Culturally, we’re taught to adhere to authority. We’re taught to respect and obey our elders. Our schools have taught us to put our heads down and walk in a straight line. As adults in the workplace, we’re supposed to fulfil protocols and listen to what the boss says.
This conditioning has impeded our ability to ask questions. Or think critically. We are taught that the best response is to pass over or “ignore” subtle digs, not be confrontational, and let it all slide for the sake of some greater ‘good’, like peace and maintenance of the status-quo.
This conditioning is much stronger when you are a woman, or a culturally disadvantaged minority.
It is within this context of silence that microaggressions become even more harmful and damaging, and are aptly called ‘death by a thousand cuts’.
What Are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions are intentional or unintentional verbal or nonverbal behaviours that occur in everyday interactions. They’re subtle digs, indiginities or put downs that tend to typically insult members of certain marginalised groups.
Research suggests that 64% women globally, on an average are exposed to this form of discrimination.
Why Should You Care
Just because a microaggression has the word ‘micro’ in it, doesn’t mean it is any less harmful. It’s certainly tempting to ignore microaggressions for a lot of reasons, the primary one being that you might feel that making a big deal out of something small won’t serve you in any way. Perhaps you don’t want to antagonise others.
But the longer we accept these situations, the longer we’re stuck in the same cycle of normalising behaviours that are potentially threatening to someone’s psyche and self-esteem.
Considering how blatant, obvious discrimination (macroaggressions) are still a real problem, these everyday slights, biases, and digs are easy to pass off as ‘no big deal’. Since they leave you feeling confused and wondering if you actually heard what you did, and whether it was intentional or not, it can be hard to bring them up or talk about them with others. Hence, they often go unreported.
In doing so however, we overlook the consequences that they can have on our mental and physical health.
At the larger macro level too, the normalisation of microaggressions is antithetical to a well-rounded society with equal opportunities for marginalised individuals.
And since those aforementioned slights are most certainly implicit, or subtle in nature, there are moments when it’s difficult to recognise if you indeed are a victim of microaggressions.
How To Recognise Microaggressions
Those casual jokes about someone’s height, weight or anything condescending about their physical appearance? That qualifies as a microaggression.
Humour is, in fact, one of the most common ways of disguising invalidation. Making fun of someone’s accent, height, weight, their potential inability to communicate, where they come from, etc. can all be seen as microaggressions.
Especially if the person they are directed towards is in a position where they have less authority and power, like a junior, a woman, or someone from a lower socioeconomic strata.
It is true that the intent may not often be malicious and that more often than not, they are borne out of sheer ignorance. However, such snides tend to reinforce stereotypes, and create differences. They are often disempowering, because the subtlety leaves no space for retaliation.
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Globally, microaggressions are typically centered around one’s race or gender. In the Indian context, microaggressions around gender, colour, class, age, caste and socio-economic standing are more prevalent.
This could include casual sexism, sexual objectification, making assumptions about someone’s gender or sexist humour, and those borderline offensive comments or whatsapp forwards, misogynistic humour, or derogatory analogies.
Consequences Of Microaggressions In The Workplace
On the surface, these subtle and not-so-subtle actions or comments may not seem like a big deal.
However, within a broader context of hierarchies and unfair power structures at work, and in seeing how small things build up and contribute to these hierarchical structures, we begin to see that microaggressions can have grave consequences.
Such incidents tend to inhibit women from doing their best at work, restricting their productivity and undermining their accomplishments and successes. It keeps them from speaking up and asserting themselves. It makes them feel less confident, and less powerful, and always on guard. Constantly living in the fear of receiving one snide comment after the other can have a serious impact on a person’s mental health.
Statistically, women cite these instances of disrespect and borderline toxic behaviours as one of the many factors that influence their decisions to leave a job.
In light of recent events and the constant sexist hankering on social media, it’s never about just one or two men casually making locker room jokes. It’s never just about people sharing sexist whatsapp forwards or talking about women’s “time of the month”. Neither is it only about using derogatory language or casual verbal sexual harassment disguised as a banter or a compliment.
All of this alludes to deep-seated inherent prejudices often disguised as “jokes”. They’re easy to ignore and questioning them often raises difficult situations that potentially threaten coworker interactions or hamper the seemingly positive and jovial workplace culture.
As indicators of unconscious biases and inequalities that exist in the workplace, and our culture, microaggressions have to be called out.
How To Respond To Microaggressions
If you’ve been a victim of these seemingly casual snides and are wondering how to respond to them, here’s a step by step guide to help you out.
Responding with anger or frustration will most likely not be received well. Since the aim here is to attack the source of the prejudice, and not the person itself, opening up a conversation is more conducive to the ultimate goal.
Try asking “What did you mean by that?” or “What makes you say that?”.
That way the person is forced to deal with their prejudice head on, and it’ll make them stop right in their tracks and think. A sheepish reluctance to explain the “joke” would certainly get your point across as well.
Build a support team
It’s imperative to make other people aware of this behaviour. Ensure that you get other people, who are more likely to understand and support you, to notice what you’re noticing. Bring their attention to it.
Find like-minded allies who believe in this larger cause and create a support group with the intention of resolving and addressing the issue, not blaming and shaming. ,
Attack with empathy
Responding with equally vicious digs or returning snides is not going to help your case. Microaggressions stem from a problematic source. and it is important to address the underlying belief. Respond with a growth mindset rather than a callout mindset.
Remember, we’re trying to call out the behaviour, not the person.
Report the incident
And if none of that seems to work, it’s always healthy to bring in an authoritative moderator to diffuse the situation. When you do so, remember to describe the impact that a microaggression had on you.
For instance, say something like “It made me feel that I am seen more through the lens of my age/gender/social standing than my capability, and it made me doubt myself”.
It is important to create safe, non-judgmental spaces in an organisation to discuss this. It is also important to criticise the microaggression rather than the microaggressor so that the focus remains on how that statement has made the other person feel rather than ascribing blame.
The end goal is to focus on resolving the prejudices to create a healthier, more sustainable work culture. One that is built on accountability and empathy and one that ensures that everyone has an equal playing field.
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