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How ‘micro’ are Microaggressions?

An Asian student is complimented by a professor for speaking perfect English, but it's actually his first language. A black man notices that a white woman flinches and clutches her bag as she sees him in the elevator she's about to enter. A woman speaks up in an important meeting, but she can barely get a word in without being interrupted by her male colleagues.

There's a name for what's happening in these situations, when people's biases against marginalised groups reveal themselves in a way that leaves their victims feeling uncomfortable or insulted: microaggressions.

For many, the word "microaggressions" has provided the vocabulary to express indignities they face in their workplaces, schools and in general day to day life. Others use this word describing situations in which people are being ‘too sensitive’…

Executive coach, podcast host and a Diversity & Inclusion advocate Sope Agbelusi helps me in exploring the actual meaning and feeling of microaggressions.

Q: How would you define microaggressions?

Microaggressions or aggressions, as I see them, because they are never ‘micro’ for the person on the receiving end of them, can be described as subtle/covert verbal or sometimes behavioural acts that are hostile and discriminatory commonly experienced by people from ethnic background. In this article my answers are from a race perspective but microaggressions can also be viewed through the lens of gender, age, sexuality, disability and other protected and unprotected characteristics.

Q: What makes microaggressions different from other rude or insensitive actions or comments?

The subtleties of microaggressions are what sets them apart from other rude or insensitive actions or comments. On the surface a statement can appear positive and sound like a compliment such as 'You're so articulate' but it’s an aggression because the observer is surprised and expects that person from an ethnic background to be less than. The observer incorrectly judged that person consciously or unconsciously based on their colour and was taken aback when their judgement was wrong.

The subtleties are also what makes them hard to explain or address especially in corporate settings when you are a minority. Often when the perpetrator is confronted they either deny or brush off the incident and the victim faces negative consequences which is why most of the time victims suffer in silence.

Simple things such as choosing not to learn how to say a colleague’s name instead calling them something completely different because it is easier for you is another good example that shows up repeatedly. My name is Sope Agbelusi, but ever since I can remember I have been called all sorts of names with people intentionally trying to call me a name which made life easy for them instead of asking for a pronunciation. Actress Uzo Aduba said "If they can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Michelangelo and Dostoyevsky, they can learn to say Uzoamaka" and she is absolutely right.

Q: How do microaggressions actually harm people?

Microaggressions have been proven to cause depression, stress and trauma. People who have been subjected to microaggressions on a regular basis, such as those operating in toxic workplaces, have experienced headaches, insomnia and have struggled emotionally, which is not a surprise. It takes a lot of energy holding it together at work and not explode which takes its toll on the person physically, emotionally and mentally.

Another way it harms people is when they are repeatedly told that THEY are in the wrong; that their perceptions and experiences are incorrect, or them being outright dismissed makes them begin to question themselves and their lived experiences. They begin to wonder if it’s all imagery and if it is them, who are indeed making a mountain out of a molehill, as colleagues, friends and family have been told in the past when they reported incidents of microaggressions to HR.

Q: What can I do to avoid subjecting people to microaggressions?

1. Think before you talk and act. Too often people have ‘foot in mouth’ syndrome, which results in saying or doing something without thinking about how it may sound, and more importantly how it may make others feel.

2. Check your bias. White privilege and superiority often lead to subjecting people to microaggressions. When you are checked-in and aware of your bias you react to situations in a more thoughtful manner and treat people in a more inclusive way.

3. Put yourself in situations where you are not the majority. This not only helps you to understand how uncomfortable it can be, but it also helps you to understand other people and their cultural contexts better.

Q: How can I point people out when they have made a comment that could be interpreted as a microaggression?

This really depends on the setting. In some environments, the victim of a microaggression can have a conversation with the person who have made the derogatory comment and explain what they did wrong and how what they said was offensive. However, if the confronted person is likely to react negatively, I would not do this, as I have witnessed situations where the perpetrator has turned the tables and accused the victim of bullying.

If it is a regular occurrence in a work setting, document each incident and try to get witnesses and allies, who would be willing to support you before going to HR. This will give you a stronger case.

In a public setting, e.g., people touching your hair, speak up, do not let it slide as that won’t teach the person a lesson and they may go off and do the same to other people.


Follow and engage with Sope’s work: Podcast -

Instagram and LinkedIn: @sopeagbelusi

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*Originally published in SOCIALight Magazine Conscious Growth column Issue 16. Link


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