Many of us pride ourselves on being savvy and politically correct. However, being culturally astute and politically correct often do not go hand in hand—and we don’t even know it. Several years ago, I was at a lecture and the presenter was a very articulate black professor. The white individual leaned over and whispered in my ear, “She speaks very well for a black person.” I turned and scowled at my neighbor, but it was apparent my silent stare did not register with the white offender. Microaggression becomes particularly uncomfortable when it is face-to-face. On another occasion, as part of a triad at a cocktail party, I witnessed a white colleague ask an Asian gentleman where he was from. The Asian man said, “Seattle.” Then the white participant said, “No, where are you really from?” The Asian man’s lips tightened and he repeated his response, “Seattle.” The white man chuckled and said offhandedly, “Well, that’s your story and it sounds like you are sticking to it.” The Asian man walked away–and I quickly did the same.
How many different types of people do you encounter on a daily basis? Step back and think for a moment – as you get a cup of coffee from your local coffee shop or perhaps as you commute to work on public transportation or greet a new coworker. Now, think about how you interact with the scores of people you chat with on a daily basis. Do you interact differently with people based on their skin color or ethnicity?
Instances of subtle and unintended prejudice, called microaggressions, happen constantly. It is our responsibility to recognize that our behavior may be offensive, and do what we can to alleviate the subconscious aggression. This topic has become increasingly important in diverse settings, such as college campuses and in the workplace. Typically, microaggression is perpetrated by members of a powerbase. In the case of the US, white men. But what will happen as demographics shift? For example, in the US, studies show that by 2042, minorities are expected to outnumber whites.
The term, “microaggression” was coined in the 1970s by a Harvard professor. Since that time, a surge of social media, blogs, as well as a student play at Harvard University, called “I am Harvard, Too” have brought the issue of microaggressions to center stage. Two Columbia University students created “The Microaggressions Project,” which documents instances of ignorant or unintentional prejudice in a catelogued blog format. The site has had over 2.5 million page views in over 40 countries.
In the corporate and academic realms, it’s important to pay particular attention to these sensitivities. If a vice president only uses masculine language in a presentation, female employees will rightly be frustrated, and asking the only minority in a conference what their feelings are on an advertising campaign targeting a minority demographic will clearly create conflict. A simple question like, “You have an accent– where are you from?” can make someone feel like an outsider or one who doesn’t belong.
While you may not have intentionally tried to offend people, it happens more often than what you think. So how do all of us go from a place of misunderstanding to one of open communication and consideration?
Here is the key—come from a place of compassion and try to look at every interaction through another’s perspective. Although perhaps well intentioned, your words or actions can easily offend another. If the person you’ve offended challenges you right away, own it and apologize. It is happening more and more often. Be open to feedback.
What have been your experiences with microaggressions? How did you resolve them? Feel free to comment below, sharing your thoughts and experiences!