How to Deal with Microagressions in a Group Setting

Dear DW,

How do I respond to a microaggression that is said in a group setting? I’m comfortable responding in a one-on-one situation, but I normally just sit there when other people are around, hoping someone else says something.

Signed, Tongue-Tied

Dear Tongue-Tied,

Microaggressions are subtle statements or actions that are derogatory or foster a stereotype about a marginalized group. For example, telling a Black woman who is passionately making a point to calm down plays into the stereotype that Black women are angry or too aggressive.

When someone is on the receiving end of a microaggression in the workplace, they can feel demoralized and excluded. In fact, a study by researchers at North Carolina State and Wake Forest Universities found that being subject to microaggressions negatively affects job satisfaction.

Though they can be unintentional, microaggressions often undermine Brown and Black women, says Cindi Bright, a leadership coach and author of The Color of Courage: Crushing Racism in Corporate America. “They are seeds that are being planted to create doubt about that Brown or Black person’s capability or character.”

A manager or person in a position of power “has a responsibility to do something when the microaggression is happening,” says Bright. That way, it makes the person on the receiving end of the microaggression feel supported.

A manager might ask the offending party what they meant or subtly introduce an opposing view. In the example above, a manager—or even a colleague, if he or she feels comfortable—might say, “Tracey’s passion is an asset to this project. Her enthusiasm makes us all better.”

If you are not a manager and don’t feel comfortable speaking up in the group, pulling the person aside after the meeting or even speaking with someone from Human Resources and letting them handle the situation can help to make a difference. DW

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