Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 2
In Episode 52: “Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 2,” Melinda Briana Epler draws from her book How to Be an Ally (McGraw-Hill 2021) for the fundamentals of understanding, identifying, and interrupting microaggressions in the workplace. Melinda discusses nonverbal and environmental microaggressions, as well as some tactics for intervening and treating the impact of microaggressions. You can order How to Be an Ally at ally.cc/book for more on this topic.
- The Icon Project
- The Definitive Book of Body Language: The Hidden Meaning Behind People’s Gestures and Expressions by Barbara Pease and Allan Pease
- Microaggressions in Everyday Life by Derald Wing Sue and Lisa Spanierman
- Leading With Empathy & Allyship with Melinda Briana Epler
- “Episode 51: Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions – Part 1”
- “Episode 50: Understanding & Correcting Our Biases”
- “Episode 49: “Why Empathy & Allyship Matter In The Workplace”
- “Episode 48: “How To Be An Ally In The Remote Workplace”
- “Episode 16: “How To Be A Great Ally”
- Episode 27: “How To Make Disability Accommodation & Inclusion The New Working Norm” with Victor Calise, Commissioner Of The New York City Mayor’s Office For People With Disabilities
The live show is made accessible thanks to Interpreter-Now and White Coat Captioning.
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MELINDA: Welcome to Leading With Empathy & Allyship where we have deep, real conversations about empathy and allyship and being more inclusive leaders in our workplaces and communities. I am Melinda Briana Epler, the Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst, where we build inclusive innovation through training, consulting, and events. This is a safe space to learn, to build empathy, to understand tangible actions we can take to build a better world for our colleagues, neighbors, friends, and ourselves, actually, because this all makes the world a better place for everybody.
This is a special Summer Season 4, where I talk about some of our most requested topics. And also answer questions from you all. Today is episode 52, where we will be talking about ‘Recognizing & Overcoming Microaggressions.’ This is Part 2. But again, don’t worry if you missed Part 1; definitely go back and listen later. You can find that at ally.cc. But glad you are here listening now.
We will talk about common nonverbal microaggressions and how to catch them, some common environmental microaggressions and how to dismantle them, and then a brief overview of microinterventions. We won’t be able to go too deep into this, but I will give you ideas to try and we might visit that in a future episode.
On screen we have our ASL interpreters. Thank you, Michelle. 52 episodes – woohoo! When I am presenting, if you all can’t see the interpreters, please, let us know and Ariyah or Renzo or somebody on the team can help you. Thank you to our amazing team for doing all of the work you do. They are in the chat and the Q&A, so please feel free to reach out if you have any technical issues or questions about Change Catalyst or anything else.
Please engage in the chat. Please continue. You all are doing amazing with that. Really appreciate you. Helps me a lot and I enjoy it. I have heard good feedback from our feedback forms, actually, around all that you share in the chat and that interaction. So, please, continue. Alright. I am going to share my screen.
As you all know, I am Melinda Briana Epler, Founder & CEO of Change Catalyst. Today, well, always, I am a White woman with red hair wearing a turquoise shirt and black and white glasses. You can find me on Twitter, @mbrianaepler, or on Instagram, @changecatalysts, also on LinkedIn. The slideshow is a picture of myself in Hayes Valley, San Francisco and a logo of Change Catalyst, and then the text as well that I am reading through.
I create ecosystems using human systems design, storytelling, community building, and behavioral science. And I am an author. My new book, How to Be an Ally with McGraw Hill is being printed. Many of you all know this by now.
If you can afford a little token of appreciation for me – also, it should be a great learning for you – I would appreciate your purchasing a copy and also sharing it with friends and colleagues, and reviewing it on Amazon or wherever you buy it after you have read it. That’s definitely helpful.
It includes historical context, frameworks, data, stories, some personal stories, some stories people have told me, and a whole lot of ways you can take action. Please email us if you want to order any in bulk. Whether you want to do it for your team, your company, your school, or friends, we will make sure you get a discounted rate. Email email@example.com. Ariyah is putting that in the chat. Thank you.
For this special season 4 over the summer, I am diving in the subjects in the book and also they happen to be the most requested topics in our audience feedback forms. We have heard you and responded with this special season. Just a reminder that allyship is recognizing there is an imbalance in opportunity and using your power and your privilege to change it. As allies we learn, we show empathy, we take action, the key. We use our power and our influence to create positive change for our colleagues, friends, our neighbors, for each other.
