Author: Devika Pandey - Manager Learning and Knowledge Solutions, Canadian Centre for Diversity and Inclusion
Do you ever feel you’re walking on eggshells when having conversations with equity deserving groups? Have you ever thought – “I don’t want to offend anyone, but I don’t know what is right or wrong to say?” With the rise in awareness of inequities faced by equity deserving groups, these concerns from the dominant groups are common. Who makes up the dominant groups can vary from place to place, depending on the history of those locations.
Believe it or not, we’ve ALL committed a microaggression – most of the times unintentionally. Microaggressions are problematic and perpetuate stereotypes. They are subtle insults. They could be verbal, non-verbal, or visual, directed towards individuals often automatically or unconsciously[i]. Microaggressions, for recipients, are correlated with declines in physical and mental health and often lead to feelings of exclusion in the workplace. “Wow, you’re so articulate and your English is so good”, to a woman of colour, who, if one got to know her, has a Masters in English literature, and identifies with English as her first language. Asking “Where are you from?” to a person of colour, who, if one got to know them, was born, and brought up in Canada is another example of a microaggression. The point here is, when we ‘commit’ a microaggression, we are making an assumption, usually informed by our unconscious biases, about a person without getting to know them. You might ask, “How do I get to know them, without knowing where they are from?”. There are many other questions you can ask to get to know someone, for instance, “Where is home for you?”, or my favourite, “What’s your story? Tell me more about you.”. Then let the person share with you, what THEY feel comfortable sharing about themselves.
In a workplace, for the recipient and or a third-party ally/observer, responding to the perpetrator of a microaggression is context dependent – Is this happening in public, and could it endanger anyone’s physical safety? In a meeting, at work? Is this your close friend? There are strategies for these groups on addressing microaggressions, however this next bit is written for the perpetrator – someone who has committed the microaggression.
Without meaning to or not, you’ve committed a microaggression. You’ve been called out. You didn’t mean to and/or didn’t even understand why it was a microaggression. Now what?
Start by separating intent from impact. You clearly had good intentions, but the impact on the other person was harmful. The key here is harmful impact should be prioritized over your good intention of not to do harm.
Next, apologize. We teach children to apologize after they hurt someone at school, and then tell them to not repeat that behaviour. As adults, I’m sure we can follow that same advice. Make sure the apology is genuine.
Depending on the circumstance and your relationship with the individual, explore/ask why the recipient felt that way, what their values are, consider your own values as you engage, explore why you made that error and how you can do better next time. Keep in mind however, the onus is not on equity deserving groups to educate you, so if the recipient of the microaggression doesn’t want to engage further or help you understand why your statement offended them, respect that decision. Equity deserving groups face these slights every day, multiple times a day, and it can get exhausting having to explain or elaborate on the microaggression each time. There are many resources on the internet we all can use to educate ourselves.
Finally, don’t get defensive. This is the most common reaction amongst us all when we are called out. We are all guilty of it. Try to keep a learning mindset, understanding that we all come with our own worldviews that have been shaped by varied experiences.
Learn to get comfortable with the idea that we are not perfect, and we will make mistakes. The hope is that these mistakes will help us be more self-aware, make us better allies and ultimately, lead to more equitable workplaces where we are open to new knowledge that challenges our ways of thinking and doing.