A ‘micro-aggression’ is a small everyday discrimination: either through words or behaviour when someone demonstrates hostility towards or bias against people from minority groups, usually because of their race, gender, sexual orientation or disability or any combination of these. This can be intentional or unintentional and is often very subtle and hard to detect. It can be a result of someone’s unconscious bias or incorrect assumptions.
Here are some examples:
- A patient in hospital thinks a black female doctor is a healthcare assistant.
- An employer makes an assumption that a blind person can’t travel to work on their own.
- A black man is treated as a potential shoplifter in a big department store and has attention focussed on him unfairly
- A woman experiences subtle patronage from men at work – e.g. unwelcome labelling like ‘ladies’, ‘girls’,
- An older woman is interrupted or ignored when she is talking in meetings.
- A black man is stopped by the police every time, when he walks through arrivals at the airport.
- A woman talks about her wife and receives comments from a colleague about how that makes no difference to how the colleague thinks about her.
- A man with a disability is excluded from a job because they are incorrectly believed to be a wheelchair user.
- A woman experiences sexual innuendo from a man which is subtle and dressed up as a compliment.
- A gay man being told it is because he is gay that he has psychological problems.
- Someone asking a woman of Chinese descent where she comes from
- Someone commenting to a man with a dark skin born in the UK that he speaks good English.
Microaggressions are hard to stamp out because they are small actions or words.. but they will often be experienced repeatedly by the person receiving them, which is when they become wearing, and stressful for the person. Research shows a link between micro-aggressions and poor mental or physical health.
People who complain about micro-aggressions, which they have experienced, are not always taken seriously – ‘You are being over-sensitive’. ‘ You’re not one of those feminists are you?’ ‘That was a perfectly innocent comment’ ‘ Nothing bad was meant by that’ .
People who decide to keep quiet can also struggle and the long term impact can be very negative.
Organisations need to listen out more and support employees who experience micro-aggressions by challenging the words and behaviours of the perpetrators and building understanding. Not an easy task. Enabling groups of employees to meet to give mutual support can sometimes work. Good mentoring and coaching as well.
To enable people to be more aware of their unconscious bias, for or against black people, for or against women and more, organisations can encourage people to take the IAT (Implicit Association Tests) run by Harvard. This can make people more aware of how they may need to change to deal fairly with colleagues, clients and others. https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/takeatest.html
Here is a website with some more examples about racial micro-aggressions:
Here is more useful material about microaggressions to LGBTQ people
Here is an article about micro-aggressions to people with disabilities: https://www.bustle.com/articles/186060-13-microaggressions-people-with-disabilities-face-on-a-daily-basis
Here is some more about micro-aggressions against women: https://www.unh.edu/sites/default/files/departments/office_of_the_provost/Academic_Admin/gendermicroaggressions.pdf
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