These are the steps in my book about the steps allies can take. Step 1 is: ‘Learn, Unlearn, Relearn.’ Step 2: ‘Do No Harm,’ which starts with recognizing we have biases we have learned from families, from friends, from media, from TV and film, and from society – and working to understand those biases and correct them. We talked about that earlier this season.
The second part of doing no harm is recognizing microaggressions and overcoming them so we don’t do them. These are some of the most harmful things. They are little and sometimes they can feel little but they add up over time and can make a big difference in people’s lives.
In Part 1 last time we talked about what microaggressions are, why they are important to address, examples of verbal microaggressions and alternatives, and a bit about the impact of microaggressions as well and how to interrupt them in ourselves. We also talked about that. In this episode, we will talk about common nonverbal microaggressions and how to catch them, examples of environmental microaggressions, how to dismantle them, and a brief overview of some microinterventions.
Again, I am going to talk a lot, but I love all that you share in the chat. Your ‘aha’ moments, your thoughts, your questions, please put them in the chat. If you have specific questions for me to address at the end of the show just use the Q&A.
Another reminder here that microaggressions are everyday slights. They are insults, negative verbal, and nonverbal communications and whether intentional or not they can make someone feel belittled, disrespected, unheard, unsafe, othered, tokenized, gaslighted, impeded, and otherwise like they don’t feel like they belong. Each individual microaggression can be harmful in the short term plus as microaggressions accumulate daily they can have a significant toll on someone’s career, someone’s life, and someone’s family in the long term. They can have an intergenerational effect as well.
People with underrepresented identities encounter microaggressions on top of the stress everyone has both at work and outside of work, which is an unfair disadvantage in our work and in our lives. Often when people learn about microaggressions, they focus on intent: ‘That’s not what I meant. I didn’t intend for them to feel that way. They took it the wrong way.’
Unintentional harm is still harm. The impact is the key. Microaggressions are experienced and felt regardless of your intent.
We must move from unintentional harm to intentional allyship. We don’t always know the historical context. We don’t always know the cumulative effect of somebody experiencing the same microaggressions again and again. We have to trust their experience. If it matters to the person that we are working with, if it matters to the person that we are interacting with, it should matter to us as colleagues, as humans, as allies.
We did talk about, last time, the short- and long-term effects that can include Impostor Syndrome, stereotype threat, covering, code-switching, general lower engagement and productivity, health issues both mental and physical health issues, and then leaving the company, leaving the industry.
It is our job as allies to understand what microaggressions are and to make sure we don’t do them. The key is to develop our empathy skills to be more intentional so that we recognize the microaggression before it forms, and stop it before it happens.
There are different kinds of microaggressions: verbal, nonverbal, and environmental. We are going to focus on nonverbal and environmental microaggressions today. Let’s dive into that.
Invisiblization and exclusion. The way that this might show up is ignoring somebody’s presence in the room, in the conversation, or in a public space. Not inviting someone to a meeting when they should be there because of their expertise and role. Seeing or treating two Black women as interchangeable, which happens surprisingly a lot in our workplaces still. Having non-senior level people or non-VIPs sit against the wall in a room, versus sitting at the table.
Invisibilization is a form of othering. Basically it is saying, ‘I don’t see you. I don’t recognize you.’ It can happen in meetings or events where no one introduces themselves to a person with an underrepresented identity. Maybe you are walking down a hallway, down the street and you pass somebody and don’t see them, don’t recognize them. It happens to me often in my own neighborhood in San Francisco, actually, in the heart of the tech industry. Walking down the street in my neighborhood, men will literally run into me because they don’t see me and expect me to move out of their way.
Be mindful of inclusion in meetings, being aware of your surroundings, being aware of the people around you. Invite people in the room where decisions are made, in the room where it happens, so to speak, where they have a powerful position in that room at the table. Ensure everyone is introduced to everyone else. Make sure you are engaging with people, with everyone. Humanize and empathize, again.
Not paying attention. That might be looking at your laptop or your cellphone or otherwise multi-tasking when somebody is speaking. It could be talking aside to someone when a person is sharing an idea or an experience and not being fully present when they are speaking but talking to somebody else. It could be closing off your body or communicating disinterest when somebody is speaking.
