Microaggressions: How to Reduce Inadvertent Racism and Misogyny in the Workplace

Microaggressions- How to Reduce Inadvertent Racism and Misogyny in the Workplace

The term “microaggression” was coined by a Harvard psychiatrist back in the 1970s, but you’ve probably only heard the term for the first time within the past few years. That may be because recent movements such as Black Lives Matter and the modern Feminist movement have helped start a national conversation about racism and misogyny in our everyday lives. One major point these organizations want to get across is that many people guilty of such offenses don’t even recognize the prejudices they carry.  Racism and misogyny, especially in the workplace, often show themselves in the form of “microaggressions” – that is, conversational or casual interactions that reveal an inadvertent stereotyping, prejudice, or discriminatory feeling or behavior.

These microaggressions are subtle, but powerful, and can do just as much damage to workplace morale as overt racism or misogyny. So what can your business do to help prevent and combat these harmful words?

Education and Awareness – The first step towards dealing with racist or misogynist microaggressions is to make sure people are aware of them. Any onboarding or education program should go beyond Racial and Sexual Harassment training to also include cultural sensitivity training, which addresses some common examples of microaggression and explains why they are harmful. Here are a few common ones:


  • “You’re really smart! Usually with (insert: African Americans, women, etc.), I have to explain things several times.” – A problem with microaggressions is that they are often meant as a compliment. Calling someone smart is a compliment. Calling them smart considering their gender/race is not.
  • “You really speak great English!” or “Where are you REALLY from?” – This microaggression assumes the person is not American or a native English speaker because of the way he/she looks. It makes the victim feel like they are an alien or outcast, even within their own home.


  • Mistaking a person of color for a janitor or mistaking a woman for a secretary – This sends the message that the marginalized person couldn’t possibly occupy a position of status.
  • Clutching your purse more tightly or feeling for your wallet when passing an person of another race in the hallway – Assuming criminal status based on the color of a person’s skin makes that person feel as if they don’t deserve to be in that place.

Updating Policies – A major problem with microaggressions is that, unlike overt racism, it can be hard for the victim to come forward to HR or leadership about the way they are feeling. Be sure to offer an open-door policy and a safe place for employees to communicate their experiences. Additionally, while microaggressions should be addressed, keep in mind that the offending party almost certainly has no idea that anything they’ve said was hurtful. It doesn’t always serve justice to reprimand someone for what their subconscious has communicated. Therefore, it may be necessary to tread lightly or approach the offending employee in an equally subtle way, perhaps during a group meeting or training. 

Let Leadership Set the Example – In order to prevent microaggressions, it is vital that supervisors and managers are the first to hop on board. Ask them first to recognize the way racial or other dynamics affect their interactions with employees so that they are more aware of their behavior, then model the right way to communicate (or the right way to react, if they have been accused of a microaggression.)

The subtleties of politically correct communication can be a difficult thing to harness in the workplace. But, with special considerations in play, your human resources department can build the type of work environment where minorities and marginalized people can feel welcome, included, and valued.



Michele Antoinette Paludi, Carmen A. Paludi, Eros DeSouza, Praeger Handbook on Understanding and Preventing Workplace Discrimination ( C ) 2011




Carrie Charity Murphy is a freelance writer for Insured Solutions and Improve comedienne based in Louisville, Kentucky. She lives with her husband Ben and their two dogs, Sprocket and Ms. Brisby.
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