Say, What Did You Mean by That?

“You speak so well.”

Why wouldn’t I, the Hispanic man wonders. Does this person think I grew up picking oranges across the border? I was born in Denver.

“You don’t act black at all.”

And how’s that, the black woman wonders. Walking around pissed, smacking her lips, and rolling her neck all over her shoulders?

Or a woman offers an idea in a meeting, and no one responds. But 10 minutes later, a man utters the exact same idea, and it’s a eureka moment for the group. She thinks, weren’t they listening to me?

These are just a few examples of microaggressions, the subtle insults women and minorities have to deal with constantly as they walk through life and interact in the workplace. Often the negative meaning behind these subtle forms of unconscious bias are hidden even from the recipients, but they’re real, they cause harm, and they’re tough to deal with. It’s up to leaders to acknowledge that unconscious bias exists and set the stage to deal with it.

How Bad Are They Really?

It got its first label in the early 1970s when MIT’s Mary Rowe labeled the small, often unconscious slights and slings minorities and women deal with as microinequities.

According to Derald Wing Sue, professor of psychology and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College, microaggressions is the current accepted term, but like many diversity related concepts, it has gone through many iterations: microinequities, microaffirmations, microadvantages and microbehaviors. Some are still in use, but whichever term is used, whether verbal or nonverbal, they can have a serious impact. Recipients may exhibit a host of tells including: physical and emotional stress, health issues, lower productivity or performance at work, limited social interactions, low self-esteem and self-consciousness.

Microaggressions also perpetuate something called stereotype threat, the fear that you are going to confirm a stereotype about your group. For example, the perception that women are poor in math tends to affect them, even though they perform at a highlevel when not under a threatening condition.

Many times the recipient is unaware of what’s happened. They may end up confused, unsure or just feel like something’s not right but they can’t put a finger on what it is. These comments are often couched as compliments that filter into the subconscious and play on or build up insecurities related to gender, appearance, race, ethnicity or sexual orientation.

Dr. Sharonne Hayes, a cardiologist and director of diversity and inclusion at Mayo Clinic, said most microaggressions offered the example of a male boss who compliments a woman on a well-delivered report and her prowess as a mother in the same breath.

“He probably thinks he’s paid her the highest compliment,” she said. What he doesn’t realize is by linking those two things, and implicitly suggesting that one often suffers because of the other, he’s playing up the worries many women already have about balancing motherhood and career.

Unintended or not, microaggressions can drain energy and confidence from their recipients and create what Howard Ross, founder and chief learning officer for organizational transformation company Cook Ross Inc., called a cumulative grinding effect.

“They’re so much a part of our daily lives, we don’t think of that one thing as being a big issue. But … what do they say, death by a thousand little pecks?” Ross said. “The challenge is any one of the incidents, they’re not dramatic behaviors. They’re things somebody might say, what’s the big deal? But it’s the cumulative effect of all of it that has the impact.”

Sue and his peers have been researching microaggressions since 2003. He said when he originally began his research and reported the results, a lot of his colleagues wrote letters saying it was “micrononsense.” They accused him of making a mountain out of a molehill; these everyday slights, put downs and indignities that people of color and women experience are no different than those a white man might experience. To call them out was to portray marginalized groups in society as vulnerable and weak. But 10-plus years of research determined the impact for minorities is severe. Recipients suffered racial anger, frustration, depression and anxiety.

Microaggressions can be damaging to  careers as well. For example, an employer who doesn’t notice contributions from female employees won’t promote those individuals to higher levels. Ross offered a similar example from his work with a New York-based law firm.

Every spring, the firm had a big family picnic at a golf course in Westchester County. A young white lawyer had just joined and in his first six months on the job was off to a fabulous start. His superiors are blown away by his performance.

They went the outing and learned he’s a truly awful golfer, and for the next six weeks, he’s not called into as many cases. “He didn’t think much about that because he didn’t know enough about the system,” Ross said. “He just thought there were probably ebbs and flows. It was his mentor who noticed it and put ittogether when he heard the partners still talking about how bad a golfer this kid was. They had associated “bad golfer” with “bad lawyer.” All of a sudden, he wasn’t as valuable.”

You Didn’t Mean It, but It Happened

In academic settings, microaggressions can actually keep students from learning. Sue said when a minority student in a primarily white university campus is constantly fending off microaggressions about not being qualified and not having made it in because of academic skills but because of affirmative action, it depletes psychic energy away from that person’s ability to problem-solve. “You’re in a defensive, protective stance,” he said. “Microaggressions are often responsible for creating inequities in education, employment and health care.”