Give people your full attention, right? Really be fully present with them. That might mean really facing them, listening with empathy, being open to what they are saying and showing you are open to what they are saying. Close your laptop when you are in-person, of course, not when you are virtual. Put down your phone. Turn off your notifications. Pay attention. You can practice empathetic listening here which we talked about a couple episodes ago. Use open body language and facial expressions that connect with the speaker, that show you are truly listening and care what they have to say.
If someone is new or the only person like them in the room or they are just nervous, it can make a huge difference if you show up for them in that small way. You might also find you remember more about what they say. There are studies that show when you are fully present, when you have that open body language, that you are receiving more.
Other facial expressions and body language, like rolling your eyes or otherwise dismissing or mocking somebody, giving a knowing side look to someone about somebody else. A lot of people can see and feel that.
Embodying dominant power positioning. That could be standing over somebody in a way that makes them feel closed off. That could be sitting in a dominant power stance. There is a great book called Body Language by a couple. I am blanking on their first names, but Pease is their last name. We will share that link on ally.cc when this episode comes out, so you can take a look at that. Debra and Allan Pease, I think? It is cool. It is interesting. It’s a quick read.
Become aware about how your body and facial expressions make somebody feel. Is someone closing their own body language in relation to yours? That might mean you are overpowering. Are you encroaching on their physical space? Once you begin to recognize this in yourself you might see this in others too, all of this, and you can interrupt it.
Yeah, Kevin says, ‘Candidate Trump creeping up behind candidate Hillary at the debate in 2016.’ That’s absolutely right. Definitely some microaggressions there for sure. Thank you, Michelle. The Definitive Book of Body Language by Allan and Barbara Pease. Thank you.
Touching people without permission: touching somebody’s wheelchair, leaning against it, or pushing it without their permission. For a lot of people, somebody’s wheelchair, somebody’s cane, somebody’s walker is an extension of themselves. Be really aware of that. Make sure you have permission before doing that.
Patting the head of a Little Person and/or woman. I had this happen multiple times. Touching a Black person’s hair or Muslim woman’s head scarf. Rubbing a pregnant woman’s belly without their permission. Putting your hand on someone to quiet them, to essentially hold them down, right? Each of these can be belittling. They can be offensive. It can hold people back, hold people down. It is not OK to touch somebody without their permission.
As an ally, instead of seeing somebody in a wheelchair and wanting to help them by pushing that wheelchair, perhaps open the door for them. Perhaps, if it is a crowded sidewalk, maybe you can part the way for them a bit in a subtle way.
I have noticed, also, my husband, Wayne, who is Black – we have been together for several years, and we have noticed together how many times people touch him. When we are in restaurants it is the wait staff, or when people are first meeting him. It is usually White or Asian women for some reason. There is a bias there. It doesn’t make him feel good. It is a really subtle thing but it accumulates over time when somebody experiences that over and over again. Pay attention to this.
Kimberly says, ‘As someone with a disability that presents with chronic pain I have noticed folks often misread my body language. It is tricky to be fully myself and mindful of how the subtext of my body language can read to others when I am actually engaged and listening.’ Absolutely, Kimberly. Also, I would say as a result of that, don’t assume that somebody – when they are closed off – that they are doing it intentionally. I have to remind myself of this as a speaker because not everybody can have that open body language. Thank you for that reminder.
Racist, sexist, or ableist nonverbal actions. When I was young, my mom used to lock the door when she saw somebody suspicious coming down the street. Who looks suspicious? Often your biases are coming into the play, right? I still remember one time, distinctly, when a Black man was walking down the street and noticed she had locked the door. She noticed that he noticed. That sound of the door locking can be heard. Imagine how that makes people feel. I am sure she doesn’t remember and hopefully she no longer does this, but it is a little bias that creeped in and created harm.
Other ways that this comes out: crossing to the other side of the street when you see a Black man coming towards you on the sidewalk. Grabbing your purse when you see a Black man near you or a Black woman. Calling the police when you see a Black person in your neighborhood or calling security when at your workplace, assuming they don’t belong, assuming they don’t belong in your neighborhood, in your workplace.
