Although the term “micro” means small, the effects of microaggressions are anything but. Microaggressions, which can be verbal or nonverbal, are subtle and often committed unintentionally, but the prejudices they expose (hello, implicit bias), are just as abrasive as overt discrimination. For this post, I want to focus specifically on the impacts of verbal microaggressions.
Anyone who’s heard the adage, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” also knows how wildly inaccurate it is. The poet Ruby Redford may have said it better when she wrote, “Stones and sticks break only skin, while words are ghosts that haunt me.”
I’m sure most of us can give examples of decades-old “ghosts” that still haunt us. I can recall a time when the long-term effects of a microaggression were nearly debilitating. At the time the comment was made, I experienced a torrent of emotions – sadness, anger, and the desire to retaliate. Over time, I started to question whether I was good enough. I found I was having a difficult time interacting with others and felt physically ill whenever I returned to the place the comment was made. It wasn’t until much later that I learned my unpredictable emotions, strained relationships, and nausea were congruent with the symptoms of people who have experienced a traumatic event.
Yes, one small, subtle comment can embed itself so far into our subconscious that it begins to change the way we see the world and ourselves. Conversely, our small, subtle comments (“He doesn’t look gay!”) can have the same traumatizing effect on others.
If microaggressions are often unintentional, how can we stop ourselves from saying them? These prejudiced comments stem from our unconscious biases. Therefore, we need to dive in and identify what those biases are. Only then will we have the self-awareness to think before we speak in situations where those biases may surface.
Second, become an advocate for others when microaggressive comments are made. Rather than being confrontational, use purposeful questioning to help the speaker see the error in their judgement (“What does a gay person look like?”). Remember to offer this guidance with a measure of grace. We have all been guilty of microaggressive comments and behaviors, but as long as we strive to be better tomorrow than we were today, we can affect real change in the world around us.
Those of us in leadership roles bear an even greater responsibility as advocates in our organization. If we see or hear a microaggression and fail to address it, we become an accomplice in the wound it inflicts. By not acting, we’re not only failing to provide a psychologically safe environment for our team, but our credibility among that team takes a serious hit. We in leadership are behavior models for our entire organization. As such, we need to get off of the sidelines and become allies in the fight for a safe space for our people.
Therefore, leaders can’t be bystanders. We can’t feign ignorance of the microaggressive behaviors occurring in our workplace. If we’re missing the signs, it means we’re seriously disconnected from the day-to-day dynamics of our team. As the touchstone for our organization, it’s unacceptable for us to be that out-of-touch with the people in it. We need to lead by example and take ownership of what’s happening around us because it’s our responsibility, regardless of if we see it or not.
Whether you’re in leadership or under the leadership of others, if you’ve been complicit or complacent in microaggressive behaviors , today is an opportunity to take one small step in a different direction. Maybe that means increasing your self-awareness about your tendencies towards others. It could also mean moving past that awareness into an advocacy role on behalf of those around you. Whatever that step may be for you, take it boldly. The little steps of one can lead to big changes for the many.