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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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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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