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What are microaggressions?

On Behalf of | May 16, 2024 | Employment Law

There’s been a lot of lip service given to diversity and inclusion in the workplace in the last few years – and some companies pride themselves on these values. Yet, beneath the surface of some supposedly “inclusive” workplaces, subtle discrimination continues to happen all the time.

Microaggressions are a big problem. Microaggressions are often low-key and somewhat non-obvious verbal or nonverbal actions and slights directed at marginalized workers. While usually superficially innocuous, microaggressions can have a profound effect on a targeted worker, creating a hostile and discriminatory environment – and they can escalate.

What are some examples of microaggressions?

Microaggressions can take many different forms, such as:

  • Asking a person of color where they are “really” from (clearly implying that they are not truly American because they have foreign heritage)
  • Commenting on a colleague’s hair or skin tone in a way that exoticizes or fetishizes their race, and even touching their hair or skin to feel its texture
  • Assuming that a person of color is in a lower-ranking position or automatically assuming they are the janitorial or maintenance staff 
  • Interrupting or speaking over women in meetings, undermining their contributions and expertise (and treating assertive women as “aggressive”)
  • Assuming that women employees are naturally better suited for taking notes in meetings or organizing the company potluck 
  • Commenting on a woman’s appearance or clothing rather than focusing on her ideas or contributions
  • Making assumptions about a person’s sexual orientation based on stereotypes or their outward appearance
  • Asking invasive or prying questions about a colleague’s personal life, particularly their romantic relationships or sexual identity
  • Offering unsolicited assistance or accommodations to an employee with disabilities without consulting the individual first
  • Using ableist or derogatory language or phrases, such as “crazy,” “gay,” or “lame,” to describe situations or people in a negative way
  • Making jokes or comments that perpetuate stereotypes about specific cultural groups, like how “all Asians are bad drivers but good at math”

When microaggressions can create a truly toxic culture in a workplace, and that can breed discrimination or turn into harassment and exclusion. If you’ve been the target of microaggressions in the workplace and your attempts to address the issues have fallen on deaf ears or resulted in worse treatment, it may be time to look deeper into your legal options.