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Microaggressions at Work

Updated: Jul 12, 2021

For twenty years, during my entire working career, I experienced microaggression up close along with many of my colleagues of colour. Time after time these negative instances and attacks were reported to human resources and top leadership without any feedback or changes in the work environment. In fact, most things became worse for many staff people because the aggressors knew they could get away with almost anything and receive support from management. Most staff with top notched skills would leave their jobs to seek a better work environment, even if it meant taking a cut in salary. I was one of them.

Upon leaving several fields that I loved and was trained for, I decided to start my own business. Graduating from college I was confident that I would be a great asset to the field of Advertising. I fell in love with it and strived to do a great job. None of it meant anything to the racist leadership in charge of deciding what accounts the people of colour would be allowed to work on. After moving from one firm to the next, I realised that the attitudes were the same and only the faces and names were different. From there I was recruited to work in the field of broadcasting. Being a young naive man, I was thrilled and jumped at the opportunity. I loved broadcasting because it gave me the opportunity to support communities that would never get coverage. Being in the field was a delight. Being in the office was always a nightmare. Nevertheless, my boss at the time was brilliant and mentored me to be the person I am today. I was fortunate enough to work in a variety of positions that included public affairs director, editorial director, news writer, news reporter, talk show host and promotions/advertising director. When I think about it all today, I feel shocked that I lasted for 10 years, mostly because of my mentor and boss who never stopped supporting me.

Upon leaving broadcasting, I started my own business, Promotions West Public Relations & Marketing. One of the priorities of my company was to provide quality communications expertise to communities of colour because large firms were not interested in working with them. Most of them also didn't understand how to conduct marketing with priority audiences. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the excitement from organisations and agencies. My second priority was to create an amazing team that included all colours, genders and ages. My goal was that Promotions West would represent the people that we were partnering with to do successful cutting edge work.

Do you know the meaning of microaggression? Microagression is a term used for brief and common place daily verbal, behavioural or environmental indignities that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatised or culturally margined groups. Back in the 1970s, Harvard psychiatrist and professor, Chester Pierce, M.D. created the term to describe the types of conscious or unconscious put-downs, something that he, as a Black man had witnessed firsthand. Today we see the brazen, loud and proud, mouth frothing Confederate flag-waving racists that sling the N-word around like it's part of their fake prayer to an unknown entity they have never seen called God. Of course, their behaviour is a macroaggression. Macroaggression occurs on a systemic level. For example, unequal pay practices or conditions for a certain group of people.

Have you ever experienced microaggression in the workplace or were you ever the aggressor? Here are a few examples of what it looks like up close:

  • You are so articulate. This is something that is often used by other staff to compliment a colleague of colour. Trust me, it's not a compliment. What they are actually saying is why do you sound so white. Do you want to be white? Solution: Stop talking

  • Excuse me sweetheart. This is something that women hear over and over again. In their minds they are probably saying, "I am not your sweetheart." Solution: Don't call women sweetheart at work, they actually have names, so try to learn their names and respect them.

  • What kind of name is that - it's really difficult to pronounce. This happens all the time. This says that the person in question does not fit in culturally or linguistically, and possibly why bother with them at all. Solution: Simply ask how to pronounce their name.

  • I think you are in the wrong room, this is a meeting for Project Managers. Why would anyone assume such a ridiculous thing? Well, in certain fields and corporations where the majority of the staff are White men, they believe that a woman or a person of colour couldn't possibly have a degree or is able to do the same job as they are doing. Chances are women and people of colour could probably do a better job if given an equal opportunity. Solution: Don't assume that someone doesn't belong or make them feel like an outsider because of their gender or skin colour.

  • Do you even know what SnapChat, Instagram, What'sApp or TikTok is? Those who believe that only those in their 20s and 30s could understand these things are stereotyping older people. It also makes them look rather stupid in their assumptions. While joking about the texting habits of older workers, it may seem innocent and fun, but age discrimination is a serious problem in most companies. In tech companies, anyone over the age of 40 has a difficult time getting hired by younger staff interviewing them, despite their experience. Solution: Once again, stop talking.

  • You can't be transgender, you don't look like it. Prove it. Telling a transgender person that they don’t “look trans” might appear to be a compliment but it's a huge insult. Calling a transgender person trans is also an insult. They should be respected. If in doubt, ask how they would like to be addressed. Solution: Just be quiet and mind your own business.

  • Oh sorry, wrong person. This happens more than you may believe. Often strange people at one of my jobs in San Francisco would come up to me and say, "Hey Jeff, did you see the Giants and Dodgers game last night?" I would simply say, sorry my name isn't Jeff. Then they would want to argue that I was being rude and trying to disrespect them. Without fail, another colleague that knew me would walk over and say hey Mikael what's up? The person would always try to apologise. You see, many White people believe that all Black. Latino, and Asian people look the same. By the way, Jeff is 6'4" and I am 5'4". I can see the confusion. Solution: Learn your co-worker names. It seems like a pretty basic concept.

  • Well, actually I an annoying habit that happens a lot in management meetings. Men that feel certain privileges always talk over or interrupt women or people of colour when they are presenting or sharing a significant idea. The need to interrupt often comes from wanting to be heard or to compete. Men are three times more likely to interrupt a woman than another man. The New York Times called men interrupting women “a universal phenomenon.” And the kicker is when a man repeats the same idea as the woman he interrupted, receiving all the credit for it. Solution: This sucks. A confident colleague would wait until the speaker finishes their thought and if they like their idea, give them credit.

  • Is that your real hair? This has been an issue before my birth. Black women have always had to deal with issues about their hair. When I worked in broadcasting, Black female news anchors were given a choice of getting rid of their afro or losing their job. In 2021, I am shocked this behaviour continues to exist in most corporations. Often co-workers will ask, "Can I touch your hair?" The person is not a dog or a cat and that question should be wiped from your vocabulary. Staff members have been known just to reach out and touch a Black woman's braids without permission. When reprimanded they claim they were just admiring the hair and paying a compliment. For black women, the bias against natural hair results in higher levels of anxiety about their appearance. One in five black women feel socially pressured to straighten their hair for work, which is twice the rate for white women. Solution: Keep your hands to yourself. A person’s natural hair, regardless of their ethnicity, should be accepted as professional and workplace-friendly.

  • As a disabled person, you are amazing. There are so many things wrong with this statement. My best mate has a Laryngectomy which makes it difficult to communicate in meetings. Often people will stare at him like they have seen an alien. His diligence to getting jobs done run circles around me and the entire staff. No one should be shocked when your co-worker with a disability is able to accomplish just as much as their able-bodied peers, sometimes more. Solution: Stop staring. If you are curious about a person's disability, just ask them an intelligent question about it. Staring at someone while they are walking on the streets is horrific. Would you like to be stared at as if you were a UFO?

Something that I share in many of my professional presentations or workshops is teaching staff to use the W.A.I.T. technique when in doubt. Are you familiar with it? It stands for Why Am I Talking. Here are the key things to consider before you start talking:

  • I have something important to say and/or have an opinion to share. Ask: is it the right time to do that?

  • I have an opinion or on-topic contribution. Ask: Is it my turn?

  • Did someone make this contribution already?

  • Is what I am about to say helpful for the person I am speaking to?

  • Is what I am about to say kind?

  • Am I saying it in a way that allows my listeners to easily understand what I mean?

Remember, we are all people trying to do the best job we can do. It's essential to use kindness and respect towards your co-workers. It makes for a stronger team.

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