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Wait, was that racist?! A new encyclopedia can help you avoid saying something offensive

Micropedia is a sleek, intuitive resource on microaggressions, which are often subtle and hard to define.

Wait, was that racist?! A new encyclopedia can help you avoid saying something offensive
[Source Photo: 4×6/Getty Images]

As one of the only people of color at a previous workplace, I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable when a white boss would talk to me in a singsong-y Indian accent or when a coworker casually talked about how dark my skin was. These people seemed more ignorant than overtly racist, and I had no idea how to make them see how offensive they were being.

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Comments like this are all too common for people in marginalized communities. They are known as microaggressions, defined as subtle, sometimes unintentional, comments or actions that are hostile toward an individual or group. Microaggressions are quite prevalent in the workplace, and the constant barrage has a profound effect, causing people to experience chronic, severe distress and burnout.

Now, there’s a new tool to help combat microaggressions. Micropedia is an encyclopedic website that features everyday microaggressions that those from marginalized groups face. At a time when many are worried about being “cancelled” for saying something offensive, the Micropedia aims to be a nonjudgmental way for people to learn about what might make someone else feel uncomfortable.

Stephanie Yung, head of design at the creative agency Zulu Alpha Kilo, led the design and creation of the Micropedia. She, along with many on her team, had experienced microaggressions over the course of their lives but couldn’t find a reliable one-stop resource for tackling them. “You might find an academic article about the impact of microaggressions, or a media story about a particular offensive comment,” she says. “But we wanted to created a place where people could come to learn about the range and breadth of microaggressions.”

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[Screenshot: Micropedia]
Yung’s team came up with the idea of Micropedia, a collection of microaggressions sorted by such things as race, gender, and disability. The sleek, streamlined platform makes it easy to view a variety of offensive comments in a range of areas; drill down further, and the site explains why each comment is harmful, including real-world examples and links to a slew of outside reporting.

Yung points out that there is a difference between microaggressions and overt racism. “Microaggressions tend to come out of ignorance rather than a desire to hurt,” she says. “And even those in marginalized groups themselves may not realize they’re saying something offensive to someone from another marginalized group. I know that looking back after an interaction, I’ve wanted to see whether something I said inadvertently crossed a line.”

Yung believes the Micropedia could be used by at least three groups. First, people who have been on the receiving end of an uncomfortable comment and would like validation that it was indeed offensive. “The thing about microaggressions is that they are subtle, and you’re often left wondering whether you really did experience a harmful microaggression, or whether you’re imagining it,” she says. “This validates your own experience and gives you something you can show you friend or family member about why what they said was offensive.”

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Micropedia will also be useful to people who are concerned that they may be unintentionally saying offensive things and want to fix their own behavior. Additionally, Yung sees the Micropedia being a tool that can be used by companies and academic institutions in their diversity trainings. “This tool is for people who are eager to learn and change their behavior,” Yung says. “It’s not going to change the mind of someone who is overtly racist or is deliberately trying to cause harm with their words or actions.”

The Zulu Alpha Kilo team developed the Micropedia in conjunction with other organizations focused on diversity, equity and inclusion, such as the Black Business and Professional Association and the Diversity Institute.

To launch the site, they worked with these groups to identify common microaggressions, which affect a range of marginalized groups, including the LGBTQ+ community (“Just don’t hit on me, please”), people of color (“Wow, you’re so articulate”), and people who are older (“You’re such a grandma”). As users begin adding to the site by sharing microaggressions they’ve experienced, each will be vetted to ensure it hasn’t already been covered by another entry. If it hasn’t, the team and DEI experts will develop a new entry that explains why this microaggression is harmful, and provide some tips about how to respond.

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Ultimately, Yung hopes that the Micropedia helps eradicate the kind of microaggressions people experience as they go about their day. And ultimately, the project comes out of the belief that many people don’t want to cause offense and would change their behavior if they had the knowledge and the chance. “Microaggressions can be hard to talk about; so often people don’t even know they are doing it,” says Yung. “We wanted to create a nonjudgmental platform, where people can learn about things they have said or done that have caused harm, and correct their behavior.”

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About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts

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