At Tech Inclusion a couple years ago, Leslie Miley, who was the director of engineering at Google Cloud at the time, shared just how many times people at Google, security guards and colleagues, people who worked at Google, would ask him about his pass. They didn’t ask the White people around him. They asked him about his pass. They wanted to see his pass to make sure that he belonged. As the director of engineering, how many times, over and over, that happens and how does that make somebody feel?
Also other things along these lines: referring to sign language by just waiving your hands in a nonsensical way. Using an animal reference when referring to a person – a monkey, an ape, a cougar. All these things are quite racist and sexist and clearly something you shouldn’t do. Using a cat or cougar gestures about somebody’s body when describing a woman. These are demeaning and derogatory actions that must be eliminated. They are harmful to us all.
Refrain from calling security or the police because somebody looks suspicious. This is a bias that puts Black people in harm’s way far too often. It needs to be unlearned.
Recognize and reverse your biases when you assume someone is a criminal or somebody doesn’t belong. Recognize that and stop yourself in that moment. If you feel tense when a Black man or a Brown man walks down the street next to you at night or toward you at night, recognize that. Recognize you are tensing up and do the opposite and show warmth instead because you know this happens over and over again.
Also avoidance. Microaggressions can be nonverbal and passive too. That fear that you might say or do the wrong thing, or not know how to approach somebody, can often lead to avoiding them all together. This avoidance can have a long-term effect on somebody’s life. I had no idea this was an issue until I spoke with Victor Calise who is the Commissioner at the Mayor’s office for people with disabilities in New York. We did speak with him in I believe Season 4 so you can go back and listen to that episode as well.
This could show up as not interviewing or approaching somebody because you don’t know how or don’t know how to accommodate them. When we had an Ability in Tech summit back in 2016 to really address diversity, equity, and inclusion in the tech industry for people with disabilities, there were so many companies that didn’t come to our career fair. What they said was they didn’t know how to accommodate or their people had not been taught how to speak to people with disabilities. They are human, right? Speak to people with disabilities the way you would speak to any human. Or do the work, which is not a lot of work, to teach them so that you don’t keep people from opportunities.
It also comes out avoiding the seat next to a person with marginalized identity. That might be on a train or a bus or could be in a conference room. Or sitting further away from them whether that’s in an interview or in a conversation. Michelle says she was there at the Ability In Tech conference and, ‘It was great. Those companies missed out.’ Absolutely agree.
It can also show up as asking different questions in a job interview because you are afraid to ask deeper questions. Or maybe assume that you know the response without asking. Bias creeping in again. Not giving somebody proper feedback to really grow. This happens a lot with women in particular and people with underrepresented identities particularly race and ethnicity. And intersectionality, as well, so a lot of women of color don’t receive the proper feedback to really grow. They get feedback around their personality traits rather than feedback around their skills and expertise.
All of this is obviously offensive and can harm people emotionally and results in low employment rates in people with disabilities. It can significantly affect somebody’s career with lack of opportunities and lack of opportunities to grow. This is even easier to do in the remote workplace actually. A lot of us are remote right now. Be really conscious of this. Are you avoiding people? Even just not really thinking about it but there is something in there that you are not reaching out to somebody. You are not including somebody because you have a fear of doing or saying something wrong or acknowledging that someone is going on in their lives, right? I am going to talk about environmental microaggressions in a second. Sometimes we have a fear of saying or doing the wrong thing around social injustice, around AAPI hate and violence. So we do and say nothing.
In addition to verbal and nonverbal microaggressions, there are what Derald Wing Sue calls ‘environmental microaggressions.’ And we will share the link again for the work that Derald Wing Sue has done which was shared in the last episode as well. He calls environmental microaggressions demeaning and threatening social, educational, political, or economic cues that are manifested on systemic and environmental levels. Mascots, advertisements, media images of racial injustice and police brutality over and over again, and the biases in the media around who is portrayed as perpetrators, and so on. We talked about that in the episode around biases. It can become an environmental microaggression as well.
