top of page

It's not small at all.

There is nothing "micro" about "microaggressions".


"There is no doubt in my mind that you will work your ass off to deserve that title."

Image credit: Medical News Today

I had promoted Stella to a Vice President position within my organization. Her team was engaged, effective, and results-driven. She led that team with a rare sincerity and genuine passion; Stella's experience and deep subject-matter expertise allowed her to serve as a resource and a teacher. She had what I wanted in a VP- integrity, experience, engagement, and results.


Stella was overdue for a promotion; I was all too happy to give her the title that matched her duties and her performance.


Sometime later, after we had both left that company, Stella shared a story that, candidly, angered me more than it even angered her. A member of the C -suite was on the phone with Stella; she casually brought up the topic of her promotion ("Did you hear I got promoted?"). The response she received was a bit unexpected, to say the least.

My nationality was not in question before he saw me- and now we need to discuss "what" I was.

"I did hear that," she recalls being told. "I don't agree with it. But, I know you will work your ass off to deserve that title."


Work her "ass off to deserve that title"- the title she had already worked her ass off for and was awarded. She earned a seat at the table- and this individual wanted her to feel as if she didn't earn that seat quite yet. This was an executive of the company. A member of the C-suite! Someone who could have easily just responded with, "I did hear that! Congratulations." Why was that not the response?


In my opinion, the response was deliberate and measured. The intent was not to congratulate her on this milestone in her career- it was to remind her that she was not worthy. It was to prey upon perceived insecurities and maintain control over her- you can be promoted when and if *I* decide. The fact that Stella did not report into this individual's organization was irrelevant- in this person's worldview, organization structure, individual performance and the overwhelming approval of this move from everyone else was of no importance. This individual wanted to make it clear that in their eyes, Stella was not a Vice President. Stella had not earned it...yet.


I recall a separate incident in which I met the chairman of a company. The chairman said he was excited to meet me. I smiled and shook his hand warmly and firmly. He returned the smile, looked at me, and said, "What are you?"


I was not ready for that! I replied, "Excuse me, sir?" He repeated the question, unbothered by my reaction. I assumed he meant my nationality- I was surrounded by fair-skinned, blue-eyed folks around the table, and candidly, my dark hair and eyes defy my solidly European heritage- so I responded that I was Italian.


I swear to you, gentle reader, the man was relieved. "ITALIAN!" he said, his grin widening. "I love Italian food! Do you make lasagna?"


Let's understand a few things here. Yes, I do make an incredible lasagna, but that is not the point. My nationality was not in question before he saw me- and now we need to discuss "what" I was. What if I had responded that I was Hispanic? Or Indian? Or Greek? Or Middle-Eastern (I have been confused as representing all of those ethnicities)? Would that have cast me as an outsider? Would he have been suspicious of me if I happened to be descended from an ethnicity whose food he was not a fan of? Times have changed for sure- but to be clear, this conversation happened in the Year of Our Lord, 2019.


Microaggressions are subtle. They are intentional (such as Stella's example) and unintentional (such as mine- I am sure that the chairman found nothing wrong in what he said- he was a product of his environment and his upbringing). Unfortunately, these microaggressions are a double-edged sword; ignoring the aggression can lead to continued abuse while calling out the behavior can brand you as thin-skinned or dramatic. Our own worldview can lend itself to interpreting something one way versus another, which is often used against someone when the issue is addressed ("I am sure he didn't mean anything by it!" or "He grew up in a different time." or "I wouldn't let it get to me- it's not that big of a deal.").


These microaggressions, however, can be used by aggressors to swiftly and deftly circumvent federal protections for marginalized and underrepresented populations. An aggressor that says just enough for you to understand their point, but not enough to warrant an internal investigation into their behavior is cognizant of their actions. They know that a simple comment like, "Can I call you Mike?" when your name is Mohammad invalidates someone's identity but is nowhere to be found in a policy- let alone the law- as a means of discrimination.


Our ability to identify these microaggressions in the workplace is of crucial importance. An organization cannot drive towards inclusivity and allow these behaviors to continue unchecked. Rather than assume someone is "reading too much into a comment", ask the aggressor why they felt that comment was necessary. As Farah Harris expertly advised on our next episode, "Lead with curiosity." She is a sage, that Farah Harris.


 
Unfortunately, these microaggressions are a double-edged sword; ignoring the aggression can lead to continued abuse while calling out the behavior can brand you as thin-skinned or dramatic.
 

We need to see people from their view, not our own if we want to understand each other. We need to understand how our actions appear to others if we want to understand ourselves. And when you see these behaviors, be that ally, if only to counsel the person who brings the aggression up to you.


Stella felt as if perhaps the asshat that made that comment to her picked up on her own perception of not being as polished as others. English is Stella's second language. She speaks fluent English, but in her mind, she did not hold a candle to native English speakers. She projected her own insecurity onto the aggressor, making an excuse for his comments, inadvertently enabling him to act so unprofessionally. I checked her- she was more polished than that individual was, she earned that role, and she did not have to find reasons for his behavior. Gaslighting via microaggressions is next-level corporate evil. We have to call it out to remind ourselves that opinions are like assholes- everybody has one- and that poor behavior exists at all levels in the workplace and in life.


The only thing small about microaggressions is the people who choose to weaponize against others. Don't allow small people to make you forget your major importance to this world.




13 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page