Over the last few years, the term microaggression has been used more often. Many people have seen it in print or heard it discussed on the news, but they may not be entirely sure what it means or why it is so problematic.
Simply put, a microaggression is something that reinforces an existing problem. The overarching issue could be some type of discrimination, such as sexism, homophobia or racism. A microaggression is something that may be thinly veiled or disguised, but that still fits into one of these categories. It’s not as overt as other types of discrimination or harassment, which can make it harder to identify.
How could this happen?
Often, microaggressions are backhanded compliments or offhand comments that have greater implications.
For example, perhaps a company has mostly Caucasian workers and hires an African-American worker. One of their fellow employees mentions that they can’t believe how good this person is with technology or the level of education they must have achieved. They may say it as a compliment about their new co-worker’s intelligence, but the implication is that they believe African Americans are uneducated and don’t understand technology. So even if it is formatted as a compliment, the remark still reinforces this type of systemic racism.
Another example could be complimenting someone on their English language skills. Perhaps that person has a different ethnic background, but the coworker who makes the comment still shouldn’t assume that they don’t know how to speak English. They may very well have had parents or grandparents who were immigrants, and they have lived in the United States their entire life. English is their first language. Once again, something that may sound like a compliment is actually an insult.
Microaggressions can sometimes lead to discrimination lawsuits and allegations of a hostile work environment. Those involved must understand their legal options and all of the steps they should take as this process plays out.