Two Examples of Microaggressions Most People Struggle to Understand

Microaggressions can be difficult to grasp, especially if they arise, as they often do, from common phrases and words we use often and without any intend to offend.

Microaggressions have been in the spotlight lately, more so in the wake of the George Floyd killing and the widespread demonstrations, activism, and general discourse that followed. I have delivered sessions to teams across the UK on microaggressions and nearly every session has been extremely difficult. People are often confused by certain phrases or actions that make the list of microaggressions. In most cases, that is because these are phrases or words that most of use regularly. So, when a phrase they use often shows up on the microaggressions list, people naturally become defensive. They feel blamed or worse, labelled as racist, sexist, homophobic, mean, inconsiderate. I have noticed two particular microaggressions that most people react to strongly – either with surprise, denial, and explanation/justification. These are:

  • Where are you from? (And all it’s variations - Where are you from originally, Where are you really from, Where were you born?) Etc

  • I believe the most qualified person should get the job.

Before I go into a detailed discussion about why those particular microaggressions are difficult for people to understand and process, I will briefly cover the basics of microaggressions.

I have defined microaggressions as:

…. words, actions, behaviours, and imagery that can be construed to convey negativity, hostility, disrespect, and resentment to the target person or group, as well as trigger and evoke such feelings in the person or group.

Key to the definition of microaggressions is that they are about how certain words or behaviours make someone feel or simply that certain words or actions trigger something in a target person or group. Microaggressions are not in themselves offensive words or statements or behaviours. They are not about the intent of the speaker or someone exhibiting a behaviour. It does not matter what your intent is; saying certain things will hurt or trigger some people.

That is why obvious words like the n word do not feature on the list of microaggressions. Microaggressions are statements, words, behaviours that may be construed as negative by certain people or groups or in certain situations. Context matters when it comes to microaggressions.

So, why do people struggle with understanding that “Where are from?” or “I believe the most qualified person should get the job” are forms of microaggressions? I think there are two main reasons. The first reason is that many people say these statements without any negative intention. They may ask where someone is from because they are genuinely interested. Many people have made that argument. They argue that they are genuinely interested in where someone is from and there is no malice intended in their questioning. In one of my sessions, a black woman said they were proud of where they are from and don’t mind if people ask them. And she could not understand why anyone would be offended by that question. Such arguments miss the fundamental point about microaggressions. Your intentions don’t matter because often the other person has no visibility of them. Also, just because you don’t mind being asked does not mean everyone should also like it. Asking people upfront where they are from denies their sense of belonging and emphasises their otherness. People may not be proud of where they are from. They may not want to be associated with stereotypes of ‘typical people from there’. People want to retain their individuality without being put in boxes that are oftentimes useless.

The question ‘where are you from?’ is not offensive in itself. But if that is the first thing you ask someone then you should realise it may cause offense. If you are really interested in where someone is from, ask specific questions like ‘where do you live?’, ‘have you lived there long?’, ‘your name is unique, does it have any special meaning?’ etc. If someone wants to talk about where they are from , they will volunteer. And if they focus on where they live, respect that. Following up with ‘where are you really from or where are you from originally’ is terrible. It is worse. It is horrible. Not only does it deny someone of the sense of belonging, it accuses them of lying, of trying to belong somewhere they don’t. I have never uttered those words. Wherever someone identify as home or as the place they are from should be enough. You have no business challenging that. It’s not for you to do that. Just because someone does not have a London or typically British accent does not mean they can not be from London. Insisting on where someone is from “originally” or where they are “really from” almost borders on being more than a microaggression to being a full-blown aggression.

A person may have been born or lived somewhere, but it doesn’t automatically mean they must identify that place is ‘where they are from”. Sometimes people experience trauma in their place of birth and they choose to live somewhere else to distance themselves from that trauma. Your insistence to know where they were born or where they are form originally or where their parents were from may trigger such trauma while also emphasising their otherness. It is a NO NO.

How about saying ‘the most qualified person should get the job.’ This one is also something that most people say and believe. Often the offense comes from who is saying it, not just the words being said. A black person may say it as a plea that they should be given equal opportunity if they are equally qualified. But if a white manager says that it can be a form of microaggression. Why? Because recruitment and promotion data often point to the existence of unconscious bias at the heart of a system that supposed to be impartial. When a white manager or colleague says those words in response to questions about underrepresentation or lack of hiring of black and ethnic minorities, they will come across as ignoring unconscious bias and perpetuating a system that seems fair on the surface even though it harbours bias. In that context, saying that only the best candidate should get the job may be considered to imply that the disadvantaged person was clearly NOT the right/qualified person. It is almost similar to someone saying they don’t see colour. When you fail to acknowledge colour or different characteristics, you will fail to address the problems that arise due to such differences.

Most people do not want ‘positive discrimination’ i.e. someone to get a job because they are black or brown or a woman. Also, most of us do not want someone to miss out on an opportunity because of they are black or brown either. But we know from data that such is the case. Black and brown people miss on jobs that they are just as qualified for as white candidates simply because of the colour of their skin. So saying statements like ‘the best qualified/suited person should get the job’ denies their experience of being denied jobs they are otherwise best suited or qualified for. It plays down people’s helplessness and anguish at the mercy of a system rigged against them.

Microaggressions are not easy to grasp. Many people struggle to wrap their heads around why something they consider harmless and inoffensive can be called a microaggression. But always remember that microaggressions are not offensive statements or behaviours. They are not about intentions. They are simply about how certain words or actions trigger others or how they make other people feel.

If someone tells you your words or actions make them feel horrible, offended, or triggered in some way; don’t argue with them about the general offensiveness of the words or actions, or your intentions. Simply listen and acknowledge their discomfort or displeasure and try to avoid saying or doing the same again to them or to similar people who may also construe the words or actions as offensive.