Inaccurate and belittling portrayals of somebody’s identity in films and television. Wayne and I were watching a new show the other day and it made us feel awful. We both regret watching it. We watched the first episode of it. I won’t name the show because it happens so much I could be talking about several shows. In it there were lots of Black people in the show, and they were all the ones that were killed and were killed brutally with a shot to the forehead. And often they were abused ahead of time and they were verbally abused afterwards as if their bodies and their lives didn’t matter. The Black woman in the show – and actually, there was a lot of nudity in the show – all the people who were nude were Black. They were showing and depicting Black bodies in a very different way than White bodies. This made us both feel awful and obviously, Wayne, who is Black, even more awful.
These are environmental microaggressions and they affect you over time. They affect how you show up the next day and knowing how people feel about you and how society feels about you. Also just general lack of representation in magazines and novels and textbooks and videos and other media advertisements. All of this can make somebody feel like they don’t belong. Like they don’t belong in society. This is all environmental microaggressions. This is hard stuff. Appreciate you all listening to this.
Some specifics. Cultural appropriation, exploitation. Cultural appropriation is also called cultural misappropriation. It is inappropriate, unauthorized adoption or co-opting of language, of music, of hair styles, of attire, fashion, art, traditions, culture, and history of another culture. The appropriator is usually from a majority or dominant who co-ops from a marginalized culture. Not always though. I will give you a couple examples here. We can all do this. We all might find ourselves doing this. Often that’s removing an object or culture or tradition from its original context and placing it in the context of dominant culture.
Individual acts of cultural appropriation are generally nonverbal microaggressions. A brand’s act of cultural appropriation are environmental microaggressions. This might show up by somebody saying, ‘I love the culture. I am wearing cornrows to show my appreciation or a Bindi, or a headdress, or warpaint, or a kimono, or a sombrero.’ Brands using stereotypical tropes, cultural icons, historical figures as mascots, logos, or their brand name. Sampling or popularizing music from another culture without recognition or compensation.
Just a few examples of those. Katie Perry dressing as a Japanese geisha at the Video Music Awards. Karlie Kloss wearing a Native ceremonial war bonnet on the runway. Kim Kardashian West has worn cornrows a few times. Selina Gomez appeared at Dancing With The Stars with a Bindi on her forehead and a Bollywood inspired routine. Beyoncé actually did something similar dressing as a Bollywood actress once as well.
Speaking with somebody else’s accent or dialect. We see this with a ‘blaccent,’ for example. Art, dance, or writing that borrows heavily from another culture without attribution, permission, or cultural context.
Also, it comes out in the media around casting actors or models to play historical or cultural figures from an identity that is not their own. For example, White actors playing Asian or Black roles. Watch for this. It happens a lot. Or cisgender actors playing transgender roles. Or non-disabled actors playing disabled roles. Also wearing Black face, Brown face, Yellow face. Obviously those are racist and environmental microaggressions. Toys, games, videos, movies that popularize and monetize cultural figures and traditions without permission or without their cultural context.
David asks or says, ‘That’s where there needs to be conversations to expand upon the idea of showing up authentically at work. In theory, yes, we want people to be accepted, to feel accepted for who they are. In practice can you handle the generational trauma carried over? Or can underrepresented folks authentically only show up in ways that make you, the majority, feel comfortable?’ That’s a great point.
Ling Wang, I will hold your question for the end around critical race theory. We have adjusted a bit in the last episodes, but I am happy to talk about it if we have time.
Appropriation of Indigenous people happens in most regions where Indigenous people were colonized. A lot of people see this as an extension of colonization. The Kansas City American football team is called the Chiefs where celebrities bang on drums with a crowd and many wearing war paint and headdresses. The crowd does the Tomahawk chop. The Atlanta Braves adopted the Tomahawk chop as well, where they literally hoist foam Tomahawks. These are environmental microaggressions that can be very hurtful.
Actually, after the murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, several companies had an internal recognition of this and reckoning with this. Both their lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion internally, but the cultural appropriation and racism of some of their brands.
So a lot of brands had an awakening and started to change. Dreyer’s Eskimo Pie, the Quaker Oats Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth’s, Mars, Uncle Bens, Colgate-Palmolive’s Darlie toothpaste, Nestlé’s Red Skins and Chicos, and many others. Obviously all racist. More needs to be done here. There is still a lot. These brands are appropriating, stereotyping, perpetuating notions of enslavement, of servitude. There is actually a museum in Michigan that’s actually dedicated to racist memorabilia like this. There is a whole museum if you want to look at all the brands that have done this over time.
