Microaggression examples and their impact in the workplace

Posted on April 11, 2022

Microaggressions are the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based on their membership in a marginalized group.

In the business world, microaggressions can take many forms. For example, a female employee might be told by her male boss that she is “too emotional” or “not assertive enough.” A person of color might be assumed to be the janitor or secretary, rather than a business professional. Microaggressions can also occur when people make assumptions about others’ qualifications or abilities based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or other factors.

These seemingly small acts can have a big impact on the workplace.

Microaggressions create an environment that is exclusive and hostile to certain groups of people. They can also lead to lower morale and productivity, and can even cause talented employees to leave a company.

The following are examples of common microaggressive phrases:

1. “I’m not sexist/racist/homophobic/etc., but…”

This phrase is commonly used for those who want to be seen as an ally, but still, hold sexist/racist/homophobic/etc. views. This is not only harmful to marginalized groups, but it also shows a lack of understanding of what these terms actually mean.

If you want to be an ally to marginalized groups, it’s important to educate yourself on the issues they face. It’s also important to listen to and believe the experiences of people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized groups. Saying things like “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic/etc., but…” is not helpful or supportive. It’s harmful and it shows that you don’t really understand what these issues are about.

2. “I don’t see color.”

This statement is usually made by well-meaning people who want to show that they’re not racist. But what they don’t realize is that by saying this, they’re actually erasing the experiences of people of color. By refusing to see color, that person is refusing to acknowledge the unique struggles and perspectives that come with being a person of color.

A friend of mine told me about her heart-breaking experiences with hearing this phrase, over and over:

“When people say they don’t see color… they are just not seeing me. They’re not seeing my blackness, which is an integral part of who I am. And in a way, that’s even more hurtful than outright racism. Because at least with racism, I know that I’m being seen. But when someone pretends that my skin color doesn’t exist, it feels like they’re erasing me completely.

It’s like they’re saying that my blackness is something to be ashamed of, something to be hidden. And that’s not how I feel about myself or my identity. I am proud of my blackness, and I want to be seen for it. Not ignored or denied.”

So next time you want to say “I don’t see skin color,” think about what that really means. Think about the message you’re sending to the person you’re saying it to. Because chances are, it’s not one of inclusion or acceptance. It’s one of erasure and invisibility. And that’s not something anyone deserves to feel.

3. “You’re being too sensitive.”

This is another way of trying to invalidate someone’s experience or feelings and is commonly directed towards cis women. It’s often used to gaslight people into doubting their own perceptions and reality.

Gaslighting is a form of emotional abuse in which the abuser deliberately confuses, manipulates, and lies to their victim in order to make them question their own sanity. This can happen in personal relationships and at work.

“You’re being too sensitive” is another way of denying sexism while still expressing sexist views. It’s like saying, “I’m not a bad person, but women are just too emotional/sensitive/etc.” This is harmful to women and reinforces the stereotype that we are somehow less capable than men. It also invalidates our experiences and emotions, which are natural for all humans.

4. “I didn’t mean it like that. I’m not racist.”

This is a way of trying to deflect responsibility when someone says something offensive. The speaker might say they didn’t mean it in a bad way, but that doesn’t make the hurtful words any less painful. When called out, that person may become defensive.

People tend to defend themselves when they feel like we are under attack. And when someone accuses us of being racist, it can feel like a personal attack. We may not even be aware of the ways in which our words or actions could be interpreted as racist, but that doesn’t change the fact that they can be hurtful to others.

The first step in addressing our own racism is to acknowledge that it exists. We all have biases and prejudices that we may not even be aware of, but that can influence the way we think and act. If we’re not willing to admit that we have a problem, we’ll never be able to address it.

5. “You’re so articulate!”

This phrase is often used to surprise someone who is Black or Latino/a. It’s a way of othering people of color and implying that they are not usually as well-spoken as the speaker. It’s also a way of complimenting someone while still reinforcing a stereotype.

You’re implying that they’re not usually articulate, so you’re surprised that they are in this instance. It’s like saying “you’re not like other black people” or “you’re not what I expected from a black person”. Basically, it’s othering, hurtful, and it’s rude. So just don’t do it.

6. “Where are you really from?”

This is another way of othering people of color and implies that they are not really American and, therefore, communicating that they don’t belong. It’s a way of asking someone to justify their existence in a space that the speaker feels belongs to them.

Think about it this way: would you ever walk up to someone and ask them what their ethnicity is? Or what their skin color is? Of course not! That would be completely inappropriate. The same goes for asking someone their nationality or ethnic background.