The challenge with microaggressions is, like most unconscious bias, the person who’s delivering the sting isn’t actively trying to take down women or LGBT or Asian people. They’re normal, well-intentioned people who work hard and want to do the right thing. That’s why it can be tough to not only identify these seemingly benign barbs but also to address them appropriately.

To do so head-on usually produces a defensive posture, a denial and often an attempt to put the recipient on the wrong foot: “You’re being too sensitive,” or “I didn’t mean anything by it. That’s so trivial.”

“One that occurs to me quite often, ‘Boy, you speak excellent English,’ ” Sue said. “On the surface that’s a compliment, but the hidden meta communication is you are a perpetual alien in your own country; you are not a true American. But the person delivering that compliment doesn’t see that because most microaggressions occur outside the level of conscious awareness.”

Therefore, when the recipient brings the microaggression to light, the offender might say, “you’re oversensitive,” or, “you’re being paranoid.” But what is trivial and unimportant to them is serious for a woman or a person of color who has been subjected to these slights over and over for most of their lives. “Microaggressions don’t happen in isolation,” Sue said.

Sue said according to Harvard University’s Implicit Attitude Test, which is available to the public online, some 85 percent of people who think they’re decent, caring and nice have hidden biases. So, it’s not the overt racist who creates societal or workplace inequities — it’s the normal individuals who see themselves as moral, as justice lovers, the people who are not overtly racist and might be the first to stand against it. But the teachers, lawyers and leaders who decide how to educate people and make promotion decisions, they control the established systems that make society run, the same systems Sue said are rigged to the advantage of one group.

But again, they don’t mean to discriminate. Their bias is unconscious. So how can one fight the cumulative grinding effect of microaggressions?

Make the Invisible Visible

The goal of training is making the invisible visible. When decent individuals don’t recognize their own hidden biases, what do they do? That’s what a lot of people who are doing anti-racism, anti-sexism diversity or multicultural training aim for.

The training has to be not simply intellectual — it has to be an experience that has occurred. Even if you can influence on management, executives and people in the higher echelon, the work will be never ending primarily because people are raised and socialized in a society in which they are taught the biases, the fears and the stereotypes. It’s a hidden curriculum. If you really want to affect society, it has to occur at pre-K-12. That becomes prevention rather than remediation.

For the women and minorities who receive microaggressions, Sue said it’s important to find social support, to validate that they are not crazy or misreading a situation. “The worst thing that can happen is that you begin to believe it. You believe that you are a lesser being and this strikes at the self-esteem for a lot of people of color who go through this society.”

Determine the potential consequences of addressing the issue. Many people who experience a microaggression chose to do nothing because of the threat of retribution. For instance, if a white professor delivers a microaggression to a black student, will that student receive a lower grade after being confronted? What’s the consequence?

Mayo Clinic’s Hayes said being cautious and picking one’s battles is a smart thing to do. Attacking after a slight or calling someone out publicly will almostcertainly make someone defensive because that person didn’t mean any offense. And if it’s a peer or a boss with whom one must continue to work, relationships can be strained at best and ruined at worst.

“It’s really up to the leadership at an organization to take steps to have broad education about the fact that unconscious bias exists,” she said. “Having leadership say this is important, this happens, and this is how it affects our business can be helpful.”

At Mayo conversations around unconscious bias are gaining momentum, and she said top leadership, including the board of governors have been educated on what it is as well as what interventions are being put in place to combat it. Hayes said she and her team have created a business case to support their activity, linked directly to the fact that “how we treat women and minorities in the workplace … it affects our core business, which is our patients.”

“It isn’t about fixing the individual, fixing the black person or fixing the woman, or fixing the lesbian in terms of equipping him or her with a snappy comeback,” she said. “That is leaving the victim to fight each battle over and over again.”

Instead, solutions may involve assigning someone in a work group to call out or question something suspect. “What did you mean his English was better than you expected when you interviewed him? What biases might underpin that? We’ve used that to good effect,” she said.

Ross said there are four levels of intervention: educating, understanding unconscious and everyday bias, how the mind works and how these things play out; priming, anticipating where microbehaviors might occur; evaluating the structure of various system and changing the way decisions are made and processes are executed; and building accountability, tracking microbehaviors and how peoplerespond when they’re happening.

“It’s a function of what actually changes human behavior,” Ross said. “Most of us don’t change easily when we’re told we’re bad or wrong, when we don’t even know we’re doing something. We’re trying to get people to change the way they lead, the way they manage organizations so that it not only impacts that person, but everybody else.”