As a general rule, avoid wearing, practicing, or making money from aspects of another person’s cultural identity or another group’s cultural identity unless you have been given explicit permission to do so. If you admire and respect the culture, learn from them. Purchase items directly from them and attribute that work back, use it as a learning opportunity, an education opportunity. You have a powerful voice so you can help create change. If you see someone or a brand who is culturally appropriating, let them know. They may not be aware. Brands often listen to their consumers. The more we all talk and speak about, the more we all talk about it the better. And protest with marginalized people when they fight to regain their cultural icons, which a lot of Indigenous people are right now.
Other environmental microaggressions. Leadership is not diverse and inclusive. The leadership team isn’t diverse. Microaggressions and inequities are allowed to occur without people of authority intervening. It is a good thing to start doing some training at the top level of your organization, so they know how to intervene because it is their job.
Diversity, equity, and inclusion are terms used by leadership in a hollow way without true actions so they are performative. They are public statements, but there is no real work being done. A lack of leadership diversity shows you may not value people like them as leaders and there is a glass ceiling or a bamboo ceiling for people with underrepresented identities. Not focusing on diversity and equity and inclusion as a leadership team also communicates to people that you don’t care about the needs and the inclusion of people with underrepresented identities.
If you are a leader, work on diversity, equity, and inclusion on your leadership team. If you are not, you can still advocate for a diverse and inclusive leadership in your company. That can make a big difference.
Also, diversity, equity and inclusion is not a priority in the culture. That shows up as leadership caring about diversity, equity, and inclusion, but maybe managers don’t prioritize it so it doesn’t permeate through the organization.
Or asking people with underrepresented identities to fix diversity, equity, and inclusion. The work is on people with underrepresented identities. Often that’s without compensation as well. Sometimes it is a volunteer group that does a lot of work on the side in addition to their daily job, in addition to the microaggressions they face, in addition to the exclusion they face.
It can also be not acknowledging the impact of environmental microaggressions and discrimination that people experience outside of the workplace. Maybe the company website or marketing or advertisements show a lack of diverse representation. Or diversity, equity, and inclusion is addressed through Black History Month and Women’s History Month events or ERGs, but they are not addressed systematically and culturally within the organization.
Or the company only prioritizes diversity for women. We actually have heard this a lot. People say, ‘We will get to the other groups after we get gender right.’ That’s a microaggression. Can be a macroaggression as well, but environmental microaggressions.
Company holidays aren’t inclusive. The company doesn’t take into account caregiver schedules when hosting events, when scheduling workdays, when scheduling meetings. And even food and beverages offered are not inclusive – which, if you are offering food and beverages, you should offer them for everyone. Really keep in mind all of the cultural needs, dietary needs that people have.
Prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion across the organization, from the top to the bottom through the middle. Hold leaders accountable for creating change and address diversity, equity, and inclusion for all underrepresented groups.
And then go beyond events, beyond ERGs, to deep systemic change. Events and ERGs are important and a crucial piece of this and we need systemic change. Ensure your brand offers diversity, equity, and inclusion. Offer flexible holidays so people can take off the days they want to celebrate. Consider flexible hours to accommodate parents and other caregivers and remote options. We have all seen how easy it can be to be remote and so now it is time to make remote an option for all.
Accessibility and accommodation are not inclusive and can also be a microaggression. Environmental microaggressions. We did an event once and they said they had an accessible entrance to the event. Well, it turned out that it was down a dark alley far from the main entrance, required you to buzz in and wait for someone to answer in this dark alley. That’s not really inclusion. Signage, shelves, food, and supplies are at a level too high for people with wheelchairs, Little People, or people with short stature. Every time someone wants to attend a meeting or event they have to ask for accommodations.
Inclusion is not asking to be included when you are there. It is not asking to be included. The company website doesn’t include basic accessibility features. These all show that accessibility is either ignored or an afterthought rather than a priority. It can make someone feel undervalued and othered. Design with accessibility in mind from the beginning with input from people with disabilities. If you know someone with a disability is joining the event make sure accessibility is there so they don’t have to ask. That’s true inclusion.
