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The Right Way To Handle Microaggressions In The Workplace

Microaggressions are real.

Workin' Girl

In the pilot episode of Insecure, Issa Dee's coworker at their company, We Got Y'all, hits her with one of the most random questions a person can even ask in the workplace:

"Issa, what's 'on fleek'?'"

I cackled the first time I saw this scene, mainly for the audacity, like is Issa the company's culture-whisperer or something? And in real life, you know we'd then side-eye the possible intent as in why, so y'all can use the term now?

It was a question that seemed so irrelevant and out-the-blue without any backstory that it momentarily took Issa aback. She actually had to contemplate what to say before she gave a response. Well, there's a term for what happened in that scene. What Issa experienced was a microaggression.

A few weeks ago, I signed up for The Prevailing Woman's Prevailing Through a Pandemic virtual series and one of the first sessions was on microaggressions. It was led by Ashley McGowan, a global tech and communications professional. McGowan describes microaggressions as subtle or insignificant comments and behaviors that aren't exactly offensive or straightforward but they make you feel some type of way and question the person's intent. They also come from individuals who don't look like us.

So, what other things can individuals who don't look like us do or say that can be classified as microaggressions?

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Let's say you rock a teeny-weeny 'fro and you get faux locs installed over the weekend. When you arrive at work on Monday, your co-workers approach you and ask the following questions:

How did you get that extra hair on your head?

How do you wash it?

How long are you going to keep it in there?

And then, they reach out to touch it while telling you how pretty it is.

Or, you walk past your colleague in the hallway and he greets you with 'sup, "Hey, girl!" or a fist bump.

Or, you walk into a conference room filled with typical C-suite (CEO, CFO) executives to deliver a presentation but they automatically assume you're the assistant who's there to take the minutes and help with the audiovisuals.

Or, you slay your presentation on your global call meeting and the ooooonly feedback your colleagues can offer afterwards is, "Wow, you were so articulate in delivering your strategy."

That last one actually happened to McGowan.

Author Austin Channing Brown could vouch for that type of behavior in the workplace. In her book, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Brown writes about her experience as a black woman working in a Christian-centered organization amongst a majority-white staff. Like Issa Dee's We Got Y'all, Brown's nonprofit serves the black and brown population yet the staff doesn't exactly reflect the same demographic. And the few black women, including Brown, who are in a position of authority aren't heard unless their ideas are cosigned by the majority staff.

While Brown conducts numerous trainings on race relations, her seminar attendees are uncomfortable with the fact that a black woman is the expert on the topic. They expect to hear from a "typical" Austin: a white male. In fact, on several occasions attendees have asked her, "Who's really in charge here? I want to speak with Austin." And when they learn that she's really the Austin, they launch into screaming and spitting tantrums because now they feel dumb and duped.

If hilarious and offended had a face, they would be it.

What was particularly interesting is when Brown outlined her day from 8:55am to 5pm. She experienced 14 instances of microaggressions with the first one starting before she even reached her cubicle to begin her day. What happened? She was stopped three times in the hallway and asked if she needed help finding the outreach center. It never dawned on anyone that she was actually an employee and not a client. And she's a director at that.

Both Brown and McGowan would agree that the whole thing is exhausting. In the pandemic panel, McGowan explained how we carry the burden of feeling responsible for our colleagues' feelings. We feel we must validate their thoughts before we can contradict them. And while they get to think about their daily to-do lists in the mornings before they leave home for work, we must worry about our hairstyles, our attire or any other aspects of our being that might draw inappropriate questions.

The more important question is what can we do about it? Microaggressions aren't something that's specifically addressed in our company handbooks and we can't report them to HR as blatant racism or harassment because technically they aren't. Besides, in Brown's case, she was told, "Perhaps you misunderstood," "I'm sure he didn't mean it like that" or that she's "too sensitive" and should be more careful about what she reports. Microaggressions are simply hard to prove.

Nevertheless McGowan suggests three tips to mitigate our frustrations when it comes to microaggressions in the workplace:

Maintain our composure.

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We do want to respond to these actions and behaviors because allowing them to slide only invites more side comments, which ultimately affects our mental health and our productivity. But we don't want to pop off or step outside of character because we are at work and that can lead to a whole other set of workplace problems.

Be mentally aware of microaggressions.

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We don't need to convince ourselves that maybe we're overreacting. We know when someone's words or actions don't sit right in our spirit. The key is to understand that this weird thing that occasionally happens at work has an actual name and that microaggressions are real.

Identify safe spaces and resources.

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Since we can't always go to HR, we'll need an outlet to vent our frustrations. Connect with a mentor or peer within the industry who can relate to what you're going through. That person could be someone you know or someone you've "met" through social media networks. There are groups on this very topic. Talk to someone after the first or second offense and also be sure to document the offenses just in case they escalate. Then we'll already have solid proof to report to HR.

As much as Issa Dee stays in her head with a clapback, she delivered a simple and self-composed response to the "on fleek" question.

"I don't know what that means," Issa Dee said.

I had to applaud that one. It was subtle enough to avoid a trip to her manager's office for being unapproachable and angry (Brown got those all the time!) yet strong enough to say don't ask me no ish like that again.

But who are we kidding? Of course we're bound to get similar questions, slick comments and stereotypical approaches from our next colleague. And without any of it being an infraction covered in our employee handbooks, we're forced to tap into our own black girl power for protection.

Our only "safe" recourse may be to recognize it, process it and talk about it with our trusted peers. But we should always address it, too. Shut that ish down, sis, but diplomatically so we can keep stacking these coins and building our resumes. While the solution may not seem game-changing, it's a strategic play. So for the sake of both our sanity and jobs, the best way to handle a microaggression is with a bit of passive aggression. At least, for now.

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ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
Sign up

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