How to Handle Racial Microaggressions at Work

Even if you’re not familiar with the term “microaggression,” if you’re a person of color, there’s a fair chance you have experienced more than one at your job, school or other social environments.

While modern usage of the term has expanded to include all sorts of marginalized groups, psychiatrist Chester Pierce first coined “microaggressions” in the 1970s to mean “subtle, stunning, often automatic and nonverbal exchanges which are ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders.”

In other words, microaggressions are small, subtle, verbal or non-verbal insults that indicate racial prejudice. These remarks or behaviors may not seem “as bad” to the people who perpetuate them compared to more overt acts of racism, like calling someone a racial slur or physically assaulting someone because of their race. But they’re still a big deal.

Little things can harm a lot

Here’s a microaggression I experienced at work: My former supervisor, who is white, was telling me, a black woman, something about her daughter. As she was pulling up a picture of her daughter on her phone, she playfully informed me that her daughter had “crazy hair” like me. At the time, I was sporting some sort of curly, afro style with my hair in its natural state.

Illustration of two coworkers high-fiving at their desks. Microaggressions pbs rewire
Are there any colleagues, other team members, people in other departments that can help give you insight and support into this situation?

While my supervisor probably thought her words were innocuous, suggesting that her adorable toddler and I shared something in common, it’s inappropriate to refer to a black person’s hair as “crazy” under any circumstance.

Another example is a workplace throwing a “Mexican-themed” office party with sombreros, fake mustaches, shawls and piñatas, as if Mexican people are costumes and props for a fun day of drinking. That’s a microaggression. If you have a foreign accent and someone compliments how well you speak English, that’s also a microaggression.

The list of ways to insult someone’s race or ethnicity goes on and on. And a lot of it is unintentional and goes largely unnoticed to everyone but the person who was at the receiving end.

Moving forward

Addressing racist behavior in a work environment can be especially difficult and nerve-wracking. You might fear retaliation from your supervisor or isolation from your co-workers.

Weighing out the options of whether to notify your human resources department, confront the person directly or brush off the incident varies depending on your own personal circumstances. Nonetheless, there are several ways to soothe and protect your emotional well-being when met with these challenges.

1. Don’t accept any blame

Never let anyone reduce a racist incident to a misunderstanding on your part. It’s a common defense by people who casually make racist remarks that they didn’t mean to cause any harm. Therefore, they weren’t actually being racist, and the person on the receiving end shouldn’t take offense.

“One of the most damaging aspects of a microaggression is the plausible deniability,” said licensed clinical psychologist Sunitha Chandy.

Chandy works for the Chicago-based Artesian Collaborative, an organization that provides consulting and training for companies and non-profits on issues of diversity, cultural change and emotional intelligence.

“The person who committed the offense often has no idea that what was said or done was offensive and can justify themselves by their intent, therefore putting the blame on the receiver,” Chandy said.

If you’re a person of color, you’ve probably experienced or at least witnessed a decent amount of racism. You know what’s offensive and what isn’t. Try your best to reject any sort of gaslighting.

2. Seek support from a colleague

“There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to how to deal with (microaggressions in the workplace), but a good place to start is getting support,” Chandy said. “Are there any colleagues, other team members, people in other departments that can help give you insight and support into this situation?”

Addressing racism can often feel lonely. Confide in the coworker you feel closest to. It’s especially helpful if the coworker belongs to the same ethnic group as you do or is a person of color—they would likely best understand where you’re coming from—but anyone who you consider a good colleague should want to hear you out.

If you’re new at your job and haven’t built any relationships with your coworkers yet, talk to a friend or a family member so your feelings aren’t suppressed.

3. Find a solution that works for you

How you choose to handle microaggressions in the workplace depends on a number of factors, including your role at work, how long you’ve been there and your relationship to the person who committed the microaggression.

“The real struggle is that this issue is a relational one,” Chandy said.

Unfortunately, for many people, speaking with human resources or confronting the person directly can make matters worse.

“We also have to watch out for the tendency to put the burden of fixing the relational and communication issues on the person reporting the issue versus the offender,” Chandy said. “Oftentimes meetings and strategies are put in place that single out the individual who is worried about retaliation, which just increases their anxiety.”

The most important thing to remember is that there’s no right way to proceed when you feel you’ve experienced casual racism. And there’s no guarantee of a successful outcome when you tell someone they were out of line. You should never feel pressure to take an approach that will only leave you feeling more stressed. Resolution looks different to everybody.

Kyndall Cunningham

Kyndall Cunningham is freelance writer and journalism student based in Baltimore. Her writing focuses on pop culture—specifically music, film and television—and its intersection with politics, identity and representation. Her official website is kyndall-cunningham.com. And follow her on Twitter @Kyndallrene.