Technology is not inclusive. I have spoken at several events where microphones picked up men’s voices well but not women’s voices. Or in meeting rooms, this happened when I was an executive, in our conference rooms we had these conference phones, and they didn’t pick up women’s voices very well. We have these long conference tables and every time I wanted to speak I had to pull the phone from the middle to me in order to speak. Any time any woman wanted to speak they had to pull the phone over. Often it was too far to reach.
Voice-activated technology often doesn’t pick up accents well. Many offices and events use technology that’s not accessible and not inclusive where disabled people can’t participate, where people with accents can’t participate, where women can’t participate. It is othering and a barrier to participation. Keep that in mind. Technology matters.
Microaggressions in the physical workplace. Just other things to think about. Lactation rooms, make sure you have them. I worked in places where the only place to pump breast milk is in the broom closet or bathroom stall. You need a safe and clean space, preferably with a refrigerator and sink, so people can pump breast milk. There isn’t a place in the office to pray or to meditate or to have quiet time. Quiet time for people with disabilities is key and for many people it is key. It is key for introverts as well. Praying and meditating is a part of people’s daily lives.
Safe, all gender restrooms for people who trans, non-binary, and gender nonconforming. Sometimes even there are fewer restrooms for women in the office or for people who are non-binary. All gendered restrooms might be three floors down and that person has to walk three floors down every time they need to use the restroom.
Sometimes it is around meeting rooms that are named after men or reflect only one cultural identity. Images of successful people or quotes on the office walls aren’t diverse. Physical spaces are difficult to navigate for people with disabilities, for wheelchair users, or event space lacks accessible seating. All these things can be environmental microaggressions. Please feel free to share others that are coming to mind for you all.
How do we interrupt them? We have talked about a lot of ways in the last episode around interrupting them in ourselves through learning, understanding what causes harm, and self-regulating. There are systemic interventions and direct interventions. We can’t go too much into this in this episode, so I will give you a few things to think about here.
Systemic interventions, we spoke about these last time, too. Creating a team culture where it is okay to learn and call each other out around microaggressions. Creating processes that might reduce microaggressions like meeting processes, codes of conduct, anti-racism policies, accessibility, and inclusion policies, etc. And then training and educational programming so people can learn.
Just a couple of things to think about around direct intervention. In the moment, what can you do? You can interrupt. You are in a meeting and you realize a few people from underrepresented identities haven’t said a word. They haven’t been able to get a word in while the people with overrepresented identities have dominated the conversation. You can say something like, ‘I am noticing several folks haven’t had a chance to speak yet. I want to make the space and open the floor if you have thoughts about this. Serena, Sam, Lee, I know you have great thoughts about this and I would love to hear them.’ Opening it up. Don’t make it an obligation, but open up the floor for that to happen. Open up the conversation.
Echo and attribute. Often someone with an underrepresented identity has an idea and it is dismissed and someone else takes it up and it is championed. In that moment you might say, ‘I remember when Sally brought that up and I loved it. Sally, I know you put work into this and thought into this but didn’t get fully heard. Do you want to share more about your idea or perhaps talk about it in the next meeting?’
Call people in to give their full attention if you notice people aren’t paying attention. Say something or do something about it. It could be, ‘Hey, I just want to pause for a moment because I am noticing we are not fully present for [Name] and this is an important conversation we need to have as a team. It has been a long day but let’s really focus.’ Or maybe, ‘Let’s pause and take a break and come back so we can really focus on this.’ Something in there. Just do something.
Find what works for you, what resonates for you. It might be just redirecting the conversation if there is harm being caused and you don’t feel comfortable or you don’t feel safe intervening in the moment by explicitly talking about microaggressions. You might just steer the conversation in a new direction and address it privately afterwards. It could be, ‘How about we talk about the next thing on our agenda.’ Or you can just change the subject. And make sure that you do address it afterwards.
When you are talking with somebody about microaggressions, they might be a little bit defensive. This is hard stuff. Explain as much as you can how it might impact somebody and give the alternative. If you can personalize it by saying something about your own journey, that can make a difference. ‘I know you said this earlier in a meeting, it really didn’t sit right with me. I used to say that too until I learned it is harmful and here is why it is harmful. So now I say this other thing that’s more inclusive.’ Something like that, where it is calling somebody in. It is letting them know you used to do that too and you learned and you are sharing what you learned.
