What Is a Microaggression? Is It Treated Differently from Other Forms of Workplace Discrimination?
There’s a common misperception that wrongful discrimination in employment involves only intentional and mean-spirited acts intended to exert power or obtain advantage. Under that viewpoint, certain acts are considered to be insignificant or inconsequential. For example, mispronouncing a person’s name (rather than asking) may seem harmless. “Complimenting” a trans person for “how natural” they look may feel like a positive statement. Asking a woman in a meeting full of men to get coffee may not be intentionally tied to her gender. Researchers have known for decades, though, that over time, seemingly minor acts like these, commonly referred to as “microaggressions,” can cumulatively have long term effects on the recipient’s mental and physical health. Microaggressions—whether intentional or unintentional—may serve as the basis for workplace discrimination lawsuits.
What Is a Microaggression?
First used by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce half a century ago to refer to ordinary or common insults directed at Black Americans, the term is now used to describe “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory or negative … slights and insults to a target person or group.” (Source.) The term is now used to refer to insults directed not only at Black Americans but also members of other races, as well as women, LGBTQ people, the disabled, and other minority groups. Researchers say that the prefix “micro” does not describe the impact of the actions; it means merely that the behaviors involved are interpersonal rather than systemic.
What Are Different Types of Microaggression?
Experts have identified three specific forms of microaggression: assaults, insults, and invalidations:
- A microassault is typically intentional and takes the form of bullying, insensitivity, or discrimination. It may involve an ethnic joke or slur, the use or display of racist or offensive symbols, or actions that make fun of someone’s cultural identity or norms.
- Microinsults may be intentional or unintentional and generally demean or belittle someone based on characteristics relating to race, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, etc. They often take the form of backhanded compliments, such as telling someone that they don’t fit a certain stereotype, or expressing surprise or admiration that a person doesn’t fit a stereotype. Examples include telling a person that they’re particularly articulate for someone of their ethnicity, or that their English is easy to understand. A micro-insult might also involve telling an older person that they know a lot more about technology that they should or assuming that a person will fit within preconceived expectations relating to their gender or ethnicity.
- Microinvalidations may also be intentional or unintentional and typically involve negative conclusions or assertions about a person because of their culture or status in a certain group. For example, it may be a microinvalidation to tell a Black coworker that your success was based on your own hard work and not due to getting a handout. Such a statement implies that Black Americans receive unfair advantages (e.g., affirmative action) and that you don’t recognize the systemic obstacles they face.
How Does the Law Treat Microaggressions in the Workplace?
Microaggressions may be the basis for a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission or a lawsuit alleging wrongful discrimination on the job. See our page on Protecting Yourself from Workplace Discrimination.
How to Minimize Microaggressions in the Workplace
Because many forms of microaggression are unintentional and often unknown by the perpetrators, one of the most important ways to reduce the likelihood of such behavior is through training and education. Employers need to learn the types of behaviors that are offensive and establish and enforce policies to help workers avoid such behavior.