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This is the biggest mistake people make with microagressions at work

Racist microagressions can take place even when people have good intentions or view themselves as allies. This is the biggest way people mess up and what to do instead.

This is the biggest mistake people make with microagressions at work
[Source photo: Natalia Shabasheva/iStock]
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Over the past few months, many organizations have responded to the racial reckoning we’ve been facing by taking a hard look at their organizational practices and figuring out how to reimagine a workplace where everyone—particularly people of color—has the opportunity to grow, develop, succeed, and belong. They’ve revamped their hiring practices, created employee resource groups, and overhauled the company’s code of conduct.

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And while all of these efforts are important and must be looked at with a lens of equity and inclusion in order to create an equitable and anti-racist workplace, it’s still only one part of the puzzle.

How microaggressions appear

One of the major ways an organization’s D&I efforts are sabotaged is by the discriminatory and racist (sometimes unintentional, sometimes not) actions of their employees in the form of microaggressions.
Microaggressions are comments or actions that negatively target a marginalized group of people—and are often the way that racism manifests at work.

They are frequent, pervasive, and can cause significant harm to individuals who are targeted by them, including increased anxiety, depression, and heart disease.

And microaggressions can take place even when people have good intentions or view themselves as allies. In fact, LeanIn.org recently ran a survey to gauge sentiments on allyship at work, and the results showed that over 80% of white employees saw themselves as allies to people of color in the workplace, while only 45% of Black women and only 55% of Latinas felt they had strong allies at work.

And those allies that Black women and Latinas did have, more often than not, were other people of color. The discrepancy between how white allies see themselves and how people of color see them may have a lot to do with the act of and response to microaggressions in the workplace.

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It can feel uncomfortable to realize you’ve offended someone and that your words or actions are microaggressive. This leads many people to respond in a way that is defensive and seeks to shift the blame off of themselves to the person raising the concern.

How to address microaggressions at work

Believe it or not, the act of shifting the blame and becoming defensive is a microaggression in and of itself and has an official name.

It’s called DARVO, and it was coined by psychologist Jennifer Freyd.

DARVO is where the offender:

  • Denies the microaggression ever took place, saying something like: “I can’t believe you think what I said was offensive. You’re being so sensitive.”
  • Attacks the victim for attempting to hold them accountable, saying something like: “Why do you have to make everything about race? I feel really uncomfortable and put on the spot.”
  • Thus Reversing the Victim and Offender.

Needless to say, this is the exact opposite of the way you should be responding when confronted with your microaggressive behavior.

Instead, here are three steps to responding to being called out for microaggressive behavior in a way that doesn’t cause even more harm to the person you’ve offended.

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Apologize: If you do end up committing a microaggression, resist the urge to DARVO it. Apologize for your behavior, and don’t make excuses. Thank the target of the microaggression for taking the time to educate you and think about how you’re going to make sure you don’t repeat the behavior again.

Listen: When someone shares with you how they feel about something you’ve said or done that was microaggressive, listen to them. Listen to understand, and listen to empathize with their experience.

Learn: Educate yourself on the very real and varied experiences of those who are from different backgrounds than your own. Get up to date on the research, articles, podcasts that talk about what microaggressions are and how to avoid them.

The act of microaggressive behavior in and of itself can be traumatizing for the target, and what often makes matters worse is how the perpetrator of the microaggression reacts when confronted with their actions.

In order to move the needle on racial reconciliation inside and outside the workplace, it’s time to take a look at not only what we do, but how we respond to what we do.


Dorianne St Fleur is a Racial Equity Strategist and Leadership Coach who specializes in helping organizations build anti-racist workplaces. Building on her experiences developing DEI strategies for companies including Google and AppNexus, Dorianne consults with organizations in order to create customized strategies, learning experiences, and coaching plans that actually move the needle on their diversity, equity, and inclusion goals.