There are better ways to get to know someone than by asking them about their nationality. You can ask them about their interests, their hobbies, or their favorite food. So next time you’re feeling curious about someone’s background, resist the urge to ask them their nationality. You’ll save yourself from a potentially awkward conversation, and you might just make a new friend in the process.

7. “You’re not like other Black people/Latinos/Asians.”

This is a backhanded compliment that is often used to try to separate someone from their community. It’s a way of othering people of color and implying that they are not really part of “the group” so not fully accepted, and as a result, they do not belong.

When someone is excluded from a group based on their race, it is an act of racism. This is because it reinforces the idea that people of certain races are not equal to others, and that they do not deserve the same treatment or respect. Exclusion can be intentional or unintentional, but either way, it ultimately reinforces harmful stereotypes and prejudices.

8. “That’s so gay”

This phrase is often used to describe something that is seen as negative or stupid. It’s a way of putting down something by associating it with homosexuality. This is homophobic and hurtful to LGBTQIA+ people.

The term has come to be defined as stupid or dumb – it’s a way of putting someone down based on nothing but their sexual orientation. This is completely unnecessary. There’s absolutely no need to use homophobic language when there are perfectly good, inoffensive alternatives.

So next time you’re tempted to say something is “gay”, try using a more creative descriptor – your friends will thank you for it.

9. “No homo”

This phrase is used to supposedly make it clear that someone is not interested in having a homosexual relationship with someone else, even if their statement or actions might suggest otherwise. It’s often used as an insult and is homophobic.

When someone says “no homo” they are essentially saying that they are not gay, and therefore not interested in having any sort of homosexual relationship. This is homophobic because it perpetuates the idea that being gay is somehow bad or wrong.

It also reinforces the false notion that all people who are attracted to someone of the same sex must be interested in having a sexual relationship with them. If you want to make it clear that you are not interested in having a homosexual relationship, there are other ways to do so without using this phrase, like simply saying “I’m not interested”.

10. “I’m not ageist, but old people are just senile/useless/a burden”

This is another way of expressing ageism. It’s a way of putting down old people by saying that they’re not as capable as young people. This is untrue and ageist. This is another way of denying ageism while still expressing ageist views. It’s like saying, “I’m not a bad person, but old people are just senile/useless/a burden.” This is harmful to old people and reinforces the stereotype that they are not as capable as young people.

11. “I’m not an ableist, but disabled people are just faking it/too sensitive”

Disabled people are not faking their disabilities. They are not made up to get attention or sympathy. Disabilities are very real, and they can have a major impact on our lives.

And as for being too sensitive? Well, maybe there’s a reason for feeling legitimate emotions (that are not “too sensitive). Disabled individuals have been discriminated against, underestimated, and belittled regularly. Perhaps a better way of thinking is to accept that all humans, regardless of a disability– whether visible or not– are just as deserving of kindness, compassion, and respect as you are.

12. “I’m not transphobic, but transgender people are just confused”

These thoughts and statements are a way of invalidating someone’s identity by telling them that they’re just confused about who they are, or “going through a phase”.

The thing is, transgender people are not confused. They know exactly who they are, and they are proud of our identities. The only confusion is why everyone else can’t seem to accept or respect this. All human beings, regardless of identity and chosen pronouns deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

13. “It’s just a joke, lighten up!”

This is often said when someone says something offensive and is called out for it. It’s a way of trying to dismiss the hurtful comments by saying that they were just joking around. This is not an excuse for saying offensive things. Just because someone was joking doesn’t mean that their words didn’t hurt someone.

When someone says “lighten up,” they’re usually dismissing the seriousness of a situation. But for people of color, our experiences can’t be dismissed so easily. “Lighten up” erases the very real racism and discrimination we face every day. It’s a way of telling us to just deal with it, or that our feelings aren’t valid.

So next time you’re tempted to tell someone to “lighten up,” think about how your words might be impacting them. Maybe try saying something more supportive instead. We all need to stand together against racism, and that starts with listening to and respecting each other.

14. “I’m not racist/sexist/homophobic, I have (insert minority friend here)”

This statement is often used to try and prove that someone isn’t racist/sexist/homophobic. Just because someone has a minority friend doesn’t mean that they can’t be prejudiced. It’s possible to be friends with someone while still holding discriminatory views against their group. This statement is often used to deflect when someone is called out for their prejudice.

This is another common defense against accusations of racism. Just because you have black friends doesn’t mean you can’t be racist. It’s possible to be friends with someone while still holding racist beliefs about their race. This defense is weak and doesn’t make you look any less racist.

What does make you less racist… is not being racist.

Perhaps it’s time to take a look at the blind spots that perpetuate stereotypes and excludes, hurt, and cause lasting discomfort, whether intentionally or not, in the language and phrases that you use when communicating with historically marginalized people in our world.