Working in a positive environment is one of life’s greatest joys. Feeling supported by your peers and finding purpose in your work is sure to support your mental health and boost self-esteem.
However, for many BIPOC employees, the constant threat of microaggressions undermines their work-life and creates a sense of being “other.”
Despite the pervasiveness of microaggressions, few employers know how to avoid them. Even fewer know how to promote the mental health of BIPOC employees which results in discrimination being one of the top causes of stress in the workplace.
What are Microaggressions?
Microaggressions stem from harmful stereotypes about a person’s identity. They occur when someone says or does something that affects marginalized peers and prejudices them. There are three types of microaggression:
Behavioral microaggressions occur when people treat BIPOC people differently based on stereotypes and in a way that belittles them. This may be something obvious like bullying, or more subtle like “forgetting” to include BIPOC folks in social activities.
Environmental microaggressions occur when the workplace is not set up to help BIPOC employees thrive — typically due to a lack of representation or diversity. This might have a cumulative effect on BIPOC employees, who see that they are not adequately represented in leadership and decision-making at their workplace.
Verbal microaggressions are extremely common in the workplace. Slurs and subtle put-downs in the workplace occur more frequently than most people imagine. The language we use carries meaning and insensitive or harmful language can easily undermine someone’s self-esteem or identity — even if they know that the perpetrator is speaking complete nonsense.
The Impact of Microaggressions
It’s important to recognize that not all BIPOC employees will have the same reaction to microaggressions. Everyone responds differently to discrimination and taking a universal approach to BIPOC people’s experiences is patronizing and leads to further prejudice. The best way to understand the impact that microaggressions may have is to simply listen and learn.
Claudia Rankine, poet and author of Citizen: An American Lyric, describes the harmful toll microaggressions may take on a person. Rankine reflects that “there is a difference between an utterance and a gunshot. A bullet kills quickly; the other does so over a lifetime.” This is an experience that is echoed at a recent Harvard diversity dialogue. BIPOC participants described how it’s “‘a thousand little cuts’ that hurt our mental health the most.” A thousand cuts, over a lifetime, can lead to a kind of “internalized racism” that BIPOC folks are forced to “swallow whole.”
Part of the issue when talking about microaggressions is their invisibility — at least to the perpetrator and society at large. Sometimes microaggressions are unconscious reflections of a person’s biases. Other times, perpetrators use microaggressions in place of more visible racism as they know it is easier to get away with.
The invisibility of the violence inherent in microaggressions is something Rankine reflects upon in Citizen. Rankine writes, “for so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase you as a person,” and that the microaggressions themselves make one both “invisible and hypervisible.” The tension between visibility and invisibility is at the root of microaggressions and reminds us that racism and prejudice are deeply ingrained in our language and systems of thought.
Code-switching is “the act of altering how you express yourself based on your audience.” At first glance, this seems like something we all do. After all, no one speaks to their closest friends and family in the same way they do their co-workers or bosses.
However, code-switching carries different significance for BIPOC employees who work in environments where microaggressions are common. In these kinds of discriminatory workplaces, linguistic profiling takes place as people in power notice when someone doesn’t sound like them or talk like them. Folks who fail to assimilate their language may be discriminated against, thus heightening the need to speak “standard American English.”
Being forced to code-switch is different than choosing to code-switch. Everyone does their best to sound “professional” in interviews and meetings, but only BIPOC people have to fear for their job security if they fail to perform. This is largely due to not-so-subtle racism that deems dialects like African American vernacular English and Chicano English to be unprofessional and somehow inappropriate for the workplace.
Empowering and Improving Mental Health
The strain of working in a space where microaggressions are common can cause conflict and tension. Over time, this discrimination may lead to a mental health crisis at work and the deterioration of BIPOC employees’ well-being.
Companies can help their BIPOC employees by offering the mental health benefits they may need. This is particularly important today, as culturally responsive therapists can identify things like race-based traumatic stress and offer relevant support.
Employers can start the journey towards ending microaggressions and improving the mental health of BIPOC employees by encouraging interdepartmental communication. Interdepartmental communication builds trust between teams, identifies common causes of microaggressions, and helps leaders implement new policies to support BIPOC employees’ mental health.
Microaggressions are shockingly common in workplaces. Ill-thought-out comments, small gestures, and a lack of representation can make a professional environment hostile to the health and wellbeing of BIPOC employees. Employers can make a difference by taking microaggressions seriously and investing in mental health benefits that specifically aim to improve the mental health of marginalized employees.