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Managing Microaggressions

According to Wikipedia, Microaggression is a term used for commonplace verbal, behavioral, or environmental slights, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative attitudes toward stigmatized or culturally marginalized groups. 

As Nigerians, we are no strangers to microaggression.

It is how your mother behaves towards you after failing an exam for the umpteenth time. Microaggression is how your Aunt, whom you see only at weddings and funerals, makes it a point to rub your childlessness or lack of a potential husband/wife in your face.

Microaggression in the workplace

Yes, it can be found in the workplace too. However, most people aren’t well equipped to handle microaggression. How do you tell off that colleague who coyly says, ‘‘Jane, put down the cake. Try the spinach, it’s better for you.’’?

To properly understand how to manage microaggressions, we must first examine examples of microaggressions in the workplace.

Examples of Microaggressions include:

  • Constant Interruption: It is easy to shrug this off as a bad habit but often, it is microaggression. Statistically, women face these sorts of microaggressions at a significantly higher rate than men. Being rudely cut off while speaking indicates a lack of respect or regard for what is being said. Once is a mistake, twice/thrice is a pattern.
  • Micro-Insults: You know those statements made by your colleagues that you can’t tell whether they are compliments or insults even though you’d bet it was the latter? Yes! That is an example of microaggression. Examples include someone expressing surprise at your intelligence or integrity because of the stereotypes they have about your gender, race, or religion.
  • ‘‘You’re so tech-savvy for a woman.’’ Is NOT a compliment. It might be easy to mistake it as one but it isn’t. Putting it in a Nigerian context would be someone saying ‘‘You’re so honest for an Igbo person or ‘‘You speak good English. Are you sure you schooled in the north?’’ or ‘‘Jaiye, are you sure one of your parents isn’t Igbo or a foreigner? You’re too pretty to just be a Yoruba girl.’’ The interesting thing about these insults is that it is often assumed to be a compliment by the person saying it.
  • Bullying: A lot of people might think, ‘‘Bullying and microaggression? How?’’. You know that boss who always seems to be in a sour mood and can’t seem to communicate without yelling but somehow he/she knows how to speak politely to clients and senior colleagues? Yeah! He/she isn’t an equal opportunity bully because the microaggression is reserved for people he/she perceives to be beneath them or unimportant.
  • Other examples include intentional isolation of a co-worker, taking credit for someone else’s work, ridicule, underestimating a colleague, etc.

The labour market is a highly competitive one so one might seem ungrateful for the opportunity you have if you complain about these microaggressions. However, the mental health of the workers in an organization should be a top priority. Therefore, the burden of addressing these microaggressions shouldn’t lie with just the affected workers but also with the organization’s management body/team.

There are several ways to tackle microaggressions.

Let us examine how to handle microaggression as an employee:

  • Benefit of the doubt: It is important to give the perpetrator the benefit of the doubt and assume there is no malicious intent behind the offensive comment or behaviour. This is important because most people tend not to know they are being offensive or hurtful.
  • Educate: Educate your colleagues on proper etiquette. As stated earlier, a lot of people assume they are paying compliments when in fact they are being downright offensive. A case of microaggression can be tackled with Gentle but firm correction. Allow unlearning and relearning.
  • Proper Documentation: It is important to ensure that the timelines and types of offenses are well-documented. This would serve as evidence for when you inevitably take it up with the Human Resources Department.
  • Report to HR: If all effort proves abortive, report to the human resources department. Proper action would then be taken.
  • Stand up for others: Staying silent or nonchalant in the face of aggression against others would not serve you well. I’m not going to be moral and tell you it’s simply the right thing to do because you know that already. However, remember that microaggressions are often targeted toward a group of people, and in the words of the wise ‘United we stand’. It is easier to confront a senior colleague’s aggression as a group than as an individual.

The Organization or company also has a role to play in managing microaggressions.

  • Awareness: Every member of the organization should be educated on the types of microaggressions, their effects, and the consequences of being a perpetrator. Simple fliers pasted or passed around the office could help create awareness on microaggression.
  • Empathy: It is important not to be dismissive and show empathy to the victims of microaggression.
  • Disciplinary measures: Companies’ policies should include disciplinary measures for all types of aggression. The human resources department should handle all cases delicately.

We are in a fast-evolving world, therefore it is important to be respectful of people’s unique identities. Yes, we have addressed how to handle microaggression as a victim but sometimes WE end up being the aggressors. It is important to be attentive and open to relearning. Don’t lose your dream job and your friendships simply because you refuse to respect human differences.

Best of luck, Street Squad!

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