As a black woman in a predominantly white country, I am often asked the question by white people, “where are you from?” When I respond with “Liverpool”, they then ask me where my mother is from. When I respond once again with, “Liverpool”, I can tell that this is not the answer that they were expecting. Therefore, I wait for their final question, which is always, “where are you really from?” As I have lived in the UK all of my life, and experienced these questions even when I lived in Liverpool, sometimes I find these questions frustrating and unnecessary and at times they make me feel uncomfortable, as if I am an alien in my own country.

The above situation that I have just described is an example of racial microagression. Racial microagressions are small actions that communicate unfriendly, disrespectful, or negative racial insults towards targeted groups. Unlike obvious racism, which can be easily named, racial microaggressions are subtle, hidden and implicit, and therefore harder to “call out” or interpret.

According to the Mental Health Foundation, experiencing racism can be very stressful and have a negative effect on a person’s overall health, which may increase a person’s likelihood of experiencing mental health problems such as psychosis and depression. It is therefore important that more is done to raise awareness of racial microagressions so that we are conscious of our words and their power and impact they have on others.

There are three types of microagressions:

 

  1. Microinsults

Verbal and nonverbal behaviours that demean a person’s race, and express rudeness and insensitivity.

Examples include:

  1. Being surprised that a person of colour speaks English really well. As if to assume that they would not be able to.
  2. Asking a black person if you can touch their hair and then touching without permission.
  3. Excluding capable people from worthwhile career growth opportunities
  4. Implying that a person of colour got their job based on a diversity quota
  5. Assuming that a black person is in a junior role
  6. Not attempting to try to pronounce someone’s name because it’s unfamiliar
  7. Assuming black people are less intelligent or capable than white people
  8. Informing a person of colour that they are a credit to their race

 

  1. Microassaults

This is overt discrimination. The person who has committed the microassault may believe that others don’t notice their actions, or that their actions are not harmful because they did not intend to be racist.

Examples include:

  1. Telling a racist joke and ending with “I was just joking. Claiming that the joke is harmless
  2. Not acknowledging a black colleague during a meeting, ignoring their ideas.
  3. A manager only giving white employees their requested days off.
  4. Telling a black woman that they’re the least intimidating black woman you’ve ever met.
  5. Referring to someone as coloured

 

  1. Microinvalidations

Comments or actions that dismiss the experiences and feelings of a person of colour.

Examples include:

  1. A white employee may ask a black colleague where they are from — something they don’t ask of their white colleagues. The implied meaning is, you don’t belong.
  2. A white person telling a person of colour that racism doesn’t exist
  3. Mistaking people of the same race
  4. A white person telling a person of colour that they don’t see colour
  5. Inappropriately telling someone that you have friends of their race
  6. Commenting to a person of colour informing them that there is only one race, the human race

 

When we talk about microagressions, we do not want to express it in a way that makes people feel scared to say anything. We are simply highlighting that we need to pay more attention to how we speak in the workplace and social situations.

 

Micro-affirmations

Micoragressions can be countered with micro-affirmations. These are actions that people can take in order to ensure that people around them feel included and engaged. Micro-affirmations are small positive actions and comments that demonstrate that we care about our colleagues. They can create a more supportive and inclusive company culture, which allows everyone to feel a sense of belonging in the workplace.

 

Suggested micro-affirmations:

  1. Explore and establish personal and professional boundaries
  2. Support your colleagues by respectfully challenging colleagues who are committing microagressions in a safe and supportive environment. Help to eliminate negative comments from the workplace.
  3. Publicly give a co-worker a compliment for an accomplishment
  4. Use friendly facial expressions and gestures
  5. Pay full attention when someone is speaking in a meeting
  6. Refer to specifics of a past conversation to show that you listened and remembered
  7. Ask everyone in the meeting for their opinions
  8. Take a genuine, professional interest in someone’s personal life
  9. Open doors to opportunity – include them on an important project, or invite them to a networking event
  10. Make eye contact with the person you are talking to
  11. Give credit for another person’s ideas

 

If you do unintentionally commit a racial microagression, the best course of action is to admit your mistake, learn from the experience, and apologise. Encourage colleagues to make a conscious effort to make positive comments to each other. All of the above small acts of inclusion can make a huge difference to an individual’s workplace experience.

Any minority group or indeed person can experience microagressions. They are not limited to race and can relate to sexism, ageism, ableism, classism, etc. To reduce instances of microagressions, we all need to be more conscious and thoughtful about the words we use and the behaviour we portray and consider how they impact others in the workplace.

If you have experienced any of the issues discussed above and you would like some support, the following links may be useful:

 

— Helen Davies, Group Diversity & Inclusion Manager