An Entrepreneur's Guide to Microaggressions

Monique Bolsajian
Just because we're finally talking about race in this country does not mean the fight against racial inequity is over. There is still much work to be done. 

For many, this work needs to begin in the workplace, where microaggressions run rampant. 

Microaggressions are “indirect...expressions of racism, sexism, ageism, or ableism.”

Racial microaggressions are specifically defined as “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults towards people of color.”

If you are an entrepeneur or new business owner, you may be wondering what you should do if an employee says you committted a microagression against them, or if another employee did.

First, what is a microagression? 

Asking a person of color what country they are from, for example, is a microaggression because it alienates them. The comment assumes that as a person of color, they must not be from the United States. When the response to this question is somewhere in the United States, there might be a follow-up like, “But where are you originally from?” or “Where are you really from?”

Additional examples of microaggressions include asking a Black coworker if you can touch their natural hair, or calling someone “exotic” because of the color of their skin. 

Microaggressions aren't often intentional. The person making the comment might have had genuine intentions - maybe they wanted to bond with their coworker and learn more about them. However, it’s important to remember that there’s a difference between intent and impact. 

The issue of intent

The intentions of the person who made the microaggression should not be the focus here. Just because a person did not intend to offend you does not erase the negative impact of their words. 

If someone has been hurt by a microagression, don't tell them it doesn't matter. 

Encountering microaggressions at work can be exhausting. Many navigate frequent microaggressions from coworkers and supervisors alike, and these interactions can be damaging to your mental and physical health.

It can also negatively impact one's performance at work.

What should you tell the employee who feels he/she/they is the target of racial microaggressions?

The short answer: however they want to, even if that means not having a conversation at all. It’s completely up to the employee and what they feel comfortable with.

But if an employee does come forward, don't put the employee in the position of having to educate you. 

Teaching others about your daily lived experiences can be exhausting, especially when you’re trying to explain to those who might question you or who might not understand.

Kevin Nadal, a professor of psychology, suggests that you encourage employees who feel stuck as the office diversity education expert to say something along the lines of, “Look, I feel like we're both getting really emotionally charged right now. I don't feel like I'm able to hear what you're saying. I don't feel that you're able to hear what I'm saying. So maybe we need to table this and talk another time.”

He also suggests that you refer your employees to books or movies that discuss the issues at hand so that your employees can do their learning on their own time.  

What if none of this works, or the microaggressions get worse? 

Of course, there is always the chance that your attempts to have conversations with supervisors, coworkers, and HR representatives do not go the way you hoped.

It is also the case that microaggressions can escalate to “blatant harassment or discrimination, which are generally stronger in tone and intensity and should be reported to your human resources department.”

If the microaggressions continue or escalate, you may have an employee who files a Charge of Discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

The EEOC is the federal body that protects employees from discrimination, including “unfair treatment because of your race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy, gender identity, and sexual orientation), national origin, age (40 or older), disability, or genetic information.”

They also protect against “retaliation because you complained about job discrimination, or assisted with a job discrimination investigation or lawsuit.”

You can learn more about Charges of Discrimination and how they are filed here

Sometimes, however, there are time constraints that limit when you can file for a charge. “In general, you need to file a charge within 180 calendar days from the day the discrimination took place,” or “300 calendar days if a state or local agency enforces a law that prohibits employment discrimination on the same basis.”

Because this process can be so difficult to navigate, it is important to speak with an attorney the process. Court Buddy can connect you with an attorney who can help.

What if I was called out for a microaggression?

Maybe after reading this article, you’ve become concerned that you’ve committed microaggressions in the past.

You’re not alone. We’re all human, and we all make mistakes - we all have the ability to commit microaggressions. What’s important is how you react when the microaggression is brought to your attention. 

If a coworker or employee chooses to have a conversation with you about something you said or did, it’s important that you listen. Starting these conversations takes a lot of energy, and if someone chooses to spend their energy on you, it’s on you to do your best to hear and understand their perspective.

Before asking your coworker further questions about the incident, ask them if they feel comfortable answering questions that you have. Remember that it’s not your coworkers’ job to teach you about conscious and unconscious racism. Taking their feelings into consideration is crucial. 

And most importantly: remember that it’s not about you. Your coworker isn’t trying to call you racist or tell you you’re a bad person -- they’re trying to educate you on how your words made them feel. Think of it not as them judging you, but rather them helping you better understand their lived experience. 

Now, you can avoid making similar mistakes in the future, and speak up when you see similar microaggressions occur in the future.

This article is intended to convey generally useful information only and does not constitute legal advice. Any opinions expressed are solely those of the author, not LawChamps.

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