One of the latest corporate buzzwords to make an appearance is “microaggression”, or the negative and subtle ways various –isms infiltrate diverse cultures. It spans everything from gender to ethnic stereotypes, and is use as an all-inclusive term to describe how stereotypes are perpetuated on a regular basis. However, is this a case of eager equal-righters over-diagnosing a minor issue, or does it actually describe a widespread problem that needs fixing?
Microaggression: A More Generalized Type of Discrimination
The –isms that we’re most familiar with—racism, ethnicism, sexism/genderism, classism, heterosexism, and ableism, just to name a few—are easy to identify and define because we’ve had prolonged exposure to it. But the term “microaggression”, which isn’t new and has been around since Dr. Chester M. Pierce used it at Harvard in the 1970s, is a bit trickier to deal with.
Microaggresssion is subtly perpetuating negative stereotypes about people by simultaneously building them up and knocking them down in the same sentence, such as saying, “you’re strong…for a woman” or “you’re pretty…for a dark-skinned girl”. In other words, microaggression is a backhanded compliment, a passive-aggressive way of delivering a “complisult” (compliment + insult).
How Microaggression Hurts the Workplace
Each employee wants to be recognized for doing a good job, and have that recognition come without strings. It’s a natural human instinct to know you have what it takes to perform the job ably, and not just because you’ve been treated with kid gloves.
But with microaggression in the workplace, this recognition does come with strings. For example, your manager might tell you you did a good job on a certain project for your age or gender. By wording it like this, they’re telling you you don’t have what it takes to do a good job, period, just that you’re only able to rise to a certain level.
This negative reinforcement not only perpetuates decades-old stereotypes that need banishing, but it also tells you, subtly and indirectly, that you’re not good enough to go on to the next level. Over time, this eats away at you and affects your job performance, because why bother trying anymore if you’re constantly told it doesn’t matter?
Why is This Happening?
There are several reasons to explain microaggression, each one dealing with a specific type.
Ignorance: This isn’t meant to wound others, but just to say that being exposed to only one way of thinking tends to color your perception. Say you’ve only ever seen white swans; it’s natural to think that after decades of only seeing white swans, you’d be pretty skeptical if someone told you black swans exist, too. Reacting this way doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, just that you’ve gotten so used to only thinking there are white swans that you think there are only white swans in the world, and compare all other swans to the white swans (which are held on a bit of a pedestal).
Intimidation: The United States was never a country comprised solely of white people, or men, or athletes, or any other typically highly-esteemed demographic. There’s always been a mix, but the proportions haven’t always been even. Being part of a minority can make some people feel like their opinions don’t matter as much as the majority, leading to a silence whenever microaggressions are uttered.
Attention: Ironically, the rise of affirmative actions in recent history has led to microaggressions becoming more vocal and public as those on the giving end are forced to confront their words. For example, racism has coursed through America for centuries, sometimes silently and sometimes not. And when Obama was elected president, many of his dissidents felt an almost-permission to be freer about their own microaggressions.
The key thing to remember about microaggression is there’s a very fine line between awkwardly wanting to improve your knowledge about the world, and deliberately spreading misinformation about certain demographics. Microaggression is neither a new term nor concept, but its emergence as one suggests that Americans are working hard at becoming more understanding and accepting in the workforce (and world in general).