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How microaggressions look different when we’re working remotely

Microaggressions still exist, even when we’re no longer sharing the same physical space. But they can take on new forms.

How microaggressions look different when we’re working remotely
[Source images: nessa2/iStock; fabervisum/iStock]

“Show me what that weird thing is on your wall.”
“Could whoever that is with the kid in the background mute their line?”
“Someone’s hair is looking very gray these days.” 

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These are just a few examples of what microaggressions can look like when people work remotely. Though you might think that working from home would cut down on the number of these incidents—after all, there are fewer opportunities for unstructured conversations these days—that’s simply not the case.

Dr. Chester Middlebrook Pierce first defined microaggressions in the 1970s. Today the term is included in the dictionary as “the everyday verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs, or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative messages to target persons based solely upon their marginalized group membership.”

Now that so many of us are logging onto work from our couches or offices or kitchen tables, microaggressions can look different, but they are still equally harmful. To be able to best deal with them, it helps to be able to identify them in all forms.

According to Columbia professor Derald Wing Sue, whose team defined microaggressions as the “new face of racism” in 2007, these actions fit into one of three categories:

  • Microassault: an explicit racial derogation; verbal/nonverbal. For example, using racial slurs or refusing to work with someone because of their race, ethnicity, or national origin.
  • Microinsult: communication that conveys rudeness and demeans a person’s racial heritage or identity; subtle snubs, unknown to the perpetrator; hidden insulting message to the recipient. For example, telling someone they are not like others of their race or repeating an insensitive joke about the person’s ethnicity.
  • Microinvalidation: communication that excludes or negates the psychological thoughts, feelings, or experiential reality of a person belonging to a particular group. This could include telling a person that they are being too sensitive or that they took your joke the wrong way.

It’s worth noting that though these actions are “micro” in comparison to actions such as being beaten, lynched, or having your property stolen, they are still deeply harmful. Microaggressions are often likened to paper cuts—one here or there stings but it won’t kill you. Getting repeated paper cuts daily, however, will definitely take a toll. Similarly, being stared at, touched without permission, interrupted, or ignored, day in, day out, takes a toll. The harm in microaggressions come from the prolonged, repeated exposure to these incidents, versus the immediate harm that comes from more “macro” things.

The COVID-19 pandemic has opened much of our workforce to a new surge of microaggressions by making coworkers as unwelcome guests in their homes through video meetings. Bosses and coworkers can see our families and furniture. They can hear the background noise from our neighborhoods. They see us with our hair, faces, and clothes less put together than usual due to the closure of the shops and salons that help us assimilate into the mainstream world.

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The default in the workplace is unfortunately still white, male, young, Christian, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, wealthy, and educated. That does not leave any room for those of us who don’t fit into those categories to safely and comfortably exist. The pandemic has highlighted this in many ways, as America has seen those with marginalized identities face more sickness, hardship, and loss than their majority counterparts.

Knowing this, what do you do if you are experiencing microaggressions while working remotely?

Assess the situation

If someone commits a microassault or microinsult, pause for a moment and take a few deep breaths. This helps to calm you and allow you to think rationally, rather than reacting emotionally.

Decide what you want to achieve

Once you are calm, ask yourself what you want to achieve by responding. Do you want to help this person increase their awareness? Or do you want to let them know you are offended and allow them to apologize?

Address the behavior

Discuss the incident with the individual involved directly. You may want to request a private conversation with them to avoid further attention, or you may choose to address it in the same medium in which it occurred.

For example, if the microaggression occurred in a meeting with your work team, you may choose to talk with the offending party after the meeting, or you may choose to interrupt the meeting and address the incident immediately. There is no right answer on how or where to respond; you should choose the method that makes you feel the most comfortable. You may also choose to escalate your concern to a supervisor or to your HR department so they can be present to witness and/or mediate the conversation. If your supervisor is the offending party and you don’t feel comfortable addressing them, it is best to reach out directly to HR for assistance immediately.

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Move on

Once you have discussed the incident with the individual, allow yourself to move on from the issue. It is unhealthy for you to hold onto the hurt from microaggressions. If HR was not present for your conversation with the individual involved, send an email to them summarizing the incident and ask that it be placed in the individual’s file.

This may sound or feel like heavy emotional labor for the person who experienced the microaggression . . . because it is! Sadly, the process for resolving workplace offenses usually isn’t fair or equitable. Too much burden is placed on those already hurt and marginalized to do the heavy lifting when incidents occur.

The ideal way to combat workplace microaggressions is for employers to educate their workforce against these behaviors before they happen. Further, leaders and HR departments must place the burden of correcting these issues where it belongs: on the offending individual, not the person targeted.

Avoid committing microaggressions yourself

Finally, make sure you’re not making others uncomfortable either. If someone informs you that you have committed a microaggression, you should immediately apologize. Do not get defensive by justifying your behavior or downplaying their experience. Apologize sincerely and commit to not repeating that behavior. Also, commit to learning more about the marginalized identity group that your microaggression affected through independent research so that your ignorance doesn’t continue to cause them harm.

It is normal to be curious about someone’s lifestyle and culture. It’s normal to notice changes and differences in their physical appearance. It is not normal or acceptable to call this out to “other” a person in a professional setting. The COVID-19 pandemic has made many of us visitors in each other’s homes as we work remotely. While you’re there, be a respectful guest.


Sarah Morgan is the chief excellence officer of BuzzARooney LLC, a consulting boutique that helps startups and small businesses create inclusive, equitable workplace cultures. She is also the creator and host of the Leading in Color podcast. Connect with Sarah through her website at www.BuzzARooneyLLC.com 

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