Dealing with Microaggressions in the Workplace

I like to think that most anyone harbors a fantasy where they successfully confront a bigot, and the bigot is dealt satisfying consequences. In mine, a crude individual accosts my mother or a friend on the basis of their race, and I, after we unsuccessfully attempt to de-escalate as one ought, simply punch them in the face. Fortunately, both for myself and for the faces of bigots, my personal experiences regarding racism have been far more casual and without physical altercation. Think situations akin to a conversation with friends or acquaintances where someone tells a joke that is baseless in humor and offensive in taste. When such interactions occur, I express distaste firmly and clearly, oftentimes meeting success as the other party acknowledges the racist implications in their words or actions and apologizes. If they refuse, well, they have then lost the pleasure of my company. 

As a white-passing biracial person, I coast through life, experiencing next to nothing when it comes to racism. I benefit from whiteness: that of my appearance, of my father, and even of my name. There have been very few times where I have had to confront forms of racism as it relates to me—as a mixed person, being asked “where are you from?” and being fetishized springs to mind most easily—and even then, the vast majority of these experiences are made because of my relation to my mother, an immigrant, and woman of color. 

I say all this to emphasize that I do not experience racism or racist microaggressions on a regular basis, and I certainly do not expect to either face nor witness these at the office. If you have even a halfway decent HR, instances of racist confrontations or discrimination are dealt with. But while there are clear boundaries of what someone can and cannot say or do in the workplace, there is just as often a gray area that blurs the line between what is acceptable and what isn’t. One of the items that fall into this category are racial microaggressions – statements, jokes, and questions, made in passing and sometimes without realization of their offensive nature.

Recently, my colleagues and I were participating in a group call. It was a casual meeting, with the objective being to catch up with each other, as our socialization had been severely harmed from the effects of COVID-induced teleworking. At some point, we had begun discussing the most dangerous intersections in the world, devolving into anecdotes about poor driving. A colleague of mine interjected with his own, the difference being that he began his statement with, “Where I used to live, there was a large Vietnamese community. So there were bad drivers everywhere.” I was stunned in the moment, not knowing if what was just said was racially tinged or not. I stayed silent at the time, but since then, I have been mulling over the event. Did my colleague not realize the racial implications of his statement? Would he not have said that if an actual Asian person™ had been on the call? I should have said something, but I can’t go back in time, and I ultimately decided that I would not bring it back up. For me, for that interaction, specifically, the window of opportunity has closed. 

It did, however, get me thinking – what happens when racism is subtle? What steps do you take then, and how do you determine if something is worth bringing up to HR? Even for the most *woke* workplaces, microaggressions are covert in nature, and less likely to be treated as seriously as blatant discrimination or the use of a racial slur. 

The following are three potential actions that you could take yourself in the event that you become the target, unintentionally or otherwise, of a microaggression. Hard pause that if you or an affected coworker feel at all unsafe as a result of the event, it may be wise to forego the following actions altogether and go directly to HR.

  1. Address the situation: If this is someone that you’ll work with regularly, it would be worth it to address them directly to assure yourself that they have been informed of the effects of their action, and will ideally be cognizant enough to not do the same again. Take the opportunity to take the individual aside and have a private conversation with them to educate them on the connotations of their words and their roots in racism. Use your best judgment as to whether a microaggression should be called out (in a professional manner, of course) on the spot, or if it can afford to wait until some time has passed for you to have reconciled your thoughts to provide a well-attuned explanation. It may also be helpful to have some experience or confidence in having difficult conversations. If the conversation in any way escalates, or you feel that the individual brushes you off, it may be time to involve your manager. 

  2. Seek validation: You may feel unsure about your feelings on the matter. You may even be withholding permission from yourself to feel offended, excusing the actions of another on the basis of their perceived professionalism. Whether you choose to address the situation or to let it go, it may be worth it, at least for your sake, to seek support from others. They could be trusted peers – colleagues with similar authority levels as you, with whom you have a good rapport – or friends on the outside who give a full description of the events. When the comment mentioned above was made, a peer reached out to me to acknowledge it was racist. I can’t tell you how reassuring it felt to not have been the *only one* who felt that way.

  3. Improve your vigilance: Above all else, you most certainly ought to pay attention to microaggressions that occur in your workplace even when they are not directed at you. The handling of such situations is pure emotional labor, excess mental and emotional work that is often sequestered to the victim in question. It can be demoralizing, distressing, and burdensome. The reality is that you will not face the same treatment as your coworkers on the basis of your differences in identity, whether it be race, gender, sexual orientation, or otherwise. Do not let your minority colleagues pick up this burden on their own. Address these situations as they appear, provide a support system for the affected party, believe in them when they confide in you, and continuously work to recognize your own implicit biases so that you do not contribute to another’s burdens yourself.

The prescription of actions that you can take when a racially offensive or insensitive comment or question is made will vary depending on your own personal level of comfort and on the nuances of your workplace. If you find yourself noticing that microaggressions occur on a regular basis, it may be a sign that ‘casual racism’ is more ingrained in your office’s culture than you thought, and you will have to come to your own conclusion as to whether your workplace is within salvation or if that is outside of your capabilities. While I maintain a personal belief that as individuals in society it is ultimately up to us to address racist behaviors or maintain complicity, you should not have to suffer the additional burnout that comes with deciding to educate or let go, and if you have the means, to instead consider alternative options. At this point, your best bet is to either obtain institutional support from higher levels of authority, including senior colleagues and management or if the toxicity has spread even amongst those individuals, to leave. 

Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

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