This lesson is part of our regular Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) curriculum. On most Mondays, you will be expected to read a short lesson about that week's DEI topic. Then, on Tuesday, your instructor will lead a standup on that topic.
This week, we will cover microaggressions: what they are, how they impact people, and how to recognize and prevent them.
Consider this excerpt from a blog post by Jules Walter, a Black software engineer:
Have you ever spent time in a place where you’re in the minority, even briefly? At an event, for example, or in another country? Think about how you felt being the only man at an event attended primarily by women, or the only white person in an entire train station in a predominantly African-American neighborhood. If you have never experienced this, try it. The feeling of being an outsider, of not belonging, is what many minorities experience in the workplace on a regular basis.
Until recently in my career, I was always the only black person on my team. Coworkers have generally been nice to me, but it’s hard to ignore that I’m noticeably different when no one else at work looks like I do. I’ve learned to ignore this feeling of being an outsider, but it always comes back eventually, whether it’s during meetings with executive leadership, while walking into a company’s office for an onsite interview, or in other work-related situations.
In a recent survey, women told how similar "feeling[s] of being an outsider" affected them:
Women who are onlies [the only woman in a group] report feeling “on guard,” “under pressure” and “‘closely watched.”
Read one last story now, this time from Lindsay Grizzard, a woman on an otherwise all-male software development team:
This is how it is working as a woman on an all-male team: You can never put your finger on exactly whether it’s the gender thing or whether it’s just a personal thing or whatever. [For example,] my tech lead would only ever Slack me. It was really hard to get him to come sit down next to me and help me, which is a really common thing to do in coding. But he would do that with everyone else. At first I didn’t really notice it, but after six months, it was like every time, even if I would ask him to come pair-program with me for a little while, it would be like pulling teeth.
When we're already tense from sticking out, the uncertainty of whether and why we're being treated differently can eat away at us and make it difficult to participate. And others' discomfort with our "otherness" can often lead them to treat us differently.
The way that Lindsay Grizzard's boss didn't want to pair program with her is an example of a microaggression. Derald Wing Sue, Professor of Psychology and Education at Columbia University, defines microaggressions as:
...everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, often unintentional, which communicate negative messages to people in marginalized groups. These messages communicate they are lesser, suggest they do not belong with the majority group, or relegate them to inferior status and treatment.
In Lindsay's example, when her boss would pair with everybody else but her, the message she received was probably that her boss wasn't comfortable with her, or didn't think working with her was worth her time.
Here are several real-world examples of microaggressions, including some we've assisted students in addressing at Epicodus. The "hidden messages" might or might not be the intent of the person committing the microaggression, but either way, their effect on members of marginalized groups is the same.
The term microaggression combines the words "micro" and "aggression," but in some ways the term is misleading because the impact of microaggressions long-term is very significant. According to Dr. Sue:
(Microaggressions) have been found to: (a) assail the mental health of recipients, (b) create a hostile and invalidating work or campus climate, (c) perpetuate stereotype threat, (d) create physical health problems, (e) saturate the broader society with cues that signal devaluation of social group identities, (f) lower work productivity and problem solving abilities, and (g) be partially responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.
These issues arise because microaggressions themselves can be subtle even if their impact isn't. The following quote from Dr. Sue illustrates this. While he speaks specifically of their impact on people of color here, these issues also apply to women and people from other minority groups.
Microaggressions hold their power because they are invisible, and therefore they don't allow whites to see that their actions and attitudes may be discriminatory. Therein lies the dilemma. The person of color is left to question what actually happened. The result is confusion, anger and an overall draining of energy.
If you rarely have that "sticking out" feeling, we really encourage you to start regularly thinking about how your actions impact people in minority groups. (If this feels like a lot to ask, think back to Jules Walter's suggestion to remember an experience where you were a minority and the emotional energy that state took; surely you can spare some of your own brain power to help others who are in this situation!) Here are a few rules of thumb to help you help others feel included:
But what should we do if we are involved in a microaggression, whether as the target, a witness, or the person committing it? Here are some tips on handling microaggressions from each of these three roles:
If you stepped on someone's foot, you'd apologize, right? Even if it was completely unintentional, you still stepped on them. And that can hurt! Well, the same goes for microaggressions; while their damaging "hidden messages" aren't always intended, they still hurt. So they deserve acknowledgement, an apology, and reflection to prevent them from occurring again. Here are some things you can do when you commit a microaggression:
Be a good listener. This is an opportunity to learn about someone else's perspective and become a better peer, ally, and future coworker. Listen carefully, regardless of the amount of information the other party freely gives.
Consider your biases. No matter how hard we try, we all carry biases with us, and those biases are shaped by the world we live in. So if you do something that turns out to be a microaggression, take a moment to reflect on whether your actions might be the outcome of a bias, perhaps one you weren't fully aware you had, and think about how you can be better aware of that bias in the future.
Follow up with Epicodus staff if you have remaining concerns or would like more guidance on preventing future microaggressions.
Recognize that no matter how sorry you are or how unintentional it was, you are not the victim.
When we're targets of microaggressions, we shouldn't immediately assume the perpetrator has hurtful intentions. We are more likely to handle situations in a productive, non-confrontational way if we don't assume others' intentions are hostile. If someone stepped on your foot, that doesn't mean they're on a mission to intentionally hurt peoples' feet, right? In most cases, it was probably an accident. That said, just like there's nothing wrong with telling somebody they stepped on your foot, there's also nothing wrong with telling somebody they hurt you with a microaggression.
Here are guidelines on handling microaggressions targeted at you and communities you belong to:
To create a safe and welcoming learning environment, it's important that all students treat each other, and staff, with respect, kindness, and empathy. This includes respecting and welcoming all races, genders, ability levels, sexual orientations, ages, religions, and other traits and statuses.
Students that repeatedly target others with microaggressions, and/or display no improvement in this behavior after staff intervention are in violation of our Code of Conduct (in our Student Handbook) and will be asked to leave.
Talking about our identities can be uncomfortable, especially if you haven't had these kinds of conversations before. It can be tempting to make jokes as a way of lessening that discomfort, but we'd urge you to avoid this kind of humor. Being a minority in any environment can be stressful, and having somebody joke about that experience can feel belittling.
On the other hand, we urge you to continue talking with your friends, classmates, and teachers about microaggressions and other aspects of making Epicodus an inclusive community.
We encourage students to become allies. An ally is a person who actively works to improve conditions for people from groups with less power. Working towards preventing and calling out microaggressions is a good start. However, there are many other ways we can be allies as well.
We recommend checking out the following resources if you are interested in becoming an ally:
Lesson 16 of 38
Last updated March 23, 2021