It is really important not to shame people. Shame is not a motivator for behavior change. It is a barrier to behavior change. If your goal is to change somebody’s behavior it is not effective to use shame. Feelings of failure, shame or guilt can make somebody step out of a commitment to allyship. They are less likely to be vulnerable. They shut down. They are less likely to take risks.
Instead meet them where they are, provide that constructive, empathetic feedback, and offer them the tools they need when they need them to grow. This is an extra burden I know for those who have underrepresented identities and experience microaggressions, but it is the way to create change.
Lastly, treat the impact. Most trainings, most books, and tools that discuss intervening don’t include this last step that’s really important to repair the harm. We know microaggressions can be incredibly depleting and can affect somebody’s health and happiness, and the effects last far beyond that moment of a microaggression. Check in privately with someone who experienced a microaggression. Listen to how they are doing, validate their experience, let them know you heard and saw what happened and you are not okay with it. Talk with them about how you might be more helpful next time even when they are ready.
As we know, microaggressions can be exhausting and impact somebody’s courage, their confidence, their self-esteem. Make sure they know that they are a valuable member of the team and that you value their skills and experiences. That their ideas are important and they are needed. Continue to show this throughout the weeks and months afterwards.
I have talked in the past about microaffirmations, and we can’t talk too much about this here today. Microaffirmations are little ways you can counter microaggressions by affirming people, listening actively, showing you trust them, showing you trust their experience, their expertise. Validate and recognize them in meetings. Give them those positive facial cues and body language cues that you care, you are listening, you are acknowledging, and hearing them. Then give them confidence-building feedback which we saw in the first episode of this series in Season 4, that’s one of the highest ranking things that people want from allies: giving them confidence and courage. Okay. That was a lot.
We discussed verbal microaggressions, nonverbal microaggressions, and environmental microaggressions. I just want to pause and see if you all have any additional questions. How does this resonate for you? What did you learn? While I am waiting to hear more from you, I will address the critical race theory, just briefly because we have addressed this before in a different episode.
I personally think we make a mistake when we call it critical race theory rather than just call it history. We are teaching history when we are doing an additive and saying, ‘now we are teaching history with a critical race theory,’ rather than redoing our textbooks and telling the whole story. I think it is actually taking us out of what really needs to happen systemically. Really redoing our history, redoing our education system so it is telling the whole story and it isn’t just one perspective of history.
I think critical race theory, many people probably don’t hear too much about it – but the argument is, do we do it or not, especially in K-12 education? And I personally believe that we need to stop talking about critical race theory and start talking about changing our education systems: what we talk about and what we learn in our education systems. Redo our textbooks so that they are telling everybody’s story. I hope that helps.
Angel says, ‘I have heard of microinclusions – haven’t heard of microaffirmations. I will definitely add that to my vocabulary.’ Cool. Awesome. Great. Yes, you are welcome, Ling. Awesome. I can’t see the Q&A but I don’t think that there are any questions there. I am just going to move forward here.
To close things up, this was Season 4. I think I mentioned that my book is available for preorder. Thank you for sharing, for purchasing, for reading it when it arrives, for sharing it with people who need it.
I also just want to say I am looking for a few more places to speak during the book tour, September and October. If you are interested in bringing a speaker into your company, or know of a good conference coming up, please, let me know. The email firstname.lastname@example.org will go to the whole team. Yeah, I appreciate you all.
This was Season 4. Make sure to go back and have a listen or watch the other episodes of this if you didn’t get a chance. We also have a year’s worth of content with amazing leaders. At ally.cc you can see all of the episodes.
Next week we have the Icon Summit, which I mentioned at the very beginning. It is specifically for Black and Brown men in tech, focused on mental health and professional development. You can learn more at theiconproject.org/summit. It is free to attend, so please share it. You can also learn more about the Icon Project and donate to the therapy fund at theiconproject.org. Go check that out. It is next week.
And in Season 5 we are going to take a break for the next few weeks and be back on a regular weekly live schedule, starting September 7. Make sure to join us then. We will have a special episode on September 14 which is the day of the book launch, so stay tuned for more details there. Please share this with your teams. Help us grow this amazing community and the learning, and the empathy, and action of allyship and advocacy all of this amazing work. Thank you all for all you do. Hope you have a healthy, happy summer. And we will see you in September.