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Microaggressions Part 1: What are They?

Updated: Sep 2, 2021

There's a lot of talk about microaggressions these days as some major companies have been accused of creating a culture that allows this type of language to go unchecked in the workplace. It's important to understand microaggressions so we don't commit them. So what are they?

Merriam-Webster 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 (such as a racial minority).

"They are in a sense ambiguous, so that the recipient is apt to feel vaguely insulted, but since the words look and sound complimentary, on the surface (they're most often positive), she can't rightly feel insulted and doesn't know how to respond," Robin Lakoff, Professor Emerita of Linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, told Business Insider.

There are lots of common statements made in the workplace that can be considered microaggressions, and in almost every case, the best alternative is just to say nothing at all. Here are a few examples courtesy of Business Insider:

  1. You're so articulate. When a white colleague says this to a person of color, the comment suggests they assumed the person would be less articulate.

  2. You don't look transgender at all. This comment suggests being transgender is undesirable.

  3. Where are you really from? This comment implies that a person isn't really American or that they don't belong in this country.

  4. The way you've overcome your disability is so inspiring. When someone says this, it suggests they assumed their disabled colleague would not be able to accomplish as much as their able-bodied peers.

  5. You look like an intern. This suggests someone is inexperienced or potentially unqualified for their job.

Next, we'll discuss when and how to respond to microaggressions. Subscribe below and stay tuned for Microaggressions Part 2.

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