards Black people or other people of color, microaggressions are a daily reminder of a long and painful history. Unintentional, microaggressions reveal the implicit bias or underlying assumptions and beliefs some hold about certain groups of people. These are manifested in behaviors, conduct, and interactions and when the microaggressive perpetrator is a member of the dominant culture and that act of microaggression is towards a person of color, it essentially feels like (and some would argue is) racism.

People are understandably cautious about calling out racism because so much is attached to the label and it immediately creates dynamics that can make people uncomfortable. But to establish a workplace that is inclusive, one or others must be willing to confront the act so that the offender becomes aware of the impact of their actions, whether intentional or not. When we know better, we do better.

Leaders for equity bring inequities to light. It takes courage to point out the microaggressions, even at the risk of making the perpetrator uncomfortable. After all, haven’t they already created discomfort for the victim of the microaggression?

Ignoring microaggressions gives the perpetrator a pass to continue perpetrating racism because “it’s not that bad'' as some would contend. I’m here to tell you…it is every bit as bad as what some would call “blatant racism” to those who have lived an entire life of marginalization and carry with us generations of trauma in the form of racism.

In full transparency, the story at the beginning of this blog is a part of my story. I was the person that my supervisor wanted to “cage” (as the statement came across to me). But imagine if this organization that valued me also had a culture of disrupting bias - one that empowered me to confront my supervisor’s bias and also allowed them to learn from the microaggression. Imagine that.

Is there a culture in your organizations that bias and microaggressions are not acceptable or tolerated? Is this something ALL would agree? Or is this an area where your organization can grow? This journey towards being fully inclusive and creating a welcoming environment where all in the organization feel like they belong can take time. We are willing to partner with you on your journey.

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